Barry and the Babe – the debate rages on

Story by Chris Graham

Barry Bonds is black. Babe Ruth was white.

Now that we have that established, we can tune into the national discussion that has been ongoing for some time now regarding Bonds’ pursuit of the Bambino’s spot on the all-time home-run list.

And you had thought it was all about the two players’ places in the history books.

“It’s interesting that we’re talking about Babe Ruth – whose numbers speak for themselves, but we have to keep in mind, for starters, that he was playing in a time when baseball players of color could not compete against him,” said Katheryn Russell-Brown, the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida and the author of Protecting Our Own: Race, Crime and African Americans.

“This reverence that we’re seeing for Ruth, in my mind, has clear racial overtones. Because it’s difficult to think of another situation where there’s been so much time and attention placed on someone going for the number-two spot. Babe Ruth is not the record-holder. Hank Aaron is. This is a lot of focus and attention on the number-two spot,” Russell-Brown told The Augusta Free Press.

Russell-Brown is right – it is odd that so much attention is being placed on Bonds’ assault on the Babe considering that Aaron, an African American, passed Ruth on the home-run list in 1974.

Of interest here, though, is that it was Bonds himself who laid the groundwork to that end in 2003 – when he said Aaron’s career home-run total of 755 “isn’t a number that’s always caught my eye.”

“The only number I’m concerned with is Babe Ruth’s. As a left-handed hitter, I can say I wiped him on that. To the baseball world, Babe Ruth is baseball, but from what I hear, you have to go back to the Negro Leagues, too,” Bonds said.

“I got him on slugging percentage, I got him on on-base, I got him on walks, and then I can take his home-run record, and that’s all – you don’t have to talk about him anymore,” Bonds said.

“Hank Aaron, to me, goes back to history, and I am the next generation of Negro League ballplayers. He can keep his 755 home-run record,” Bonds said.

That statement – and a recent episode that had Bonds showing off racist hate mail that he said he has received in recent months (on his ESPN reality series, “Bonds on Bonds,” no less) – has left some wondering if the slugger is trying to play the race card to deflect attention from the investigation into allegations that he has used illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

“It’s been mentioned in a lot of the media coverage. Whether it’s actually affecting Bonds’ pursuit of the home-run record is something that he would like us to believe is the case, but I don’t think it reflects the reality of the situation,” said Benjamin Kabak, a columnist on the Talking Baseball blog.

“This is his way of pushing off these other troubles that he has – and trying to compartmentalize these troubles into a field that Americans are very familiar with. He uses his family, he uses race, he uses anything that he can come up with to deflect attention away from the steroid allegations and away from his other problems. I don’t know if it’s a coping mechanism – but it looks like it might be a way for him in his mind to take less responsibility for what he does if he can say that people are picking on him for other reasons,” Kabak told the AFP.

Freelance columnist Nicholas Stix takes the argument a few steps further – “Barry Bonds manufactured this as an expression of his own racial hatred. And then what he found is that any black who does this immediately has an echo chamber of both racist blacks and white helpers who have this obsession of helping racist blacks and hurting whites,” Stix told the AFP.

“The chasm between sports fans and sportswriters is wide. I mean, you’re talking about people in the sportswriting profession whose biggest obsession is writing about whether a team is going to hire a black manager. That has helped to create the monster that is Barry Bonds,” Stix said.

“Anyone who’s black and a public figure dealing with the media today knows that there are sycophantic white socialist editors, reporters, columnists and academics who will run with that. And Barry Bonds is tying into that. He’s tying into that whole nonsense and mythmaking machinery – whereby if you’re a black man, and anybody white criticizes you, it’s due to a white-racist conspiracy,” Stix said.

Other commentators view the race issue through very much different lenses. Dave Zirin, a regular contributor to The Nation and a columnist for SLAM magazine, for one, notes that the attention given to Bonds today “is not just about the color of Bonds’ skin – it’s about the historic posture that he’s taken toward the media, which has been an oppositional one.”

“That, I think, really says something about how far we’ve come as a country since the days of Hank Aaron when it comes to race relations. And also how far we have to go. Because on the one hand, someone like Hank Aaron, who by all accounts was a very classy, very humble individual, was absolutely pilloried in his day for the sole reason that he was black – and thus attracted all kinds of negative press and attention when he was going after Ruth’s record,” Zirin told the AFP.

“We live in an era today where there is room for the African-American superstar – the Tiger Woods, the Michael Jordan – and that certainly has to be measured as progress. But is there room for the African-American superstar who’s not willing to smile for the camera – who’s surly? Is there room to actually accept that?” Zirin said.

Peter Roby, the director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, said he feels that there might be “some aspect of response from the media or the way the media has portrayed this situation that has to do with race, because we know from a historical perspective that society as a whole has had problems with strong black-male role models in our society.”

“That said, I don’t think it’s fair in this situation to put the majority of the responsibility for the type of coverage that we’re seeing with regard to Barry Bonds on the media – because my sense is that Barry Bonds has brought all of that on himself,” Roby said.

“There certainly has been a lot written about the media’s reaction and portrayal and treatment of Mark McGwire compared to Barry Bonds. I would say that that has as much to do with Mark McGwire’s efforts to be accessible and cordial to the media when he was a player,” Roby said. “He worked really hard to try to portray an image – to reconnect with his son, to admit to some of his own failings as a father and as a husband in his first marriage. I think people appreciated that vulnerability and that admission – and that he seemed to be doing what he could to make amends. And I think people cut him some slack.

“In Bonds’ case, he’s not getting any of the benefit of the doubt – because he hasn’t built up any equity or any favor with the media, so he’s going to get what he’s going to get. Does that mean that people should write things that aren’t true? No. But if people are writing the truth, and they might have an edge to it, I think he’s brought that on himself,” Roby told the AFP.

Bob Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, sees a number of factors at play in the current debate over Bonds.

“The ingredients to this whole thing would certainly be race, certainly steroids – but then things like the incomparable nature of the statistic, the fact that the strike zone was different, the fact that Babe Ruth was a pitcher, which people keep bringing up and is, I think, to some extent irrelevant. One of the arguments is that the balls are now easier to see because they’re not stained by tobacco juice. And then the big one – which brings us back to the race issue, but in a very different way – is that Babe Ruth wasn’t competing with all of those great players in the Negro Leagues,” Thompson told the AFP.

“The Babe versus Barry thing does seem manufactured in the sense that we’ve already been through this with Hank Aaron. And Hank Aaron actually played in the segregated Negro Leagues – and he in fact did get a lot of hate mail when he was closing in on Babe Ruth’s record,” Thompson said.

“I think we do need to be careful to note that one of the reasons that we’re paying attention to this is that it is Barry Bonds – who is Barry Bonds, after all, he’s one of these guys who does what celebrities do,” Thompson said.

“They’re kind of ornery, they say things that can be inflammatory, and they constantly give us something to talk and debate about. And in many ways, if Barry Bonds hadn’t been doing that, we wouldn’t be talking and debating about this so much – because, after all, it’s not a record anymore. It’s Babe Ruth’s record, but it’s one that has already been broken,” Thompson said.

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