As San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds creeps ever closer to Hank Aaron’s record of 755 career homeruns, much of America is prepared to boo, hiss and otherwise scoff at what many consider an achievement made possible by steroids.
While baseball purists may be poised to place a “steroid-fueled” asterisk next to Bond’s name in the record books, to do so would be a mistake, one that follows an unfortunate pattern in the history of blacks in American sports, suggests Gerald Early, Ph.D., a noted essayist and book author who has written extensively on black culture and sports.
“To asterisk-ize Bonds absent real proof, as sportswriters are well on their way to doing in their self-righteous zeal — to protect something, perhaps the integrity of “these games” — would be to smear him,” wrote Early in an essay published in the New York Times in early 2006.
Early is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and professor of English, African & African American studies and American culture studies, as well as director of the Center for the Humanities, all in Arts & Sciences, at Washington University in St. Louis.
A consultant to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on baseball, Early is the author of several essays on baseball and a member of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum board of governors. Early has been following the Bonds’ controversy closely.
In his essay on Bonds, published in the New York Times commentary section on Feb. 28, 2006, Early offers a taste of his current views on the Bonds controversy. Responding to a sportswriter’s suggestion that athletes like Bonds “may wiggle around in Nixonian self pity,” Early says the mention of Nixon reminds him of something else besides self pity — the smear.
“The smear is a useful and necessary tool in the power game of politics. Now, it is useful in cleaning up baseball,” writes Early. “Smears are all right, I suppose, when used in a righteous cause and when the object of them is a creep and a jerk (although there are so many of them in popular celebrity culture that it seems a bit mysterious to single out Bonds).”
Many sportswriters, Early suggests, have long implied that it would have been better for baseball if Bonds had chosen to retire early, thus saving the world from the possibility that he would break the career home run marks of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.
“Major League Baseball is hoping much the same, although Major League Baseball — or whoever speaks for that organization — has been mum on the subject to this point,” Early wrote in his 2006 essay.
“And why not? Bonds is still good box office and box office is what big-time sports are really all about. In the 1960’s Muhammad Ali taught us that people will come out to see the bad guy. And baseball has, after all, survived some awful sketchy characters on the field, from the virulently racist to the utterly drunk to the cocaine-addled. Surely, it can survive and even enjoy being entertained by some artificially puffed-up musclemen.”
Early also questions why some writers tend to use the word “dignified’ when speaking of Aaron, baseball’s all-time home run king.
“Aaron has certainly become that in recent years, especially as Bonds’ reputation has slipped. But I remember very well Aaron as a player and I don’t recall that word being attached to him then. What I do remember is that most of the knowing coves thought Willie Mays was the superior player and that if Mays had been able to play half-dozen good years in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, as Aaron did, instead of the wind tunnel called Candlestick Park, he would have easily broken Ruth’s record. I also remember that most of the knowing coves thought Frank Robinson a better player than Aaron and Clemente a better fielder. But this was all before Aaron became a civil rights martyr, due to the threats he received when closing in on Ruth’s record. After that, I think, he start received when closing in on Ruth’s record. After that, I think, he started to become ‘dignified’ instead of being a tough-minded, durable ball player.
“The word “dignified” brings to mind for me the actor Sidney Poitier. When I was boy in the 1950’s and 1960’s, he was always called ‘dignified’ by the white press — even when they snubbed him. After he presented the best actress award to Julie Andrews at the 1964 Oscars, reporters pushed him out of the way so he would not appear in any publicity photos with her. He was always forbearing about white racism and snubs and whites generally acting silly in the ways that only they can when interacting with blacks. He was sort of the Jackie Robinson of Hollywood.
“Robinson is, of course, another “dignified” black man (at least for the first three years he played in the Dodger organization). He was even dignified when he had to testify against Paul Robeson before the House Un- American Activities Committee in 1949. Robeson was the bad Negro, who would be best repudiated, in the eyes of the Communist hunters, by the “dignified” Negro, Robinson. Today, Bonds is the bad Negro, the hip-hop sociopath who must be prevented from corrupting the achievements of the dignified Negro, Aaron.”
These days, writes Early, white sportswriters are no longer likely to describe Aaron as a “credit to his race, the human race.” as New York sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, once wrote about Joe Louis, another dignified Negro.
“But today’s sportswriters,” he suggests, “might say that Aaron is a credit to the game of baseball, which Bonds clearly is not. I am not sure if Aaron wants to wear the Sidney Poitier mantle, it being cumbersome at best, but it seems as if, in this life, the world must always be divided between bad Negroes and dignified Negroes — and dignity hath its charms. I assume it is easier for whites to understand blacks when they can be classified in this way.
“Many blacks I know, being inclined to paranoia as blacks are, think that Bonds is being picked on because he is black. Whites are always out to destroy successful blacks — especially black men — in any way they can. This is what many blacks believe. When the ordinary vicissitudes of life come upon a famous black, most blacks are looking for the racism in the woodpile. And blacks always do what Stanley Crouch calls the flip test.
“It is also unlikely that white sportswriters are after Bonds because he is black. (I assume many black sportswriters also don’t care for Bonds.) After all, the white sports establishment wants to protect Aaron’s record and he is black. Bonds apparently is a jerk and has been for many years and he may be a cheater as well, dishonest in a way that seems sordid and selfish. They have fair reasons not to like him.
“But the pious framework in which they choose to talk about him ultimately does no one — Bonds, Major League Baseball or the public — any good. There is something about it that seems overweening in its condescension, unbearably self-righteous, self-serving, tendentious. It has the whiff of the sort of unctuousness white sportswriters displayed in days past when writing about black athletes like Dick Allen in Philadelphia in the 1960’s, Muhammad Ali soon after his conversion to Islam or Jackie Robinson once he was freed from his agreement with Branch Rickey to act like a pacifist college student at a 1960 lunch-counter sit-in,” Early writes.