Jan. 9 saw an entire generation of baseball players simultaneously denied entry into Baseball’s Hall of Fame with the poster child of the steroid-era, Barry Bonds, on center stage. As the issue of steroids has been thrown around ad nauseam by outlets like ESPN, NBC Sports Network, and others, the Baseball Writers Association of America has progressively become more attached to the “character” portion of the Hall, in an effort to preserve the so called “purity of the game” that generations of Americans have upheld in their national pastime. On numbers alone, Bonds has earned a shrine in the Cooperstown, NY museum amongst the other legends of his sport; as the owner of the all-time and single season home run records, seven Most Valuable Player awards, 14 All-Star appearances, eight Gold Gloves, and 12 Silver Slugger awards. The accomplishments that Bonds amassed over the 21 years he played in the major leagues are simply staggering. As the old saying goes, the numbers speak for themselves.
However, in today’s news cycle, where almost everything is either a feel good story or a righteous condemnation, perhaps the numbers don’t speak loud enough for some. The tail-end of Bonds’ playing days and his subsequent retirement were plagued by federal trials and connections to human growth hormones, muddying the reputation of the man seen as the greatest player of his generation. As the skinny kid from Pittsburgh transformed into a hulking behemoth in San Francisco, members of baseball’s old guard raged over someone shattering the hallowed records of the past using questionable means. “The damage baseball has already done to itself, and its legacy, by allowing its greatest players to be eclipsed and its most important records to be cheapened and co-opted by drug users can’t be undone by me or any other Hall of Fame voter,” explains Wallace Matthews of ESPN, lamenting that men like Bonds have ruined the legacy of baseball with their swollen biceps and used syringes.
The issue here is that the so called “purity” of baseball is one that is left in the eye of the beholder, and simply doesn’t stand up over the test of time. Take Babe Ruth for example. He was inducted as a member of the very first Hall of Fame class in 1936, alongside legends like Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner. Besides being considered some of the best ballplayers to ever live, what do these men have in common? It just so happens that they played during a time in which non-whites were excluded from their league. Their production did not come against the best players, only the best white players. Until Jackie Robinson broke through baseball’s color barrier in 1947, shining as a beacon of hope for athletes and civil-rights activists alike, men of supreme talent were kept out of Major League Baseball for no reason other than the color of their skin. Men like Cobb and fellow Hall of Famer Cap Anson were complicit in the effort to keep out non-whites, as they repeatedly refused to take the field against rosters that featured black players.
This deprived the major leagues of the primes of pitchers like Satchel Paige, who was referred to by Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio as “the best I’ve ever faced.” This excluded hitters like Josh Gibson, a man rumored to have hit a ball clear out of Yankee Stadium. Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Smokey Joe Williams, the list goes on. To dismiss the records of Bonds for seeking an advantage over his competition while treating Ruth’s numbers against inferior competition as a pillar of the game is both disingenuous and disrespectful to many of baseball’s most irreverent figures. Looking back at the past and referring to old players and their numbers as “pure” while they actively oppressed people of other races is distasteful and ignorant.
Racism and segregation aside, baseball’s Hall of Fame is rife with men whose sportsmanship and integrity can be called into question. Gaylord Perry wrote a tell-all autobiography where he admitted to altering baseballs with Vaseline and spit in order to confound the hitters he faced. Rogers Hornsby was unable to retire as the result of a gambling problem. Wade Boggs’ extramarital affair was revealed while his playing career was still ongoing. The Hall includes alleged drug smugglers, drug users and drunks aplenty, and yet the content of their character did not hinder their entry into baseball’s prestigious museum.
In an era where news outlets sensationalize stories instead of just reporting the facts, it seems only fitting that this ragged journalism carries over into the sports world. Writers use buzzwords like “tradition” and “legacy” and cast Bonds and his peers off like lepers, pretending they will just disappear, instead of electing men like Bonds into the Hall of Fame and educating future generations on the positives and negatives of one of baseball’s signature players. It takes a sad world devoid of character to judge a man only by his greatest mistakes, instead of all that his life and career encompass. I will be pulling for Barry Bonds to be elected to the Hall of Fame, and I hope one day you do too.
Kyle Neubeck can be reached at KN669234@wcupa.edu.