Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, and Baseball's Home Run Record

In the early 1940s, when asked about the best pitcher he ever faced, Joe DiMaggio responded, without thinking: "Satchel Paige". The judgement was sound - many years later, at the age of 59, Paige became the oldest pitcher ever in a Major League game. At this point, however, DiMaggio had only faced Paige in exhibition games. Paige was black, and until Jackie Robinson some years later broke the colour barrier, he couldn't play in the major leagues.

I bring this up because Barry Bonds' return to major league action has seen him make a renewed assault on Hank Aaron's home run record of 755 for a career; he's now only ten runs away from equalling the feat of Babe Ruth, with 704. Pundits are rightly making aspersions as to the legitimacy of Bonds' tally. He has been heavily implicated in the BALCO drugs scandal; unless we take him as his word that he did not know what was in treatments given to him, he knowingly took steroids.

Babe Ruth, on the other hand, is a rightly revered icon. His performances were legendary; not for nothing is Yankee Stadium known as "The House That Ruth Built". Not only was he a great slugger, he was a fantastic pitcher, too, before his teams decided they needed him to play every day. Moreover, he helped change the very nature of the game - hitting for power became essential.

Yet I can no longer accept the reasoning that Bonds's achievements are illegitimate, when Ruth's are taken at face value. Yes, Bonds has almost certainly cheated, and that in itself is shameful. Babe Ruth, however, had one huge advantage over rivals from the modern era - he never had to face the best players. Some of the best pitchers in the USA, and America more generally, were excluded from competing on the basis of the colour of their skin. That sort of prejudice is equally, if not more shameful, and whilst Ruth may not have been behind the policy itself, he was certainly a major beneficiary.

Why, then, do we laud one set of achievements whilst decrying the other? Quite simply, Babe Ruth has become part of baseball's folklore. He had the advantage of being an integral part of the MLB's history. His records became part of the furniture, so to speak - they spoke for themselves, utterly devoid of context.

History cannot be so unthinking if it is to mean anything. Why do Negro League records not appear in the same way? Babe Ruth may have meant a lot to the game of baseball, but that shouldn't blind us to the wrongs of the game. Segregation of the sport was wrong, and it was shameful. And if we think that numbers have some mythic quality set totally apart from the period in which they played the game, then we are wrong. Just because something happened in the Major Leagues does not make it legitimate. Barry Bonds shows us that. Just as he should have an asterisk next to his record, so should Babe Ruth. His fault or not, if we ignore the context of his record, we get dangerously close to condoning it.