Who’s On Base?: Is Black the Color of Choice?

By John A. Poole
Updated: February 21, 2008

Hank AaronGLEN BURNIE, MARYLAND — In a society that preaches diversity and unity among races, one has to wonder whether baseball fans would be able to accept and embrace the thought of a Black man holding the most precious record in baseball. The single season home run record has been held by two of the most beloved players in the game: Babe Ruth and Mark McGuire. Roger Maris held the title the longest but was never considered a home run king because he could only manage 275 career home runs, which he amassed over his 13-year career.

Now, in 2001, there are 2 more players in the hunt for a title. Both Barry Bonds (39 home runs) and Luis Gonzalez (35 home runs) are on pace to break the 70-home-run mark set by McGuire in 1998. But, once again, I ask the question: Would baseball fans be able to accept and embrace a Black man holding the single season home run record? I say no.

When McGuire and Sosa were going head-to-head in 1998 the cheers would not have been the same if the roles had been reversed. One of the only reasons Sosa became such a fan favorite is because he came in second. If he had been the leader, the whole atmosphere surrounding the race might have been different. One has to wonder whether the grand celebration would have been the same if Sammy had hit number 62 before Big Mac. Would the cheers have been as loud?

Well, that is an answer that will most likely not be known for many years. But do you really think Bonds can break a record that a White man has held since the beginning of baseball? I have to say no! And it is not because his skills are not as good or his determination is not as high. It is because it is not what America wants to see right now. Baseball is on the brink of another lockout at the end of this 2001 season and I am sure that Bud Selig heard McGuire very clearly when he said that he will retire if a lockout happens at the end of the year. Because McGuire is as popular as any baseball player right now, his leaving could have a similar effect on baseball to the one Jordan had on the NBA when he retired.

Baseball needs a player-hero to be a man about whom people say, “I know him. I like him.” But the fans don’t really know Barry Bonds. He’s a secluded person who tries to keep his personal and public life separate. He has never sought publicity and the curious, hungry public does not seem to love the ones who shun the media. “I don’t know him. How can I like him?” Take, for example, Eddie Murray and Ricky Henderson.

Yet, Ted Williams is a superhero in the minds of many baseball fans. And here was a man who had never even acknowledged the fans until a 1997 All Star game when he came onto the field in a wheel chair and threw out the first pitch. Here was a man who was considered a complete jerk, but — because of the color of his skin — he became a hero.

Could a Black man in baseball have the same luxury of keeping to himself and still becoming a popular hero? Could Willy Mays have avoided fans and reporters and still felt the cheers of rival fans? Or how about Jackie Robinson? No, he could not. And if Jackie had not been willing to share his person and his spirit with the fans and the world, there is no telling when the next player of color would have been given the opportunity to play.

As the season moves forward, I wish Barry and Louis the very best as do the rest of the BA readers. I honestly hope that both will be fighting to the end. It would be great to see one of them break the unbreakable 70-home-run mark.

On Monday, both players were scheduled to compete in the home run derby at Safeco Field in Seattle. In the second round, Seattle fans got what they came for (besides seeing the hitting exhibition from Ichiro at the beginning of the game), and that was a showdown between number one and number two in home runs this season. In the showdown, it was Gonzalez who beat Bonds to move on to the finals against Sosa. Gonzalez would eventually win the derby, but he was not the best show of the day.

Last year, an unlikely hero won the AL MVP award. No one expected Jason Giambi to hit 43 home runs and hit .333 with 137 RBI’s in 2000. So, to prove it was not a fluke, he just came out this year and made his second straight All Star game and had the best home run derby round in the history of the contest. Players, such as, Mark McGuire, Ken Griffey, Jr., Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, and Willy Mays had never put up over 14 home runs in a round. We know that doesn’t make Giambi the greatest home run hitter ever in the game, but he will hold the record for the most home runs in a round — at least until next year rolls around.