Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Barry Bonds & the Homerun "Race"

I few months ago I heard a statistic that seems very meaningful to me: in 1973, black ballplayers constituted 28% of Major League Baseball's total number of players; this year, that number is around 8% (approximations from memory). I still don't know how to account for this. In many ways, baseball has always been ahead of the curve: Jackie Robinson's debut in 1947 preceded the Atlanta bus boycott, school integration, Brown V. Board, and the civil rights acts of '64 and the voter's rights act of '65. And by 1973, black players were significantly over-represented according to demographic proportions. So what has happened since...?

Then I read today on ESPN.com that 75 percent of blacks want Barry Bonds to break Hank Aaron's all-time homerun record, compared to only 28 percent of whites.

The racial divide in polling numbers are almost as stark as they were during the O.J. Simpson trial. But it isn't as simple as it might look at first glance because the current all-time record holder for most career homeruns, Hank Aaron, is black. So what's going on here? White people like records to stand? Black people don't? That seems beyond bizarre to me... For the record, I suppose I fall in with "whites" on this one: Hank Aaron has always been one of my favorite players.


"Problem" #1: fewer black ballplayers

"Problem" #2: Why the wide disparity in figures between blacks and whites when it comes to cheering for Barry Bonds?

(Note: I'm not sure either of these are problems--hence the quotation marks. But I welcome responses/explanations/solutions.)


Insignificant Wrangler said...

As to question 1, the decrease in black baseball players, the usual responses are: the rising popularity of basketball and football. This is especially the case since most urban areas invest more in building basketball courts than baseball diamonds and that its much easier to get a basketball game going than a baseball game. Furthermore, baseball is a global game, look at the incredible increases in hispanic and asian players.

The second question is, in my opinion, a lot trickier. Personally, I can't stand Bonds. He symbolizes so much that is wrong with sports (any athlete who has to have three lockers in the locker room is on my A-hole list). My disdain for him doesn't really have anything to do with steroids, I just don't want one of the great all-time records to go to a jerk.

I think Aaron's response to Bonds is justified: his refusal to go to the ceremony. Of course, Aaron won't come out and explicitly say that he is shunning Bonds. He says that he's too old to travel to watch any record (and, days after saying this, flys cross-country to throw out a first pitch for charity). Aaron knows the hostility one faces when chasing a record no one wants you to break. He knows it more than Bonds ever could. And, certainly, he will not explicitly contribute to it. But he won't fly cross-country for anything.

Richard said...

Agree with the first commenter about question #1.

For #2, I think it's clear that a lot of people hate Bonds, and he is a lightning rod. I might guess that black fans (or question respondants) can see fairly clearly that were Bonds white, his treatment his whole career would have been different. This doesn't mean he's not a jerk (I, of course, only know about him via the media, which pretty much hates him), but that his jerkness, if you will, didn't come out of nowhere.

For me, I used to be a huge baseball fan, and I really used to care about records and seeing things in historical perspective, etc. In recent years, Bonds was one of the only reasons I bothered to follow the game at all. He is the quintessence of the kind of player I appreciate: power, on-base percentage, slugging, once speedy. The steroids thing doesn't bother me that much, esp. given that the whole game is heavily implicated, and the decades of amphetamine usage (a drug that people have always believed helped performance), and to single out Bonds is bullshit.

But, I said I "used to be a huge baseball fan". At this point, I see professional sports as a largely criminal enterprise (though I still reflexively follow the numbers), and there's no defending the owners of the teams, the money spent, the travel, etc. Bonds being a jerk, and continuing to play and perform well at this stage in his career, under all the suspicion he's under... well, baseball hardly deserves anything different. I hope he breaks the record.

(Was that too rambling?)

Wishydig said...

I'm taking a time out from my 24 (season 2) marathon to write about baseball. (Summers are great.)

I like to see almost all records broken. Even tho I almost always root for the underdog I do get a little awestruck watching Tiger Woods playing his best. It's just an amazing feat. Physical and mental.

Bonds' career has been the same. And because he hates the media I really try to ignore all the asshole accusations. I don't know him. I've heard stories and I've heard reports but I don't even trust what people in 215 (whom I know and love) say about the people across the hall. So why am I gonna trust what people I've never met say about someone else that they barely know?

I'd like to see him break the record just because I'd like to be "around" when it happens.

I really can't imagine why anyone would have a problem with Bonds getting the attention. It's just another headline. Is there some sacred history that needs to be preserved? We can't let the future think that Bonds was the best player of our generation? We don't want them to see him as the best home run hitter of all time?

What does the personality of the player have to do with the records he breaks? Isn't that the beauty of sports? It's measured simply by try to do this and a pass/fail. Then whoever gets the most passes or the highest percentage of passes wins. The records are simple and unbiased. If the record goes to a jerk it just refines the beauty of the skill. I say assholes purify sports.

Casey said...

All interesting. But I think question #1 is not quite so simple. It's true that the rising popularity of football and basketball might seem to be a possible explanation (blacks are statistically over-represented in the NFL, I think), but that begs the question: why do football and basketball appeal to young black athletes more than baseball?

In fact, I think this question is more "explosive" than it is tricky... the answer probably has something to do with "black culture" (which obviously exists--coming up with a definition is the hard part).

One other thing: concerning Bonds' "jerkness," I agree with Marc and Richard, but I can imagine some rather suspicious eyebrows being raised. Calling the flashy black man with great ability an asshole has a long tradition in American history -- apparently it's the inverse of the silly praise lavished on the Uncle Tom type. Excluding the many enlightened white individuals who constitute exceptions, "white people" have historically loved to praise "humble" black people and to call the "other kind" of black people A-holes.

I certainly don't mean to imply ANYTHING by this commentary -- only to complicate the issue. People civilized enough to read this blog are obviously enlightened exceptions.

Richard said...

Casey -

I think you make a good point viz. question one. It's more complicated than that.

With respect to whether Bonds is a jerk or not.. I was hoping that part of your point was implicit in what I said about it. That is, I have no way of knowing whether he's a jerk--everything comes to me mediated by, um, the media--there are certain "facts" that do not leave me warm and fuzzy about him, but they're all off-field, and have to do with his treatment of women (again, knowledge of which comes to me from the media!). I meant to also be saying that Bonds' negative attitude towards the media did not come out of nowhere.

I agree with your basic point about the history of whites' attitudes towards blacks, and I agree further that much of that history is being played out in microcosm with the Bonds story.

I have a hard time singling Bonds out for being a symbol of what's wrong with sports, because, well, I just do. There's so much wrong with sports, and Bonds did not invent the conditions in which he operates.


Thanks for making me want to clarify...

Casey said...

All that said; I suppose I agree! -- I'm just going to find a way to enjoy watching Bonds break the record (I was always so disappointed that I was a few years too young to watch Aaron take Ruth's crown).

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Sure black culture might have something to do with question one--but I would point out that for a few decades, baseball was an incredibly integral part of that culture, and American culture writ large. It is no longer a central part of either. It has been surpassed by other sports.

While walking my dogs the other day, my wife and I passed a baseball diamond drawn in chalk on the sidewalk. I thought that was neat--I had never seen it before. The next day I saw a young kid playing catch with his mother. It got me to thinking about this conversation--especially since we pass about twelve basketball hoops before we've made it half way through the neighborhood.

As to question number two: I don't have a problem with people rewriting history. Nor do I think steriods are a big deal (seriously, did no one think McGwire and Sosa weren't roiding?). Bonds is a jerk. If you see a guy frequently clashing with teammates, demanding preferential treatment, crowding the plate and then throwing a fit when someone throws inside, then you see a jerk. True, I don't know the "true" Bonds, I rely on the Bonds that I read on his blog and that the media produces. But, in this case, I'm looking forward to 2015 (or so), when Albert Pulojs, a man who seems to hit for average, play a solid first base, and hit balls very, very far, all while being respectful, humble, and team-orient, breaks the record (for a long time I thought it would be Griffey, but we know how that worked out)

Richard said...

Related to the question of why there are fewer black baseball players, check this out (letters included):


Kaufman's usually worth reading and recent columns of his have touched on this topic as well; worth taking a look at some of them (and a lot of the letters make excellent points).

Casey said...

That Kaufman article puts me in a weird position, as a lifelong Tigers fan... So. No comment on Sheffield; he is having an almost all-star season... you understand. Haha.