Race, Baseball, and Barry Bonds

Home Run No. 756 - August 7, 2007


This summer, the greatest player I’ve ever seen swing a bat was left out of the National Baseball Hall of Fame for the seventh straight time. It was the latest in a seemingly-endless string of punishments for Barry Lamar Bonds — the home run king of baseball.

At his peak, Bonds was the single most dominant offensive force in the history of the sport. In Major League Baseball’s 116 years, no player ever hit more home runs than Barry Bonds did in his career. He holds the single season record for walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, offensive wins above replacement, intentional walks, and a whole bunch of other statistics with too many syllables. In the 2002 World Series, he played in seven games, hit four home runs, and was walked 13 times.

He also did this.

And this.

Point being, the guy was amazing. If he’s not the greatest player in the history of baseball, fine - he’s second, or maybe even third. At that level of production, it’s all just splitting hairs anyway. But no matter how many of those swings he gave the crowd, no matter how many balls he (literally) launched into McCovey Cove (35!), the country still hated Barry Bonds. And their hate was personal.

In 2007, Bonds would break the all-time home run record Hank Aaron had owned for 33 years, ending the season with 762 home runs. He led the league in on-base percentage with a figure so high (.480), no one has equaled it since. He also found himself the central figure in the steroid scandal embroiling all of baseball. Even after yet another All-Star season, Bonds went unsigned that year; 2007 would be the end of his 21-season career.

During that same year, 52% of the public said they were rooting against him to break Aaron’s record, and those numbers were even starker when measured along racial lines — 60% of white fans “hoped he'd fail”, and only 1% thought that his public treatment might be motivated by racism. Today, the Baseball Writer’s Association continually deems him morally unworthy of joining the Hall of Fame, despite the inclusion of domestic abusers, game-fixers, and accused Ku Klux Klan members. Bonds is uncommonly hated.

Even as the game faces challenges in popularity, there is still something incomparably American about baseball. Maybe it’s the longevity of the sport - the fact that people played it while we landed on the moon and fought two world wars. Baseball has gone on for so long that it’s part of the America’s mythology — it means something deeper to the nation.

Of course, as with the rest of the American myth, the people most enthralled by that history are mostly white.

It’s not a coincidence that Major League Baseball’s period of national dominance coincides with the lifespan of Jim Crow. Baseball was, consciously, a white man’s game. In the 1880’s officials weeded out any Black players from the minor leagues, and in the 1890’s, the Player’s Association outlawed any Black members. By the dawn of the 20th century, there was a gentleman’s agreement between the team owners to keep Black players out of the majors, an agreement that lasted almost half a century until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

That reality is more than a side-note in baseball’s legacy; it is the very reason that the sport has a legacy to begin with. Major League Baseball is part of the fabric of our nation because of what the game meant to white people. It was an altar in honor of their engineered dominance, built for the whole country to worship at. Their players were folk legends, gods even, and their records were untouchable.

Until they weren’t.

More than any player in the history of baseball, Barry Bonds threatened that legacy. Back when Hank Aaron originally broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974 with the Atlanta Braves, he was 40 years-old and in his twentieth season in the majors. Like Willie Mays before him, Aaron was universally praised as a role model and was beloved by his fans. But he was also a Black man coming to seize the crown jewel of white athletic achievement, and for that Hank Aaron received hundreds of death threats as he surpassed the record.

But forty years later, Barry Bonds was coming after more than just a single record. He was an arrogant, steroid-using, Black man about to rewrite the entire game. He was an affront to history, an affront to their altar. Bonds wore earrings that flashed from under his hat whenever he stepped on the field, he flipped his bat like a toothpick after every home run, and he did all that while his neck grew to the size of a tree trunk. He was a super-villain.

It didn’t matter that his peers were using the same boosters as he did - they were never as good. Just like how it never mattered that every player whose career occurred before 1946 received a similar boost from not having to compete against Black people. Barry Bonds was uniquely evil to the public.

Part of that reception was tied to how we view Black folks in general. The magic of white supremacy is that it dictates who we deem worthy of our empathy. Where Black behavior is received as pathological, white behavior is a product of circumstances. Black arrogance becomes self-assuredness in the hands of a white man. It’s the reason that Bill Belichick and countless others escape the type of criticism that Barry Bonds received for being standoff-ish to the media, even when Belichick antagonizes reporters routinely.

The fact that people view Bonds so strongly as a steroid cheat is because they’re less willing to empathize with him in the first place.

Despite what the public narrative may have been, Barry Bonds was not the only player using steroids. During baseball’s 1990’s renaissance, steroid usage was prevalent throughout the league, with conservative estimates holding that a quarter of all players were juiced up. Even before then, players were experimenting with performance enhancers starting in the 1960’s.

Yes, Barry Bonds was probably cheating, but the reality is he did not come up with the idea, and he definitely wasn’t the first (or last) person to do it. It has been over a decade since Bonds last took the field, but his name is still treated like a dirty word around baseball. Former commissioners, sportswriters, officials, and even players are still taking shots at him, even as admitted steroid users are calling, coaching, and playing in major league games on a daily basis.

That disconnect cannot be divorced from the reality that he is a Black man, accused of using drugs that helped him topple the icons of white America’s favorite sport. Even worse, he conducted himself in a way that is a direct affront to American values. By taking steroids, Bonds contradicted the American gospel that success is always earned. If he could cheat his way to the top that meant that it was possible to cheat and win.

Now to the offspring of people who were literally owned by their fellow citizens, the realization that meritocracy doesn’t actually exist in baseball (or anywhere else) isn’t particularly shocking. But to white America, it is. If someone could cheat at baseball, America’s game, what did that mean about the country at large? Were we not infallible?

But instead of answering that question, they decided to hate him. Because to understand Barry Bonds would be to acknowledge their great white pantheon was nothing more than a hall of lies.


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