July 31, 2007
I haven't chimed in much since the steroid allegations surfaced against Barry Bonds. I have my own beliefs on the subject...and honestly, I hope he breaks Hank Aaron's record before I finish this column.
My goal here is to settle the argument between backers of Bonds, Aaron, and Babe Ruth—and to name an All-Time Undisputed Home Run King.
Here are the cases for each of the three titans:
- The original American sports icon, and the barometer by which all home run hitters are measured.
- Single-season home run record of 60 (set in 1927) stood for 34 years.
- Career record of 714 stood for 39 years, a true testament to how far ahead of the curve he was.
Ruth knew what he meant to society, and summed up his sense of perspective in a single quote:
"I'm proud of my profession. I like to play baseball. I like fans, too, but I think they yelled too loudly for the wrong man. Most of the people who have really counted in my life were not famous. Nobody ever heard of them, except those who knew and loved them...I knew an old priest once. How I envy him. He was not trying to please a crowd. He was merely trying to please his own immortal soul...so fame never came to him. I am listed as a famous home-runner, yet beside that obscure priest, who was so good and so wise, I never got to first base."
- Played in an era where no Black or Latino players were allowed in the big leagues—meaning he competed against inferior talent.
- Faced mediocre pitching late in his career after braving the likes of Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson early on.
- Led a reckless life off the field.
- Baseball's current all-time leader in home runs (755), RBI (2,297), total bases (6,856), and extra-base hits (1,477).
- Career spanned three decades and two leagues—the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues. The last Negro League player to enter the Majors.
- Consistent: never hit more than 47 home runs or struck out more than 97 times in a season.
- Take away all of Aaron's home runs and he'd still have over 3,000 hits.
- Integrated the Class A South Atlantic League in 1953 at age 19.
- Broke Ruth's record even as he was victimized by hate mail and death threats.
Aaron used the simplest of logic to gain a mental edge at the plate:
"The pitcher has got only a ball. I've got a bat. So the percentage in weapons is in my favor and I let the fellow with the ball do the fretting."
- Took 23 years to break Babe's record, which some critics hold against him.
- Seven-time NL MVP.
- Single season home run leader (73)
- Career leader in walks (2,517) and intentional walks (675)
- First 40/40 Player in the NL.
- 13 seasons of 30 or more homers.
- Has homered against 444 different pitchers.
- Has never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
In 2005, the Sporting News ranked Bonds as the sixth-best player of all time, behind Ruth, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and Aaron.
In 1999, Bonds was omitted from the MLB All-Century Team, to which Ken Griffey Jr. was elected. In the same year, Bill James ranked Bonds as the 16th-best player of all time, calling him "the most unappreciated superstar of my lifetime."
"When people begin to take in all of his accomplishments," James said, "Bonds may well be rated among the five greatest players in the history of the game."
At the time, the controversy regarding Bonds' drug use had not yet arisen.
- The BALCO scandal.
- Stated that he took pleasure in surpassing Babe Ruth on the career home run list because Ruth was White.
- Is being investigated for perjury pursuant to 2003 grand jury testimony in which he stated the "cream" and the "clear" were a flaxseed oil and arthritis balm.
- Will never be acknowledged as baseball's home run king outside of San Francisco.
A quote from the 2006 reality TV show Bonds on Bonds reveals the impact the steroid issue has had on the slugger's personal life:
"If it makes them happy to go out of their way to try to destroy me, go right ahead. You can't hurt me any more than you've already hurt me...You don't see me bringing anyone else into this. I'm going to take it myself."
Bonds paused as his eyes welled and he choked back tears.
"And I'm going to take it because there's so many people who depend on me."
And so who's the best of the bunch?
My personal nod goes to Aaron, who faced better pitching than Ruth in an era when talent was more widely distributed throughout the league.
Aaron also passed Ruth at a time when the U.S. was still reeling from the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, which left some Americans loath too see a Black man claim the national pastime's most cherished record.
Ruth, for his part, can't be blamed for the talent he played against, and his transcendent fame cannot be overlooked. The Babe is one of those few players who was bigger than his sport.
Bonds comes across as the villain of the bunch, and deservedly so. No, he hasn't tested positive, but he's suspected of using an undetectable substance. He's not some geriatric miracle man; he's his own Dr. Frankenstein
Bonds' sins are rooted in his jealousy of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, plus sheer ignorance of the contributions of those who came before him and an overwhelming hubris that prevents him from apologizing for his transgressions.
The Good Book says that great pride cometh before the fall.
I just hope Barry has a soft place to land.
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