Hatchet Job

HNIC wrote a fantastic piece yesterday on Jackie Robinson and I just wanted to write a tangential post here, looking at an article Jeff Pearlman wrote for ESPN’s page 2 over the weekend about Barry Bonds’ decision to wear No. 42 for the Robinson celebration. I generally like Pearlman, and I like his politics (he’s one of the few mainstream sportswriters to be upfront about what those are). But, his piece on Bonds (about whom he wrote a well publicized book) was piling on at its most egregious. And, in the course of attacking Bonds for doing what scores of major leaguers did the past couple of days, he showed an ignorance of the complexity of Jackie Robinson himself, which HNIC so beautifully laid out.

As an aside, I want to note that my father, who died many years ago, was a political radical in his day and was among the folks who volunteered to be a body guard for Robeson during the fateful Peekskill concert to which HNIC referred. Robeson died in January, 1976, when I was ten, and I heard a lot about him, especially because my fifth grade music teacher, Mr. Scott, devoted the entire semester to studying Robeson after his passing.

OK, to Pearlman. To cut to the chase, Pearlman was deeply offended by the fact that Bonds decided to wear No. 42, comparing that decision to President Bush’s entirely phony efforts to drape himself in the clothing of an environmentalist while supporting policies that do clear detriment to the environment:

Of course, by now all noncomatose homo sapiens realize that Bush is to the environment what Hulk Hogan was to the Iron Sheik’s head. He’s pro- Alaska oil drilling, anti- the ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, pro- curtailing the federal standard for arsenic in drinking water and, most recently, anti- the right of states to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from motor vehicles.

He also hates long walks on the beach and birds that chirp.

And yet, when Bush shows up at a forest gate to kiss a leopard, none of us flinch. We are numb to the phenomenon. It is what it is — a public figure extolling a virtue, then doing zilch to support it.

Which leads us, naturally, to Barry Lamar Bonds.

What invalidates Bonds’ desire to wear Robinson’s Number, according to Pearlman:

his gesture is as authentic as a Sidd Finch heater. Now in his 22nd major league season, Bonds’ track record in areas of race and sports is, to be polite, abysmal. Here is a man who, according to infinite associates and peers, has rarely — if ever — gone out of his way to assist a rookie African-American teammate trying to find his way; who sees young black fans not as potential heirs to the game, but as autograph-seeking gnats to be insulted or dismissed. Four years ago, Bonds spit in the face of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum by ignoring an invitation to be presented with one of its Legacy Awards (taken aback by the public outcry, he finally visited four months later).

To his credit, Bonds once used his celebrity to influence a political campaign. To his discredit, the candidate he endorsed was former California governor Pete Wilson, an arch-conservative whose stances on minority issues were only slightly to the left of David Duke. In fact, Wilson seems something of a role model for the Bonds Guide to Honoring Dead Civil Rights Icons: In 1995, while promoting the “California Civil Rights Initiative,” a ballot measure that would ban all state affirmative action, Wilson routinely evoked the name (but not spirit) of Martin Luther King.

But, the worst crime of all in Bonds’ disgraceful decision to honor Robinson is the crime he’s committing against Henry Aaron:

Of the countless transgressions that make Bonds the last man who should wear No. 42, the one that gets me — that really, really, really gets me — is the way he has treated his black baseball forefathers like Aaron not as legends to be honored, but as stepping stones in his own maligned assault on the record books.

Whether one believes he cheated or not, reportedly the amount of documentation detailing Bonds’ usage of performance-enhancing drugs stretches to Pluto. With this in mind, how can Bonds both wear No. 42 for Robinson and surpass Aaron as baseball’s all-time home run leader?

If little else, Bonds is no dummy. He knows of Aaron’s legacy: of the hate mail and the death threats, of the extra security guards and the terror that one bullet from the stands would end his life. Surely Bonds knows that Aaron is not simply a baseball hero, but a shining beacon from the civil rights era. The courage Aaron displayed in taking the field each night, usually in a Deep South still dripping with racist venom, is something Bonds can never duplicate.

So, again, how does Bonds break the all-time home run record with a straight face? How can he speak of “the great Hank Aaron” (as he does) while doing everything in his power to expunge his name from the record books?

Pearlman concludes by arguing that Bonds’ decision only shows, once again, his supreme selfishness. Bonds’ decision, Pearlman asserts, simply confirms that Bonds lives by one ethos alone: “I am Barry Bonds, and I don’t give a damn.” Of course, if you believe this to be true of Bonds, and you want to badly enough, you can read that ethos into every one of his gestures, at bats, or public statements. But, my goodness, is this one a reach.

Let’s start with the claim that Bonds considers Black fans to be a nuisance. Does Bonds single out Black fans for ill-treatment, or is he just tired of fans in general? I would love to see evidence that Bonds does, in fact, think less of African American fans than white ones. More significantly, is it true that every player who agreed to wear No. 42 on Sunday and Monday is gracious with fans, willing to sign autographs under any circumstances? Is there a civility test that all players who decided to wear the number were asked to take before the commissioner gave them permission to honor Robinson in this particular way? (These are rhetorical questions – I know the answer). This is a petty and gratuitous shot.

Concering the awards ceremony, I don’t know the particulars of the case, but it does strike me as odd that Pearlman, like many others, could insist on the one hand that Bonds only cares about himself, is indifferent to anybody else’s feelings and spends his life looking for opportunites to give the finger to any and all. And, on the other hand, to be sensitive to bad publicity. Those two impulses don’t quite mesh, but since what’s inconceivable is that Bonds could ever actual have a change of heart or a decent bone in his body, one is left explaining his behavior in ways that are self-contradictory and illogical.

Concerning Aaron, I suppose what Pearlman would like Bonds to do is retire now, admit he cheated and quit pursuing Aaron’s record. I’m not really sure what that has to do with Jackie Robinson, however. Professional athletes are preternaturally hyper competitive people who, with few exceptions, want to compete as long as they can and as hard as they can. Bonds is still, unquestionably, a productive player and I doubt very much whether anyone in his position would do any differently. Does this make Bonds a good man? No, not particularly. But, it doesn’t make him unique, either, any different really from any of the other players who honored Jackie and are taking HGH or steroids, or amphetamines or whatever (and do we know for sure that Aaron never popped Greenies?) What separates Bonds from everyone else is his performance level, not his conscience. And, it’s a silly overstatement to speak of expunging Aaron from the record books. Did Aaron expunge Ruth from the record books, purging his legend from the collective conscience of baseball fans? Certainly not. When Bonds hits No. 756, it will be an awkward moment for baseball. But, it won’t make anyone forget Henry Aaron, anymore than Aaron made anyone forget Babe Ruth.

But, here’s the thing that’s most off-base about Pearlman. He slams Bonds for supporting former California governor Pete Wilson. I, too, hold Barry in low regard for supporting Wilson, a Republican who stood behind two of the most divisive campaigns in California history, one concerning a state ballot proposal to get rid of affirmative action and another concerning denying legal benefits to illegal immigrants. Whatever your views on the merits, those were ugly,  race-baiting campaigns and Wilson hopped on the bandwagon of both for the most crass calculations of political advantage at a time when California was in transition from a purple state to a blue state.

But, my own contempt for Wilson (and, I am sure, for the politics of the vast majority of major leaguers), has nothing to do with Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson was, as is well known, a Republican. He supported Barry Goldwater in 1964, who ran one of the most noxious presidential campaigns in modern times, and whose sole concentrated support in his landslide loss to President Johnson that November came from segregationist southerners. So, by Pearlman’s logic, isn’t Jackie Robinson to be held in contempt. As HNIC and others have noted, Robinson’s  political views were complex, conflicted and still evolving when he died at the age of 53. But, here’s the reality about Jackie – what he represents, in contemporary America, is a not liberal version of civil rights, but a watered down version that everyone can sign onto – you’ll find almost no one any longer outside of white supremacist quarters, who will openly advocate for a color line in baseball. The much more complex, subtle and difficult to dislodge aspects of racism – the economic deprivation, the broken communities, the disparities in funding for diseases that specifically afflict African Americans, and all that – the Robinson story, as it’s told in sports discourse, and understood by Major League Baseball’s official version of what Robinson accomplished, doesn’t speak to any of that.

Pearlman may have good reason to dislike Bonds personally. But, that’s all this piece is – personal animus dressed up as an argument on principle.

22 Responses to “Hatchet Job”

  1. Hmmm… So is Robinson baseball’s Booker T Washington? If so, who might be the “DuBois” of baseball’s first black athletes?

  2. Personal animus? Hmmmm…could that be a direct correlation to book sales?

    Interesting question Ken. Because of the conscious and entertaining duality that made him so comfortable and universally loved, could it be Buck O’Neil?

  3. Jason S. Says:

    Pertaining to Pete Wilson: He was governor when “three strikes” was first legislated in California. He signed it into law as an emergency measure before voters voted on it later in 1994. This legislation has become very divisive, as well.

  4. Your last two posts were among your best ever, J. Really outstanding work!

    On Prop. 187, among its many noxious elements was the denial of benefits, including public education, I believe (though I have not looked recently) to U.S. citizens (the U.S.-born children of illlegal migrants). Really disgusting stuff.

  5. Jeff Pearlman Says:

    I found your essay very interesting, and it certainly poked some structural flaws in my column. My main objection to Barry in relation to Jackie Robinson is that wearing No. 42 is an easy act—automatic and taking no thought. Yet at the same time he “honors” a black pioneer, he shuns another by cheating to break his hallowed record. To me, it’s inexcusable. You say you’re dedicated to the forefathers of the game—men who made it easier for you to play—and you use every possibly performance enhancer (illegal, I might add) to undo what Aaron did under unbearably racism circumstances.

    Also, I did not write this to sell books. To be honest, the worst thing for sales is bashing Bonds. My customers are primarily Giants fans who wanna learn more about their hero. Trust me, slashing him to pieces only makes people not wanna buy the book. But it’s a stance I wanted to take.

    Anyhow, I appreciate your writing, and I think you made some excellent points.

    – Jeff

  6. Jeff, where is this evidence of Bonds shunning Black kids?

  7. Jeff Pearlman Says:

    The “evidence” comes from two years of researching the man; of interviewing more than 500 people. The examples of his indifference and cruelty are jaw-dropping. I assure you, I don’t make it up.

    That said, I suppose I could have gone through my notes and provided some details. In that regard, you’re 100% right.

  8. Jeff,

    Your ability to accept constructive criticism and engage your critics is refreshing. Thank you.

    ken

  9. Jeff Pearlman Says:

    Ken:

    If I write it in a public forum, I have to be willing to take the bullets. It’s not always fun (or, really, usually fun), but it comes with the turf, I suppose. Plus, y’all ripped my stuff in a very decent, professional way.

    Jeff

  10. I have to agree with Ken. Jeff thanks for checking out TSF. Do return when the debate gets hot in the upcoming days ;) We welcome your insight.

    Ken you mentioned DuBois and left me on the edge of my seat! ;)

  11. Jeff Pearlman Says:

    Lemme ask y’all this: I got SLAMMED with letters on this column—95% of them negative. A big gripe was that I should leave politics off the sports page. Agree? Disagree? I’m sorta torn, wouldn’t mind the feedback …

    Thanks.

    Jeff

  12. Jeff-
    Politics, culture, society, history, and more are so easily viewed through sports, you’d be remiss not to include any of the aforementioned in a sports piece.

    I’ve found that there can be no flaws (in one’s writing) when infusing those subjects in a ports piece. And even then, people are going to want shoot extra digs – just because they don’t like “your politics” or they think those subjects have no place in sports writing….

    …like the fellas said, thanks for perusing the site.

  13. Weiler! Sharp analysis brother, sharp. I particularly love the last few lines:

    “The much more complex, subtle and difficult to dislodge aspects of racism – the economic deprivation, the broken communities, the disparities in funding for diseases that specifically afflict African Americans, and all that – the Robinson story, as it’s told in sports discourse, and understood by Major League Baseball’s official version of what Robinson accomplished, doesn’t speak to any of that.”

    Could not, honestly I couldn’t have, said it better.

  14. Thanks to everyone for the comments, and thanks especially to Jeff for, as Ken says, responding constructively and being a mensch. Jeff, one thing that is not in doubt is that you know the man (or at least some sides of him), and I don’t. I have had an issue with what Bonds has come to represent which I think has tended to stray well beyond the man’s personal transgressions, whatever those are. In any event, thanks for reading.

  15. “He supported Barry Goldwater in 1964, who ran one of the most noxious presidential campaigns in modern times”

    I don’t know how much of a political junkie you might be, but can I conclude from this that you think LBJ’s ad showing the little girl plucking the daisy while a nuke goes off is proper political discourse? It is generally understood that, inspite of AuH2O’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act, the dirty tricks in the ’64 campaign were mainly LBJ’s.

  16. Mizzo,

    Sorry for leaving you on the edge of your seat. But, alas, my question was really just a question (i.e. not rhetorical). I honestly don’t know who might be the WEB DuBois to J Robinson’s BTW.

    This is mostly because I’m not much of a baseball history buff.

    In fact, the duality of DuBois might also be a reflection of J Robinson’s life as well. As I’m sure you know, DuBois took a hard step left in his later years and this hurt his credibility within the movement. So, in that case, maybe J Robinson was a BTW and a DuBois: both accepted and rejected from within and without.

  17. I find it an incredible stretch that Pearlman here uses as one of his arguments in his latest -Pile onto Barry, YET AGAIN- tirade is that Barry somehow should show racial fealty to black folks in general and Hank Aaron in particular by not using whatever methid he could to become the greatest player he could possibly be.

    Bonds seemingly did everything he could to become the greatest hitter of all time. He surely worked out like a madman, he surely used whatever legal science he could, he posibly used illegal methods to the same end. You know what that shows? That he was committed to becoming the best. White America hates him for that and for his arrogance and poor personality. Black people SHOULD call him to the carpet for supporting that asshole Pete Wilson, but no one should hate him because he was willing to do whatever it took to become the greatest of all times. THAT my friends is the one thing we should admire about the man.

  18. Jackie Robinson supporting Barry Goldwater in 1964 and being a Republican wasn’t as odd then as it might appear now. The Republican party was the party of Lincoln and for a century afterward, black folks supported the party pretty strongly.. It really was about the time that JKF Jr lent his support to Dr. King while he was in jail and Nixon refused that the tide began to shift. Similarly, it took even longer than a century for most Southern white American males to switch from the Democratic to the Republican party.

  19. KevDog, Good point about the Party of Lincoln in 1964. My point, and this speaks to Brad S.’s comment, is that Robinson supported a man closely associated with the ugliest forces of segregationism. And, this is why Brad’s note about the famous Daisy commercial (pulled after one viewing because it was so inflammatory) is just not relevant here. The obvious context here is race (not LBJ’s ethics in general, which were indisputably compromised), and the fact that Robinson was willing to align himself with Goldwater over LBJ speaks to the difficulty of a simple narrative of Robinson and a liberal civil rights vision.

  20. Jweiler,

    I agree with you about the complexity of the issues involved. But in this case, I think the most likely explanation is that Jackie was simply conservative in nature and wasn’t able, yet, to break from what he had been raised with his entire life. In your opinion, is this possible?

  21. [...] Page Two, after several years with Sports Illustrated. Three weeks ago, I wrote a critical post about an article that Pearlman had recently written for Page Two, about Barry Bonds (Pearlman, of [...]

  22. […] good illustration of the silliness of some of this anti-Arod stuff, Pearlman is not necessarily at his most clear-minded when it comes to PEDs. That’s fine, of course. But to make Ryan Dempster a hero for the supposed […]

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