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The Unforgiven: Jack Johnson & Barry Bonds
NEW YORK – As the San Francisco Giants slugger approaches Henry Aaron’s record for career homers, this probability seems to be turning otherwise rational people upside down, as Bonds has encountered an almost surreal level of hostility. The rage was on full display this past weekend in Boston, where Bonds had already made friends in 2004 by saying, “Boston is too racist for me.”
But the bellowing fury directed at Bonds is hardly resigned to the good people of Beantown. Outside the San Francisco Bay Area, it has become a peculiar kind of national obsession.
Sports has always had its anti-heroes, but the antipathy directed at Bonds by both media and “fans” has been of a different texture. It doesn’t just boo: it seethes.
Some say they can’t stand Bonds because they suspect – with the smug certitude of having received holy writ – that he has used steroids.
Others say it is his “surly attitude,” or “bad sportsmanship.”
But much of the reaction to Bonds is simply bad old-fashioned racism. Not since Jack Johnson has an athlete become the repository for so much racial animus – and revealed broader gaps in Black and white perceptions – as Barry Lamar Bonds.
In 1908, when Jack Johnson became the first Black heavyweight boxing champion, his victory created a serious crisis in the “conventional wisdom” about race. When Johnson told the world to go to hell and openly consorted with white women, crisis became hysteria.
The media whipped up a frenzy around the need for a “great white hope” (a phrase coined by author Jack London) to restore order to the boxing world – and the world in general. Former champion Jim Jeffries was coaxed out of retirement and said, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”
In the weeks before their fight, Johnson – in stark contrast to the standard African-American posture of the day – was more than willing to be heard. In a July 4, 1910, Philadelphia Inquirer story titled, “Johnson believes he’s Jeff’s master,” he is quoted as saying, “I honestly believe that in pugilism I am Jeffries’ master, and it is my purpose to demonstrate this in the most decisive way possible. … Let me say in conclusion that I believe the meeting between Mr. Jeffries and myself will be a great test of strength, skill, and endurance. The tap of the gong will be music to me.”
This might seem tame by contemporary standards, but at the time it was verbal TNT. To say he was a white man’s master a mere fifty years after the formal end of chattel slavery was simply explosive.
But Johnson wasn’t merely despised: he was hated by one America and revered – if not loved – by another.
A piece in the Dallas Morning News titled, “Negroes praying for Johnson,” reads, “Some others fear trouble if he [Johnson] wins and are consequently boosting Jeffries. … For the first time Independence Day will be enjoyed as a real holiday by the Negroes tomorrow.”
When Jeffries and Johnson finally squared off, the ringside band played, “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” and promoters led the all-white crowd in the chant “Kill the nigger.” But Johnson was faster, stronger, and smarter than Jeffries, knocking him out with ease. In an early incarnation of the information superhighway, young children working as “telegram runners” ran through city streets shouting out the progress after each round.
As Johnson wrote in his autobiography,
More than 25,000 people had gathered to watch the fight, and as I looked about me, and scanned that sea of white faces I felt the auspiciousness of the occasion. There were few men of my own race among the spectators. I realized that my victory in this event meant more than on any previous occasion. It wasn’t just the championship that was at stake – it was my own honor, and in a degree the honor of my own race. … The “white hope” had failed.
This was no idle boast. As the New York World wrote, “That Mr. Johnson should so lightly and carelessly punch the head of Mr. Jeffries must come as a shock to every devoted believer in the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race.”
But far more important than respect gained from the New York World, was his folkloric status in the Black community. As one spiritual sang,
“Amaze an’ Grace, how sweet it sounds,
Jack Johnson knocked Jim Jeffries down.
Jim Jeffries jumped up an’ hit Jack on the chin,
An’ then Jack knocked him down agin.
The Yankees hold the play,
The white man pulls the trigger;
But it make no difference what the white man say,
The world champion’s still a nigger”
After Johnson’s victory, there were race riots around the country – in Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, and Washington, D.C. Most of the riots consisted of white lynch mobs attacking Blacks, and Blacks fighting back.
This reaction to a boxing match was the most widespread racial uprising that the U.S. had ever seen – or would see – until the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Right-wing religious groups immediately organized to ban boxing. Congress actually passed a law banning boxing films.
Even some Black leaders pushed Johnson to condemn African Americans for rioting, and to toe the line. But Johnson remained defiant. For this mortal sin – and a variety of venal ones – he faced harassment and persecution for most of his life. He was forced into exile in 1913 on the trumped-up charge of transporting a white woman across state lines for prostitution. As Johnson wrote in his autobiography, “In the Ring and Out, as soon as he defeated Jeffries, “From that minute on, the hunt for the ‘white hope’ was redoubled, and when it proceeded with so little success other methods were taken to dispose of me.
Booker T. Washington, the Black leader who founded the Tuskegee Institute and believed that Blacks should abstain from any kind of agitation, couldn’t stand Johnson. He said with unvarnished scorn,
I can only say at this time, that this is another illustration of the almost irreparable injury that a wrong action on the part of a single individual may do to a whole race. It shows the folly of those persons who think that they alone will be held responsible for the evil that they do. Especially is this true in the case of the Negro in the United States today. No one can do so much injury to the Negro race as the Negro himself. This will seem to many persons unjust, but no one can doubt that it is true. … What makes the situation seem a little worse in this case, is the fact that it was the white man, not the black man who has given Jack Johnson the kind of prominence he has enjoyed up to now and put him, in other words, in a position where he has been able to bring humiliation upon the whole race of which he is a member.
Washington’s contempt for Johnson didn’t stop him, however, from setting aside a special assembly room at his Tuskegee Institute to hear special telegraphic reports of Johnson’s fights.
A far different reaction to Johnson was articulated by Washington’s great rival, W. E. B. DuBois. DuBois, a towering intellectual, was one of the first to try to put the moralizing about “violence” in sports – and the street violence associated with Jack Johnson – in some sort of context. As he wrote in the Crisis, the organ of the NAACP, in 1914,
There is today some brutality connected with boxing, but as compared with football and boat racing it may be seriously questioned whether boxing deserves to be put in a separate class by reason of its cruelty. Certainly it is a highly civilized pastime as compared with the international game of war which produces so many “heroes” and “national monuments.” Boxing has fallen into disfavor – into very great disfavor. The cause is clear: Jack Johnson … has out-sparred an Irishman. He did it with little brutality, the utmost fairness and great good nature. He did not “knock” his opponent senseless. Apparently he did not even try. Neither he nor his race invented prize fighting or particularly like it. Why then this thrill of national disgust? Because Johnson is Black.”
Barry Bonds is today’s Jack Johnson. Like Johnson, he is a dominator in his sport, a pantheon player: the only person in baseball history with 500 home runs and 500 stolen bases, a seven-time Most Valuable Player, and eventual home run king.
He is also, like Johnson, someone who plays with a mammoth chip on his shoulder, a chip handed down – as one writer put it -”like an heirloom” from his father, Bobby Bonds, a talented player of the 1960s skewered by the media and front offices for his own pro-pride, pro-union politics.
It is hardly difficult to find sportswriters or sports fan blogs slamming Bonds as a steroid using, foul-mouthed malcontent. But even players have broken ranks to jump on his back. Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, a man with GOP senatorial aspirations, said, “He admitted to cheating on his wife, cheating on his taxes, and cheating on the game.” (Actually, none of that is true. Leaked grand jury testimony had Bonds saying he unintentionally used a steroid cream. The other two allegations are unproven.) It was so bombastic, sports columnists and talk radio yappers criticized Schilling and he was forced to offer an apology.
But the same writers who slammed Schilling perhaps did so because he was taking their shtick. The amount of media detritus hurled at Bonds boggles the mind.
As Jeff Pearlman, a writer for ESPN wrote,
Barry Bonds is an evil man. A truly evil man. As a husband, he has cheated on both his wives. As a father, he has been absent and indifferent. As a role model, he has spit at autograph seekers and directed kids to “f– off.” As a Giant, he has held a franchise hostage and refused to help teammates in need. As a blatant abuser of steroids and human growth hormone, he has deprived the game of integrity and turned its record books into mush.
Jemele Hill, one of the scant few African-American women with a high profile voice in sports wrote,
God, can you smite Barry Bonds before he breaks Major League Baseball’s all-time home run record? (OK, maybe smiting is a little extreme. Could you conjure up some locusts every time he bats? Give him a few boils? Crack a stone tablet over his head?) I know the Bible says vengeance is your department. But might you consider speeding things up?
Dan Le Batard, a columnist for the Miami Herald, said something very incisive about Bonds’ relationship to the media in an interview with the remarkable sports blog “The Starting Five”:
He’s got no use for us. Every step of the way we agitate his defiance all the more. Every step of the way he has less reason to trust us. Think about it this way. If Barry Bonds and Terrell Owens are the two most controversial athletes in sports, do they have an arrest between them? What are they really doing that makes them so polarizing? They are urinating on some of our Utopian ideas of sportsmanship.
Owens is a revealing parallel. He has never been accused of ingesting anything anabolic, but still is torn apart by the press for our entertainment. But it’s the comparison to Jack Johnson that carries more than abstract similarities. Like Johnson, Bonds has also earned the ample attention of the federal government that has joined the media in the Get Barry Brigade.
In 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft, a man perhaps best known for losing his Missouri Senate seat to a dead man while slobbering on the Confederate flag, hosted a press conference to announce a forty-two-count indictment against four men in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) case. It was odd for the U.S. Attorney General to be front and center, with the cameras on full blast. This was like shooting a fawn with an AK-47 – a case of extreme overkill. The worst-kept secret was that the case had nothing to do with BALCO’s leader, a former bassist for the band Wild Cherry named Victor Conte. This was about BALCO’s most famous client – Barry Bonds.
Since that time the FBI has even approached players about wearing a wire in an effort to get Bonds on tape admitting steroid use. The FBI could then presumably prosecute him for perjury in the BALCO case, where he said he unintentionally used a steroid cream. Mike Celizic, who reported the story for MSNBC, called the investigation a “witch hunt. It’s not about cleaning up the game; it’s about putting Barry Bonds in jail.” He is right. Federal prosecutors have made it all too clear that they want to imprison Bonds for perjury, tax evasion, anything short of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. One writer cited an agent saying, “He’s our Capone.”
The anti-Bonds cottage industry has become so bombastic, so disproportionate to his alleged offenses, that it is having an ugly and divisive effect on society.
Consider an ESPN/ABC News poll released in May. Black fans are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to want Bonds to break Aaron’s record of 755 homers (74 percent versus 28 percent) and nearly twice as likely to think that the slugger has been treated unfairly (46 percent versus 25 percent), according to the poll. Black and white supporters of Bonds were then asked why they believed that the slugger is so hated. About 41 percent of Black fans said suspected steroids use was the reason, while 25 percent cited race and 21 percent blamed Bonds’ “in your face” attitude. By contrast, two-thirds of white sympathizers cited the steroids issue, with virtually none mentioning race.
When asked about the poll, Jemele Hill said: “It’s too bad some people are more concerned with race than right. Blacks have been unjustly persecuted in the court of law and public opinion, but supporting one lout doesn’t erase, compensate [for] or change those injustices.”
But the Black-white divide on Bonds is not about people being “more concerned with race than right.” Rather, it represents a visceral response to the way Bonds has been subjected to criticism when white players with reputations of steroid use haven’t gotten nearly the heat he has. For instance, suspicions have swirled around future Hall of Fame pitcher Roger Clemens, but he hasn’t come close to receiving Bonds’ level of media and investigative scrutiny.
I have been a guest on both mainstream sports and Black radio, and the Bonds discussion is like visiting two alternate universes. Mainstream radio is a veritable “I hate Barry” parade. Callers typically deflect charges of racism by saying: “We’re not racists. We just hate his guts because he’s a cheater!” But on Black radio, I am sometimes seriously asked, “Do you think Bonds will be physically harmed?” That I’m asked such a question points up how dangerous the atmosphere surrounding Bonds’ march to history has become.
Many make hay of the fact that Aaron has said that he himself would not be there when Bonds breaks the record. As Hill wrote, “Hank Aaron deserves better than to see his record broken by an unlikable, arrogant cheater who has done nothing but heighten stereotypes of Black athletes. He is unquestionably a Hall of Famer and the best player of this generation – but he is not nearly the man Aaron is, and should not surpass him in any way.”
Others make the case that Aaron’s refusal to be there is proof positive that there is no racism – abject or otherwise – in their despising Barry Bonds.
Aaron’s refusal to attend is more than a little ironic.
In April 1974, Henry Aaron of the Atlanta Braves broke Babe Ruth’s seemingly unbreakable home run record when he hit his 715th home run off Al Downing. The racism that surrounded Aaron was off the charts. In 1973, as he closed in on the record, the U.S. Post Office reported that Aaron received 930,000 letters, the most of anyone not named Richard Nixon. Much of it was in the category of death threats. Samples read,
“Dear Hank Aaron, How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?”
“Dear Nigger, You black animal, I hope you never live long enough to hit more home runs than the great Babe Ruth.”
And so on. This was not some bygone, pre-civil rights era – but the 1970s, right on the heels of the civil rights and Black Power movements.
Aaron later wrote, “The Atlanta fans weren’t shy about letting me know what they thought of a $200,000 nigger striking out with men on base.”
When Aaron finally broke the mark, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn didn’t show. Today Bud Selig – a close friend of Aaron – has given every indication that he will follow in this proud tradition and not be at the game when Bonds breaks the mark. Ironically, this is happening right when baseball is wringing its hands over the historically low number of African-American players – 8.5 percent, the smallest number since the days of Jackie Robinson. Torii Hunter, the All Star Centerfielder for the Minnesota Twins said in April that maybe these two things were connected. “The one big, Black face in baseball is Barry Bonds, and they see he is constantly being scrutinized and he has never tested positive for anything,” Hunter says. Black kids “think, ‘That game is not for us.’”
It’s worth noting that despite all the speculation, we don’t know why Aaron is refusing to be there when Bonds breaks the mark. He won’t say – although he hasn’t been shy about doing interviews where he makes clear that he will not attend.
Barry Bonds’ brother Bobby Jr. took Aaron to task, saying,
Hank Aaron does not even want to support Barry. Being a Black man going through what he went through in the past and not supporting my brother, it kind of makes me look at him like, “Are you serious, brother? Are you serious?” Cut the steroids out, just look at my brother as a human being. He stole bases, he ran, he caught the ball. It’s so hard to justify what’s going on with baseball and how they’re treating him.
The constant decrying of Bonds has resulted – once again, as in the case of Jack Johnson – in two decidedly different schools of thought. I’ve already cited the ESPN poll revealing a clear racial divide on Bonds. A majority of fans – 58 percent – think Bonds should be in the Hall of Fame. That’s ten points higher than a similar poll conducted last summer. Among Blacks, 85 percent think Bonds belongs in Cooperstown, compared to 53 percent of whites.
Of course we live in different times than the days of Jack Johnson. Stadiums don’t play, “All coons look alike to me” when Bonds goes to the plate. And as I have written before, the Bonds obsession in the media and among fans is not purely about bigotry run amok. Envy, rage, grudges, and anger combine to make a gumbo of resentment (Pearlman and Jemele Hill for example have both written some excellent antiracist sports articles.)
The argument is not that everyone who is against Bonds is a racist or anyone who believes in harsh penalties for steroid use is a racist. People are free to hate Bonds all they want. But they should ask themselves from where all this animus springs.
Almost a century ago, DuBois said of Jack Johnson, “Of course some pretend to object to Mr. Johnson’s character. But we have yet to hear, in the case of white America, that marital troubles have disqualified prize fighters or ball players or even statesmen. It comes down, then, after all, to this unforgivable blackness.”
At the end of the day, being a surly, press-hating, arrogant sports superstar has proven to be something all-too-excused by media conglomerates and fans. But to be all these things and also have black skin? That clearly has remained unforgivable.