Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Baseball, Bigotry, Bob Ryan, Color Line, Cy Young, George Will, Hank Aaron, Henry Aaron, Hypocrisy, Integrity of the Game, Joe Di Maggio, Josh Gibson, Lou Gehrig, Mike Lupica, Mythology, Myths and Legends, Pope Lupica, Purists, Purity of the Game, Race, Racism, Records, Reggie Jackson, Satchel Paige, Sports, Steroids, Ted Williams (Baseball), Willie Mays
A new baseball season has arrived for this estranged ex-fan of the game. Millions of people celebrate as if this is a rite of spring, like a cherry-blossom festival or an opportunity to spend more time outside. When I see the start of baseball, it merely reminds me to up my dosage of Zyrtec and Rhinocort.
But that’s not quite true. It also hits me in the brain and gut with the common mythologies and hypocrisies of America the Beautiful. Especially this spring, with Barry Bonds on trial for perjury — and indirectly, for using steroids, sullying the game, not to mention his Hall-of-Fame record prior to ’99. The guardians of the game — baseball purists like George Will and numerous others, and sports reporters like Pope Lupica and Bob Ryan — supply us with the myths and legends of Babe Ruth, Joe Di Maggio, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Mickey Mantle and Cy Young. Along with their records, those precious records. Of home runs, total hits, hitting streaks, RBIs, strikeouts, wins, stolen bases, games played, batting averages, slugging percentages. The stuff that makes baseball America’s pastime (which should always be written as past-time, or past-its-time), different from all the other major sports.
The hypocrisy comes from this ridiculous notion of keeping the game separate and holy, like the sabbath for orthodox Jews and for the most devout of Christians and Muslims. Except that this game, this most American of games, is about as pure as New York City snow two minutes after hitting the ground. The biggest, most disgusting hypocrisy of all is how most baseball purists will celebrate Babe Ruth’s greatness any day over a Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson, or Josh Gibson. Or Walter Johnson over Satchel Paige. That sixty-four years since Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major league baseball, there’s still a color line in baseball’s precious records, as well as among the people who hold them. That alone is a stomach-churning, blood-pressure-raising shame.
But this issue of who should and shouldn’t be in Cooperstown because of the Steroids Era in baseball, well, it presupposes a false dichotomy. That there was a time before, say ’88, where baseball wasn’t dirty, and that with anabolic steroids and HGH, baseball became dirty. But since ’03, baseball’s become clean and transparent again. This is beyond ridiculous. Baseball’s been as dirty as any sport in American history, in fact dirtier, than the other sports put together. Between amphetamines and illegal drugs, pine tar and Vaseline balls, sharpened cleats and headhunting and the exclusion of Blacks, the sport and the individuals involved in it have been seeking and finding competitive advantages for as long as baseball has been a professional endeavor.
Still, the biggest myth and hypocrisy in baseball remains its insistence that its records are sacred, above critical scrutiny and reproach. I have a problem with this, and not just because of the racism that’s built into any records achieved prior to 1947. But because baseball’s sanctimonious bigotry infects any record that’s been achieved in the sixty-four years since. Whether it was Roger Maris in ’61, Hank Aaron in ’74, or Barry Bonds before ’99, much less after.
As long as the guardians of the game remain White, male and overly connected to baseball as patriotic and its records as sacrosanct, baseball’s hypocrisy will know no bounds. “It’s a shame and a pitiful,” as my father would say. And it’s also a reason I hope my son never plays this wretched game.