On April 4, 1974, Opening Day for a new season, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and Vice President Gerald Ford were in attendance at the Cincinnati Reds' home opener against the Atlanta Braves to witness Hank Aaron attempt to tie Babe Ruth's celebrated home run record. This record was held by the most beloved figure in the history of the game, and it was also a record that many felt would never be broken.
As Aaron got closer and closer, it became clear that it was only a matter of when, not if, the record book would be altered to accommodate the new home run king. Considering the iconic status that Ruth held in the game's history, the fact that baseball had been integrated a mere 37 years before and the lingering feelings of racial animosity that still existed in the decade immediately following the civil rights movement in America, many were not too happy with the fact that Aaron, a black man, would be displacing their beloved Babe at the top of the home run chart.
On April 4 six years earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated on the balcony of a Memphis motel. Aaron had asked the Reds organization if it would honor the sixth anniversary of Dr. King's death with a moment of silence before the game started. The Reds refused to do so. Aaron, on his first swing of the new season, tied the record anyway. Four nights later, Aaron went on to break the record in front of his home crowd in Atlanta.
As Aaron approached the record, he started to get something like 3,000 letters a day. Most of those letters were hate mail of one sort or another, many even containing death threats. Aaron now traveled with an armed police officer for his own protection. At the peak of his sports life, a time when a man should be feeling nothing short of the unabashed joy that accompanies a major accomplishment like this, Hank Aaron could not fully enjoy the moment because he had to be concerned that he might actually lose his own life, simply for hitting a baseball.
Race is once again an issue in Barry Bonds' quest for baseball's home run record, even though MLK's birthday is now a national holiday and we are some 33 years removed from Aaron's historic feat. Many things have changed since that April night in Atlanta, not the least of which is the fact that Barry Bonds is admittedly a far less sympathetic figure than the man he is chasing on the all-time home run list.
A recent ESPN/ABC News poll suggests there is a racial divide in the nation around people's attitude towards Bonds and his attempt to set the new home run mark. In the last few years, we have been treated to grand jury investigations, congressional hearings and best-selling books, all of which have placed Bonds at the center of a much bigger steroid controversy in baseball. This being the case, in spite of all the speculation to the contrary, it has never been proven that Bonds is guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs.
There has long been a notion among certain members of the African-American community that once a successful black person manages to make it to the top of his respective field, there is a vested interest among other people outside of the community to see this person fall. Barry Bonds is only the most recent example of such a notion. The vehemence with which these outside forces seem aligned in their interest to go after Bonds has helped to fuel such thinking.
Many others feel that the situation is plain and simple; they believe Bonds cheated and should be punished. Again, this is despite the fact that Bonds has never been caught using steroids. This racial divide reveals different attitudes about crime and punishment, guilt and innocence in our society.
In a country that has long prided itself on a system of justice that pursued an "innocent until proven guilty" mantra, Bonds finds himself, like many other African-Americans throughout history, just plain guilty. Yes, in the decade following the landmark O.J. Simpson court case, where acquittal in a court of law was trumped by conviction in the court of public opinion, Bonds now finds himself incarcerated in a prison of racial suspicion, animosity and resentment. One imagines that this resentment will be most evident on that day in the near future when Aaron's record finally falls.
One of the reasons that Bonds has never been accorded the benefit of the doubt is because of his personality and his public persona. Whereas Aaron was always a humble gentleman who had grown up in the segregated South, Bonds is a second-generation baseball prodigy who has often come across to many as entitled, selfish and disrespectful -- a poster child for the stereotype of today's overpaid, self-indulgent black athlete. In times past, some would have called Bonds an "uppity Negro." In today's parlance, though, Bonds might best be described by Ice Cube's moniker, "the n----- you love to hate."
For all of the hatred that Bonds has aroused over the years, he may have sealed his fate when he spoke openly about his desire to surpass the second-place Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list back in 2003. In a sport that guards its legacy perhaps more than any other, there was certainly going to be a problem as Bonds approached The Bambino. With Ruth serving as the perpetual face of the American pastime, any attempt at displacing him, and talking openly about wanting to do it, was not going to take place without a fight. Notice, I said Babe Ruth and not Hank Aaron. Though Aaron holds the record, Babe Ruth still represents the heart and soul of baseball, without a doubt. Aaron sits atop the home run list, but it is Ruth who continues to personify the identity of the sport, some 70-plus years after his retirement from the game. So when Bonds spoke openly about "wiping out" Babe Ruth at the 2003 All-Star Game, he might as well have replaced the No. 25 on the back of his jersey with a bull's-eye. Bonds not only was on his way to "wiping out" Ruth in the record books but also had the "unmitigated temerity," as Atticus Finch said in "To Kill a Mockingbird," to voice these intentions publicly.
There has been a lot of discussion about what to do regarding Barry Bonds' statistics and his place in the game. Some have suggested that Bonds' accomplishments are tainted because of his alleged steroid use, and for this reason his stats should be prefaced by an asterisk. Others no doubt believe that his numbers should be thrown out all together. These same people argue that Bonds' numbers should not be considered alongside the statistics of those from previous generations who earned their numbers without the alleged aid of performance-enhancing drugs.
Yet if Bonds' numbers are "tainted," consider this: Every home run that Babe Ruth ever hit was hit before blacks were allowed to play in the majors. Ruth played at a time when baseball was racially segregated, and he never had to play against the top black players of that time. Though Ruth did not create this system, he, like the rest of the white players before 1947, played in a league in which the competitive nature of the game was less than equal based on these racially exclusionary practices.
One of the most misunderstood aspects of racism is the fact that even though certain individuals may not be racists themselves or may not have created a racist system, they may have indeed benefited from the existence of such a system. For this reason, the exclusion of an entire race of people from the sport of baseball prior to 1947, simply because of the color of their skin, is a "taint" that a million Jackie Robinson celebrations can never erase. Let us not forget, in this year when we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Robinson's symbolic breaking of the color line, that there would not have been a need to "break" the color line had there not been a color line drawn in the first place.
This being said, I am not arguing that Ruth's numbers would have been any more or less had he played against the best black players of his day -- who really knows what the impact of playing in a fully integrated league would have had on Ruth's statistics -- but I am arguing the point of principle here. The history of racism in baseball is far more troubling to me than the possibility that someone might have used performance-enhancing drugs to aid his accomplishments. Yet no one would ever consider putting an asterisk by Ruth's name or that of any other white player who enjoyed the benefits of playing in a competitive league that did not allow for fair and equal competition based solely on the issue of race.
We are a long way from the days of Babe Ruth now, though. Black players like Hank Aaron and Bonds' godfather Willie Mays helped to redefine a once-segregated game, while Latino and Asian players are in the process of redefining the modern game once again. Things change and evolve. What was once right is now wrong, and what was once taboo is now commonplace.
There may be some point in the future when a new generation of people, unburdened by the magnitude of the present moment, will see the current steroid hysteria around Bonds and others for what it really is, another form of societal change bought about by the dictates of the times that we live in. On this point, the emotions of right now have clouded our rationality.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that Bonds is innocent, or guilty for that matter. If he is guilty, though, he is most certainly not the only one, that's for sure. So unless Major League Baseball is going to vigorously go after each and every player ever suspected of using steroids, though they've not failed a drug test, and unless MLB will admit its own obvious culpability in this process, it should just drop the whole thing, test thoroughly going forward, and let history decide what to do about the statistics accumulated during this contested era.
Watching Hank Aaron hit his historic home run back in the day was one of my earliest sports memories. Honestly, my love of sport can be dated from that day forward. For me, the social and political magnitude of that moment can never be duplicated. Aaron's triumph in the face of death threats will forever live in my mind as one of the many struggles that African-Americans have had to overcome in our long history in this society. No disrespect to Bonds, who I personally think is perhaps the greatest to ever pick up a baseball bat, steroids or no steroids. But I can't imagine ever feeling anything close to what I felt on that historic night in 1974.
One of the main reasons Bonds won't move me as much as Aaron did is because I was a few weeks short of my 10th birthday when Aaron did his thing some 33 years ago. In my own childish search for heroes, I had found one in Hank Aaron. As a proverbial "grown-ass man" now, I have no need for heroes, idols or role models anymore. That space has already been taken, that spot already occupied. When I was a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things. At the end of the day, it would be great to see people put away their childish racial resentment of Barry Bonds and give the man his due, but as an adult I have no illusions that this is going to happen.
Dr. Todd Boyd, a columnist for Page 2, is an author, media commentator and a professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His next book "The Notorious Ph.D.'s Guide to the Super Fly '70s" will be published in June.