Home Runs, Heroes and Hypocrisy: Performance Enhancement in Black and White

Published in Black Agenda Report, June 13, 2007

Within a matter of several weeks, it is a virtual certainty that Barry Bonds will become the all-time home run king of Major League Baseball. When this moment arrives, survey data suggests that the majority of white baseball fans will yell and scream at their televisions and curse the Giants’ slugger, having concluded, beyond any doubt that Bonds used steroids for at least a few seasons in the early 2000s, so as to help obtain the record.

Most blacks, on the other hand, either doubt that Bonds used steroids, or at least feel as though the allegations haven’t been proven. So while most of black America cheers Barry on, an awful lot of whites are wishing (often quite openly) for the aging star to be injured, or for pitchers to deliberately walk him from now till retirement, just to deprive him of the honor, even if it would mean walking in the winning run in an important game.

As for me, I have no idea whether or not Barry Bonds used anabolic steroids, knowingly or otherwise. Circumstantial evidence suggests he did, yet whatever proof exists is apparently too weak to secure an indictment for lying to a grand jury about the matter. But having concluded that Bonds is guilty, evidence notwithstanding, white baseball fans are overwhelmingly demanding that an asterisk be placed by Bonds’s name in the record books. Yes, he may come to own the record, they’ll aver, but only because of performance-enhancing supplements. As such, he shouldn’t be regarded in the same light, or spoken of in the same breath as Hank Aaron (the current record-holder) or Babe Ruth.

For the time being, let’s put aside the issue of whether Bonds is guilty of having used steroids. And let’s put aside whether or not the steroids he’s accused of using can really help a batter hit a 95-mile an hour fastball (possibly thrown by a pitcher who was also juiced, given the ubiquity of steroids in the game in the 90s and early 2000s, all with the knowledge of team owners). And let’s also put aside the issue of how many additional home runs Bonds may have hit, which he wouldn’t have hit anyway, but for the steroids.* While all are important matters, there is a more fundamental issue to address when it comes to how Bonds is to be viewed in the history books. For how can white Americans call for Bonds to have his records marred by an asterisk, while continuing to revere the records and performances of their white baseball heroes of eras past–folks with names like DiMaggio, Williams, Ruth and Cobb–who benefited from a much greater “performance enhancement” than that which steroids can provide: namely, the racist exclusion of black athletes from the major leagues?

Steroids vs. Segregation: Which One Provides More of an Unearned Advantage?

There is no denying that anabolic steroids can enhance athletic performance, primarily by allowing athletes to rapidly rebuild damaged muscle mass, and recover more quickly from injury. Whether or not they can cause batters to hit balls for greater distance is an open question, to which no one has provided an answer. Although home runs increased across Major League Baseball during the era of unregulated steroid use (and have remained high by historical standards since the crackdown), there are several factors that could have produced that result, even without a single batter being juiced. As sports columnist Dave Zirin notes, in his amazing new book, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports, these alternative explanations include shorter fences in the dozen or so new ballparks built during this period; balls that many experts believe are being wound more tightly than in the past; better training equipment (including computer technology that allows hitters to graphically analyze their swings and make corrections quickly), and much smaller strike zones. The last of these–imposed on umpires by team owners around the same time as the steroid boom–has forced pitchers to throw into prime hitting zones, thereby guaranteeing that good hitters (and everyone agrees Bonds is one, with or without drugs), are going to hit more home runs.

In other words, it is impossible to know whether or not Bonds’s home run spree in the years from 1999 to 2003 was due to steroid use, or whether he may have hit the same number even without them. But we do know one thing for certain: from 1887, when blacks were run out of white-dominated professional baseball leagues, until 1947, when Jackie Robinson first stepped onto a field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, every white baseball player for six decades had been protected from black competition. And protection from competition is the most profound form of artificial performance enhancement imaginable.

It was none other than Joe DiMaggio who said–having once faced Negro League great, Satchel Paige in an exhibition game–that Paige was the greatest pitcher he’d ever come up against. But of course, in DiMaggio’s 1941 season, during which he hit in 56 consecutive games for the Yankees (still a record), he wouldn’t have to face Paige, or any other black pitching legends. Though Paige would go on to play in the major leagues, it would only be after reaching his 42nd birthday, and a full fourteen years after his legendary 31-4 record in 1934, during which season he pitched sixty-four consecutive scoreless innings and won twenty-one games in a row.

That black players were fully the equals of their white counterparts is hard to deny. Throughout several exhibition games, involving each league’s All-Stars, the two leagues split games roughly fifty-fifty. Considering that the Negro League teams had fewer resources to develop players, and typically carried smaller rosters (with weaker benches), this was no small feat. Had certain players been allowed in the majors, there is little doubt but that white record holders, then or now, would have faced longer odds when it came to recording their feats. Pitchers like Smokey Joe Williams (who shutout the 1915 National League champion Philadelphia Phillies in an exhibition), or Paige (who was able to pitch three shutout innings in the major leagues at the age of sixty, in a special 1965 appearance with the Kansas City A’s), would have wreaked havoc with the bats of white players, had they been given the chance.

By the same token, sluggers like Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Oscar Charleston (who hit .318 with eleven home runs in fifty-three exhibitions against white major leaguers, and is considered the fourth best player in history by baseball historian Bill James) would have easily vied for many of the records set by whites, some of which stand to this day. This would have been especially true had they been able to play in homer-friendly Yankee stadium, which originally had home run fences down the right and left field lines that were less than 300 feet from home plate, so as to accommodate the likes of Babe Ruth. (As a side note, it’s interesting how no one ever suggests Ruth’s accomplishments should be looked at skeptically because he was swinging at fences that I was able to reach routinely at the age of fifteen).

And speedsters like Cool Papa Bell, given the chance, would certainly have challenged Ty Cobb’s record of stolen bases, long before Lou Brock ultimately obliterated it in 1978 (since eclipsed by Rickey Henderson). Not to mention, had players like Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella or Don Newcombe–who ultimately played major league ball but got their start in the Negro Leagues–been able to start their big league careers earlier, who knows what records they might have set?

One thing is certain: all of the records set by white players prior to 1947 are tainted. Any time that someone is protected from competition (be that someone an athlete or a corporation), the one who is protected gets to shine, without having to prove themselves against the full range of possible talent. Barry Bonds, on the other hand, even if juiced by steroids, had to compete against the best (many of whom were no doubt also using such medicinal enhancements), and as such, enjoyed far less of a relative boost in his career than white players did for nearly half of the twentieth century.**

And No, It’s Not Different: The Absurdity of the “Segregation Was Legal” Excuse

Confronted with the argument that maybe Williams, DiMaggio, and especially Babe Ruth wouldn’t have been as good, had they been required to play against black players, most white folks fall back on what they consider their trump card, which, to them seems to differentiate the performance enhancement of steroids from the performance enhancement of white privilege and institutionalized favoritism. Namely, they suggest, Barry Bonds broke the rules, while Ruth and company merely played within the boundaries of the rules, as they existed at the time. While most everyone acknowledges that racism in baseball was a shameful stain on the game, you’ll often hear it said that segregation was “just the way it was.” The implicit argument here is that we shouldn’t lower our estimation of white players due to segregation, since they weren’t the ones who enforced the color barrier, but rather, just played by the rules as they found them.

But there are several things about this argument that are wrong, illogical, or ethically indefensible. To begin with, during the period of Bonds’s steroid use, there was actually no rule against steroids in major league baseball. So, in point of fact, Bonds–assuming he used steroids–did not break the rules of the game. Yes, using the substances without a prescription is illegal, but we don’t take records away from players for breaking the law. If we did, we’d have to erase pitcher Doc Ellis’s perfect game in 1970, which he claims to have tossed while tripping on acid. We’d have to disregard the performance of Keith Hernandez, who has admitted to using cocaine during his years on the field, and who once suggested that upwards of forty percent of all players were using blow. Or what of Willie Mays and Willie Stargell (two of the game’s all-time greats), who were accused in the mid-80s (though, like Bonds, never tried or convicted) of providing amphetamines to players? Should we erase their records as well? Or what of Ruth, who once tried injecting himself with sheep hormones to get an edge on the competition, and who kept right on drinking, even in the age of prohibition when booze were outlawed?

Even worse, the argument that segregation was “just the way it was,” implies that we are not under any obligation to challenge injustice, unless we ourselves created it, and that if we collaborate with it, we bear no moral responsibility for its perpetuation. But what kind of moral standard is that? By that logic, folks who stood by and remained silent during Jim Crow, during lynchings, during the Holocaust of European Jewry or American Holocaust of indigenous persons, did nothing wrong. By that logic, we should teach our children that whenever they see an injustice, so long as it benefits them, they should go along to get along. But any parent who taught their kids such a thing would be shirking their responsibilities as a moral guide.

The truth is, had even a handful of the top white players refused to play until the major leagues were integrated–especially in the 20s, 30s or early 40s, by which time the sport had become “America’s pastime”–it is almost certain that the color barrier would have fallen more quickly. After all, it was in large part because of the demands of 19th century great Cap Anson, a player-manager, that blacks were booted from the game in the first place. Players did have power. They were the ones fans came to see and for whom they paid good money. There is no way that baseball could have remained all-white, for example, if Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig had said they were sitting down until blacks were allowed to play. Had Gehrig ended his long-standing record of consecutive games played because of opposition to racism, it would have been one of the most important sports stories of all time. That he didn’t, and that no white players had the courage to take this step is far from inconsequential, and it calls into question their character, whether or not white fans are prepared to hear this uncomfortable truth.

In other words, whites, by knowingly protecting themselves from some of the game’s greatest players, “cheated” every bit as much as Bonds may have, via the use of anabolics. That the method for cheating was institutionalized, so that the rules themselves amounted to fraud, and that racial cheating was given the imprimatur of law hardly provides moral cover for the practice’s ethical failings, and the failings of those who took advantage.

Oh, and not to put too fine a point on it, but in parts of the country (including most of the Northeast) the laws of the local communities actually prohibited segregation by race. Of course, northern cities ignored these laws, and persons of color were subject to intense racism there, as with the South. But if our concern is the law, and how the law was for segregation (and how therefore players can’t be accused of having broken the rules), we should remember that teams like the Yankees were essentially breaking local and state law by keeping blacks off their squads. So perhaps we should erase the records of the Yankees, erase the Babe, erase Ted Williams’ 1941 season in which he hit .406 for the Red Sox: another team in a Northern city, with laws against segregation, but which remained segregated anyway (and in Boston’s case, they were the longest holdout against black players due to the legendary racism of their owner).

But is it Racism? Demeanor and Double Standards in the White Imagination

Of course, there is still the question of whether or not those whites who root against Bonds, or who want to see that asterisk by his name, feel the way they do because of racism. On this point, honest people can truly disagree. After all, many of the white fans who disparage Bonds love other black athletes, including the man who Bonds is poised to overtake. That Aaron set the mark of 755 homers without any enhancements, without short fences, without juiced balls, and despite the hostility often dispensed to black players during his heyday, suggests to many (myself included) that Aaron’s accomplishments are, in many ways, more impressive.

And of course, there are reasons to dislike Bonds having nothing to do with his race. Among the most often cited: his generally churlish, even openly hostile attitude to the press, and the general public. But here is where the issue of race becomes especially interesting as it relates to white folks’ estimation of Bonds.

Fact is, just because whites love certain black athletes, doesn’t mean that racial animosity or racism are not in the equation on the occasions when they feel decidedly otherwise. Racism can indeed be operating when whites respond negatively to the “attitudes” of persons of color, if they fail to do so when encountering the same attitudes from whites. Studies have found that when people of color act in ways that trigger negative group associations in the minds of whites, those whites often react in a much harsher manner than when a white person evinces the same attitude or behavior. The white athlete who is arrogant or ill tempered is seen through an individual lens, while the black athlete who does the same is seen as a representative of a larger racial group, and deemed threatening, angry, maybe even violent.

So Roger Clemens can deliberately throw at the heads of batters, to either back them off the plate, or in retaliation for a player on his team being hit by a pitch, and no one seems to care, let alone accuse him of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (which a 97-mile per hour fastball surely is). And pitcher Randy Johnson can act like an ass, even pushing a New York cameraperson upon his arrival to the Yankees several years back, and yet have few fans turn on him. As long as he was producing, his attitude was overlooked, as with basketball coach Bobby Knight, baseball coaches Earl Weaver and Leo Durocher, or, for that matter Ruth, Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle, who were–according to pretty much everyone who knew them–utter bastards. So if there is a racially differential way in which Bonds’s rudeness is interpreted, as opposed to any number of white athletes (think John McEnroe, as one final example), then there are few ways to interpret the difference, other than as a racial matter.

Additionally, if whites respond negatively to blacks whose demeanor is seen as hostile or arrogant, but respond well to blacks who seem less gruff, it may well be that the first of these has to do with the way in which certain behavior prompts negative stereotypes in white folks’ minds. Once prompted, white racial hostility may be triggered in this kind of situation, even though it wouldn’t be deployed against blacks whose behavior ran counter to white folks’ preconceived biases.

Far from mere speculation, it is precisely the difference in white perceptions of some blacks relative to others, which prompted Branch Rickey to choose Jackie Robinson as the instrument of integration in baseball, over other equally or more talented black ball players. Though Robinson was no sell-out, as is often alleged, he was clearly more accommodating in his style to the racial taunts it was feared he would (and often did) receive from white fans. Rickey realized that certain black players would rub whites the wrong way, thanks to racism, but that Robinson would project the kind of image that would be less likely to trigger latent biases on the part of white fans.

Whites have long demonstrated a preference for gregarious and smiling black folks, ever since the days of slavery, when such characters reinforced white assumptions about the fairness of the society. If black folks play by the script set up by whites–don’t be angry, don’t question authority, don’t be arrogant (read: uppity), don’t be political (like John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics, or Muhammad Ali, whose reputation with many whites was forever tainted by his anti-Vietnam war commentary), and don’t purposely seek to tweak white folks’ racial fears (as with fighter Jack Johnson who often taunted whites about his white female companions)–then everything will be O.K. But if blacks deviate, or cop a “to hell with you” attitude, whites often see it as a racial challenge (in ways they wouldn’t if another white person did it), and react angrily.

So whites loved Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson (understandably of course, given their talent), but detest many of today’s younger, amazingly capable, but often brash black ballers–and not only the ones who have been in trouble with the law. For that matter, whites never much cared for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar either, after he became a Muslim and changed his name from Lew Alcindor. Kareem was seen by many (still is) as unfriendly, brooding, and arrogant, and this perception has hurt his ability to land a much-deserved (and desired) coaching gig anywhere in the NBA, despite his demonstrated basketball genius.

Conclusion: Letting Go of the Mythology of Baseball’s Glory Days

As a final thought, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that at least part of white America’s anger at Bonds’s accomplishments, is in keeping with white folks’ general anxiety over the loss of a mythologized past: one in which a supposedly more innocent, decent society held sway, folks played by the rules, and all was right with the world. While black folks know this world never existed, at least for them, white folks’ hagiographic history tends to gloss over the racial injustices of past eras, rather choosing to hold them up as the “good old days,” of mom, apple pie, I Love Lucy, and Radio Flyers zooming down snow-covered hills.

This romantic notion of our national past is especially strong when it comes to baseball. Whites wistfully praise the accomplishments of the 1927 Yankees, even though, in terms of sheer strength and talent, they would get their clocks cleaned by even the sub-.500 Yankees of the current season, largely due to better conditioning routines in the present day. Babe Ruth was an overweight, out of shape drunk, whose home runs were hit disproportionately in a stadium with fences that were set at a distance more appropriate for high school kids. Our glorifying of these faded icons speaks more to the nostalgic tendencies of whites, adrift in a culture that, although still dominated by folks like us, isn’t completely defined by those like us any longer. As society changes, those who always benefited most from the traditional arrangement naturally resist the seismic shifts in national consciousness, to say nothing of demographics. If you think the falloff in fan support for Major League Baseball isn’t related to the increasing Latinization of the sport at the highest levels, in other words, then perhaps you’d like to purchase my beachfront property in Missouri.

In the final analysis, it is not Barry Bonds who is the problem, but white sports fans, longing for those olden days, irrespective of the injustices that defined them. The problem is white folks who want and apparently need black athletes to pander to our tastes, kiss our asses, and tell us how wonderful everything is with the system and society in which we live. Too bad for us. Bottom line: Barry Bonds is a better hitter than any white ball player who ever lived. Period, end of story. And he is equal to Aaron and Mays even if not better overall. And if you don’t like that, pick up a bat and try to be better. Good damned luck.


*Bonds’s critics claim that only steroids could have produced the slugger’s 73 home run season of 2001, since his highest total prior to that time had been 49 in the course of a year.Ý Yet, what they conveniently ignore is how white ball players often have remarkable years, unduplicated over the lifetimes of their careers. So, for instance, Roger Maris (who held the record for single-season home runs, at 61, from 1961 until 1998, at which point Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa both surpassed him), had hit only thirty-nine home runs the year before his record. The year after, Maris hit only thirty-three, and then hit only seventy home runs over a five year period, beginning in 1963 and ending with the 1967 season. Indeed, roughly one-fourth of Maris’s career home runs occurred in that single magical season, out of a total career that lasted twelve years.

**It should be noted that steroids would likely be of more direct benefit to pitchers than to hitters–something to keep in mind since Bonds likely faced many steroid-enhanced pitchers during the years of his alleged use. After all, steroids allow players to have shorter down time in the case of injury, which is especially important to pitchers, who by definition are in on every play when they’re on the field. Wrenching your arm forward 100 times a game, or throwing utterly unnatural curve balls takes a toll on pitchers, which toll can be dramatically lessened by anabolic steroids. Which is all to say that Bonds’s use (assuming it happened exactly as alleged) may well have only placed him on an even keel with many of the pitchers he faced. While the commonality of use hardly makes it acceptable to use steroids, it does suggest that the comparative advantage Bonds would have obtained from steroids would have possibly been quite small.

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