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Rethinking Baseball with Barry Bonds

ED GORDON, host:

Over the holiday weekend, Barry Bonds surpassed Babe Ruth to reach second place on baseball's all-time homerun hitters. Commentator Robin Washington says that when it comes to long-standing records like Ruth's, you have to consider not only the record breaker, but also the history of the game.

Mr. ROBIN WASHINGTON (Editorial Page Editor, Duluth News Tribune, Duluth, Minnesota): Now that Barry Bonds has hit more homeruns than Babe Ruth, where do we put the asterisk? By now, everyone knows that Bonds is alleged to have used steroids, giving his body an artificial boost to help him make the mark. And you don't have to be a baseball historian to know that Ruth used an awful lot of alcohol, whether it helped him on the field or not.

What's the difference? Well, it's a safe bet that if Bonds did take steroids, they probably weren't prescribed by a doctor. But the drugs are otherwise legal and weren't banned in baseball at the time of his alleged abuse. Alcohol, on the other hand, was quite illegal during prohibition, when Babe Ruth gained as much notoriety in speakeasies as he did on the baseball diamond.

So what's the real difference? It's as American as baseball itself. Ruth was white and Bonds was black. If the boos Bonds has been getting in the past few weeks sound familiar, they're awfully reminiscent of the negative chants and death threats hurled at Hank Aaron leading up to April 8th, 1974; the day he overtook Ruth.

What should have been one of the greatest moments in baseball, a new homerun record, was marred by some of the ugliest actions of his so-called fans.

And you'd think he'd never broken the record. Though Aaron ended up with 755 homeruns, any number of fans and sports writers still call Ruth, with 714, the greatest baseball player ever. I've got nothing against Ruth, and I even get a chuckle out of the story that he may have been black. As the late black sports writer Doc Counce(ph) once told me, he never denied he had relatives in Harlem. Yet Hank Aaron, who's definitely black, is so ignored you'd think the homerun battle for second place was the most important statistic in the game.

If Bonds did use steroids, and if he lied about it, and if the while thing is because he's just not a nice guy who can't stand the fans or the press, maybe he does deserve an asterisk. But then so, too, does Mark McGuire, who is also suspected of steroid use during his single-season homerun record year in 1998. That record was broken three years later by Bonds.

If they both were using steroids, then maybe they were competing on an equal footing after all - and forget about the asterisk.

And while we're at it, put one next to the 714 by Babe Ruth, whose entire career was played while baseball was segregated. That means he never played any official games against the best baseball truly had to offer, or faced Negro League pitchers like Satchel Page, who surely would've lowered his homerun count. He also never competed against Josh Gibson, the Negro League Sultan of Swat, with an estimated 800 homeruns, asterisk or not.

GORDON: Robin Washington is the editorial page editor at the Duluth News Tribune, in Duluth, Minnesota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robin Washington
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