Baseball’s Past Eras Are No More Credible Or Any Less Controversial

By Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad
Updated: August 16, 2007

LOS ANGELES — The time has come to acknowledge Barry Bonds as baseball’s new home run king. Love him or hate him, there’s only one sure thing you can say about Barry Bonds: he can hit a baseball. Now you can say he has hit more out than any player in major baseball history.

Some people have a problem with saying that. It’s easier for them to say that which they do not know for sure, but suspect, that Barry was juiced. Some want to call the era in which Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s record, the Asterisk era, or the Steroids era. Whatever you call it, you will still have to call Barry the king of the home run — for a minute, at least.

We have now officially begun the five-year (minimum) debate as to whether or not Barry Bonds has earned a place among the so-called “baseball immortals.” The National Baseball Hall of Fame doesn’t exactly house a group of choirboys.

“The Hall” is full of thugs, racists and other malcontents. Yes, there’s even an “admitted cheat” (or two) in the Hall. Baseball’s past eras are no more credible, and its legends, no less controversial. Barry Bonds is the greatest player of his era, whatever you call it.

Baseball has had its “live ball” era, it’s “dead ball” era, it’s strong pitching era, weak pitching era, long fence era, short fence era, and of course, its infamous segregation era, in which it banned black players from competition. It has elected players from every era, and except for betting on your own games (which put lifetime bans on Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose), what you did on the field — however you did it — was the basis for getting into the Hall of Fame.

The asterisk thing came about as a way of notating whether a player accomplished his record when the baseball season was 154 games, or the current 162 games. Roger Maris, who broke Babe Ruth’s 60 home run season record, was asterisked because he did in a 162 game season (versus Ruth’s 154). Maris was almost certainly punished for breaking “the Babe’s” record. Despite an above average career, he still is not in the Hall of Fame. It’s well chronicled what Hank Aaron went through in breaking Ruth’s all-time record. 30 years later, Aaron is still bitter.

Bonds has been jeered, not because of any public affinity for Aaron, but because people think he cheated to get to the record. Bonds has never been caught using steroids, and during the years of his suspected use (2000-2003), there was no ban on steroids, nor was there any steroid testing in baseball. Steroids weren’t considered illegal until the 2005 season. Historically, in baseball, steroids have been no big deal; they don’t make you hit the ball.

In fact, many of the allegations in this so-called Steroids era are against pitchers who have added three or four seasons to their longevity (not to mention the speed of their fastball). If anything, steroid hitters have been neutralized by steroid pitchers but that would be too much to consider for those seeking to discredit Bonds. So we have to call it like it is, baseball has always had questionable and controversial elements to it. And it does now, but that doesn’t detract from one’s greatness.

You can look at every era and make a case for why, or why not, a certain player should be in the Hall. Babe Ruth played in the live ball and segregation eras. Did it make a difference? Probably not, because Ruth’s accomplishments stood out, far and apart, from everyone else’s. Hank Aaron played in part of the weak pitcher, short fence era. Did it make a difference? It did if your name was Willie Mays, who played the height of his career in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.

Hall of Famer, Orlando Cepeda, estimates he saw 150 home runs Mays hit “blow back in,” and that Mays would have easily had over 800 home runs, had he not played half his games at Candlestick. Mays, who is by and large acknowledged as the greatest all-around player of all-time (hit, hit with power, run, field and throw), is rarely mentioned in the category of Aaron and Ruth because he didn’t get close to “the record.” But Willie Mays was the greatest player of his era.

Baseball has always had a racial element to it, though. When Mays was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, he was elected with 94.68% of the vote, the highest percentage since the initial class of 1936, in which three players, Ty Cobb (a known racist) received the highest hall vote ever (98.20%), and Ruth and Honus Wagner received 95.13% each. Incredibly, 23 writers (409 out of 432 who voted) left the greatest player of his era (and maybe in the history of the game) off their ballots, for no explainable reason other than the color of his skin. When Aaron came into the Hall in 1981, he received 97.83%.

Since then, there have been four players with great, but less acrimonious careers, receive higher votes than Aaron and Mays. Pitcher Tom Seaver received the highest score ever, 98.84% in 1992. Pitcher Nolan Ryan received 98.79% in 1999. George Brett received 98.19% in 1998 and Cal Ripken Jr. received 98.5% in 2007. Even Mike Schmidt, who had 100 fewer home runs and a .267 career batting average (compared to Mays’ .302), was voted in with 96.52%.

And I can’t write a baseball commentary about the Hall of Fame without mentioning the continued snubbing of Curt Flood, the father of free agency. There is no justifiable reasoning for Flood’s exclusion, other than residual anger because he ended baseball slavery. My point is that all aspects of the game are not so pure, and are much too subjective. This era will be no different.

There will be no justifiable reasoning for Bonds’ exclusion, even if you include the cloud of steroid use. Yeah, they punished Mark McGwire the first time around, but McGwire is a Hall of Famer and will eventually get in because he (and Sammy Sosa) helped revive baseball after the strike almost destroyed it. Baseball writers have voted in known cheaters before. The most prominent that comes to mind is pitcher Gaylord Perry.

The game’s purists are questioning a three year period of Bonds’ career. For Perry’s whole 20-year career, he was not just suspected of doctoring baseballs (throwing baseballs with illegal substances, known as “spitballs”). It was a fact that everybody knew and that accompanies every bio of Perry. When the question was asked as to why a known cheater was being voted into the Hall of Fame, the response was that Gaylord never got caught (he actually was thrown out of one game toward the end of his career).

Well, Barry never got caught either, and he is a much better player. Barry Bonds hits the baseball better than anyone who has gone before him. He was a Hall of Fame player before 2001.

Now that he is the home run king, we may be seeing the end of an era and the start of a controversy over his place in history. No matter what you think of Bonds, he deserves his place in history, and all of the “propers” that will come with it — including the Hall of Fame.