Neyer/Stark/Caple Exchange

ESPN.com posted a lengthy three-way conversation over the weekend between Rob Neyer, Jim Caple and Jayson Stark about the meaning of homerun records, comparing eras, Bonds, Ruth, Aaron and all that.

Overall it’s a very substantive and worthwhile conversation, and all three have enough of a sense of baseball history and the meaning of context to avoid, for the most part, simplistic formulations.

But, sensitivity to context disappears during one significant part of the exchange – the coverage of Bonds and the matter of race. About that, more below.

Near the beginning of the discussion, Caple offers this perspective on context:

We always place statistics in context with what was going on in the era. Or we should. Ruth hit his home runs in an era when no minorities were allowed to play, when he never had to face the likes of Pedro Martinez or Bob Gibson, when there were no sliders, and a time when the talent base was further diminished because much of the male population was malnourished (source: William Manchester’s account of 1940 draftees in “The Glory and the Dream”). Aaron hit his home runs in an era when amphetamine use was as rampant as it is today. Barry hit his home runs in an era when ballparks and strike zones were smaller while hitters were bigger and stronger, both through approved means (increased knowledge of the usefullness of weight training) and unapproved means (steroids).

Neyer makes the interesting point that the current era is more difficult to evaluate than previous eras because steroids are such a wild card – we don’t really know who took them and who didn’t, or what effect they had.

Stark agreed with Neyer on this point and added that:

I always feel a little squeamish quoting Jose Canseco. But one thing he told Congress that day in March 2005 was absolutely true. He said it’s impossible for any of us to know exactly how many more home runs anybody hit because he was taking steroids or anything else. And, of course, it’s impossible to know how many more someone might have hit if the pitchers weren’t taking them, too. It’s just one more assumption people are always pushing us to make about that era that’s just not possible to make.

When the discussion turned specifically to trying to figure out who was the greatest homerun hitter of all time, Neyer and Stark argued that it was Ruth. Neyer’s argument is that, acknowledging all the caveats about his era, there’s no denying that Ruth so towered over his era that there’s really no debate. Recall that, when Ruth obliterated the single season home run record by hitting 54 in 1920 (the previous record was his own, set the previous season), he hit more homeruns than any team in the American league.

Caple disagreed, nominating Aaron over Ruth:

But [Ruth] is not the ultimate home-run hitter …

The level of competition just wasn’t that good back then. Minorities were banned. Players were smaller. Simply put, Ruth was feasting off some mediocre talent. Sure, all-time greats such as Walter Johnson would have excelled in any era, but the average player of Ruth’s era simply couldn’t hold a torch to the modern player. That’s why my pick for greatest home-run hitter is Hank. He did it even though much of his era was dominated by pitchers. He did it while teams were moving toward larger ballparks. And he did it without the aid of any performance enhancer. Here’s my point. You take the three of these guys in their prime, allow each to prepare for an offseason with the same training facilities/supplements, and then send them off against the same pitchers for a season … and Hank will come out on top. He out-hit Ruth under tougher conditions, and he almost out-hit Bonds without Barry’s advantages. He is the home-run king.

The discussion touches on race at various points. All three acknowledge, in some way, that Ruth, for example, played in an era of mediocre talent and the absence of African American players from the majors, though Stark and Neyer both believe, as noted above, that Ruth so dominated his era that he was the greatest homerun hitter of all-time. Later, they specifically address the media’s coverage of Bonds, and what role race plays in that coverage.

In this portion of the exchange, Neyer argued:

“Now, it’s really not our place to claim that baseball writers are colorblind, because of course we, as baseball writers, are not exactly the most objective souls on that subject. But there is some evidence here, isn’t there? And it’s on our side. Going all the way back to 1947, Jackie Robinson was the first-ever Rookie of the Year. Since then, many, many black players have won awards, with the great majority of the voters being white. I suspect you’d have a real hard time finding any sort of racial bias in the Hall of Fame voting, either.

And getting back to the matter at hand, would anybody like to argue that Mark McGwire has been treated with kid gloves in recent years, by the writers? The Hall of Fame balloting this year certainly would suggest otherwise. I’m not saying that race doesn’t matter. But I’m tired of people telling me race always matters; the latter is nearly as ridiculous as the former. And I believe that if Barry Bonds was a white, steroids-bloated jerk, he’d be covered essentially the same way that he is being covered now. (my emphasis).

As I’ve already made clear, if there is one theme running through this conversation, it’s that context matters. And yet, when it comes to the question of covering Bonds, Neyer is arguing, in effect, that context is meaningless.

To assert that race doesn’t matter – that if Bonds were a white jerk, etc., he’d be treated the same way – is to speculate in a way that is impossible for us to do intelligently. Let’s flip this for a moment – what if the press corps covering baseball, instead of being – what is it? – 96% white, were 96% Black? Would our perception of Bonds be exactly the same, if that were true? Caple agreed with Neyer’s point and mentioned Tony Gwynn. But, Gwynn is very safe, the kind of African American that white media love to love, because he’s so easy, cooperative and non-confrontational. But, what if a mostly Black press corps were pestering white players about stuff the media cared about? For example, imagine persistent questioning for years directed at Cal Ripken with such questions as: don’t you think you had it kind of easy growing up, being given such privileged access to the game by your father? Or, don’t you think you’re being selfish by staying in the lineup for personal records,  and not the good of the team? Would Cal have been so gracious all those years? And, if he grew weary, wary and mistrustful,and snapped at times, and told the media he didn’t want to talk to them,  would we still think of him as a “great guy?” Now, the fair answer to all those questions is “I have no idea.” Maybe he would have.

And, maybe Bonds would come across as prickly and aloof to Black writers just as he does to a mostly white media. Maybe Bonds would have been more trusting, opening up to Black reporters. Jack Curry, of the New York Times, acknowledged to Chris Russo yesterday that Bonds can be quite charming around reporters with whom he’s more comfortable (and, of course, some of those reporters are white). But, in any event, we don’t really know. And, neither does Neyer.

The context in which all players are filtered through to the public is the media and that media is not a faceless machine. It’s a collection of people, most of whom are white. Does that mean that all white reporters think, write and act the same way? Of course not. But, it’s an inescapable fact that the media reflects the experiences and concerns of its constituents, and there’s no way to wish that way.

Neyer is, in general, very sensitive to context and the complexities of guessing about hypotheticals. But, that good sense fails him here. To assert, essentially without thought, that if Bonds were white, all would be essentially the same, is to assert that if the world were a radically different place than, in fact, it is, Neyer would still know with certitude how things would be.

A little more humility about such matters would have served Neyer well here.
Stark, for his part, had the most sensible comments about three on this issue:

I wrote a piece a couple of months ago, after that ESPN poll came out, in which I said I didn’t think Barry was being portrayed negatively because of his race, but I was convinced that many, many African-Americans out there sincerely believe that. That sparked all kinds of e-mail, much of it nasty and mean-spirited. So I don’t think we should go too far down this road, because I think the point of this exchange was to have a baseball debate, not a debate on the state of racism in American sports.

Nevertheless, it is an element in how people are perceiving the way all of us portray this man. And I don’t think anything we do or say or write can change that.

One can certainly argue, in response, that we’re stuck with the world we’re given, and the media world Barry Bonds was given was one dominated by white reporters, and if he doesn’t like that, he’s still got to deal with it. But, that’s a far cry from saying that if Bonds were white, we’d see him the same way. Barry Bonds wouldn’t be who he is, if that were true, and our world wouldn’t be the world it is, if it weren’t dominated the way it’s been, historically, and presently, by people of European descent. Does it mean you can’t call Barry Bonds a jerk, if you feel that way? No.

But, while Neyer’s tired of people telling him race always matters (and, honestly, in sports media, who’s pushing that line?), I’m tired of white sports commentators wishing away the fact that while race may not explain everything, there’s no obvious way to separate it from anything – not in our society.

22 Responses to “Neyer/Stark/Caple Exchange”

  1. So I don’t think we should go too far down this road, because I think the point of this exchange was to have a baseball debate, not a debate on the state of racism in American sports.

    While I understand what Stark is trying to get at, when making the sort of comparisons regarding a sport that has been in existence for parts of three centuries now and its records, trying to have a debate about the sport itself is almost impossible without looking at racism in sport. This is especially important if we think of sport being an intrinsic part of American society. The all-time home run record is a number known by those who don’t even pay attention to baseball regularly, and it seems like Stark is selling it short by saying this baseball debate about who was the best home run hitter can’t be colored by questions about race and the racial history of the sport.

  2. Barry Bonds hits #756. http://msn.foxsports.com/?MSNHPHMN Alone at the top, indeed.

  3. J, when I read this “debate” this morning, the only thing I could say to myself was how the conversation would be vastly different if say Scoop Jackson was present.

    Scoop in no way shape or form would have let the group dismiss race and attempt to use it as some sort of dichotomy when debating Barry’s character.

    Your point about a race reversal in the media speaks volumes. I surmise that…

    Wow! Barry just hit 756!

  4. Chea… Barry is dat dude…

  5. Now that Barry has hit no.756,the question I’m asking:
    Will the media leave him alone or they will intensify their hatred?

  6. jweil, I think that your last line hit the nail on the head, and Neyer’s commentary definitely speaks to that.

    I think that Neyer’s denial seems sincere and that is the problem with sports journalism. Too many items are being judged through the lens of white reporters. And if it were being judged by 96% African-American reporters it would probably pose a similar problem (but we’ll cross that bridge… NEVER). As you mention the lack of diversity in sports reporting is where a lot of this starts. And even in the hypothetical scenario where none of those reporters were racist, their natural biases based off of their experiences will still lead to racist coverage in its totality. The problem is so completely institutional.

    As for Stark, I am wondering who the nasty emails were coming from. I’ll assume that it is the usual ESPN living in lala land: “why bring race into it” crowd? My guess is also that Stark DOES believe that race is a factor in media coverage, but was sticking his toe in the water instead of just diving in headfirst…

  7. Charles

    I agree with you about Stark – I also suspect he does think it matters, but doesn’t want to get too far out in front. I also appreciate Stark’s understanding that there is no way around the issue.

    Mike – you’re absolutely right – the exchange is a different one with Scoop Jackson in it, and that just speaks to the mostly monochrome perspective from sports media.

    Incidentally – the athlete/reporter divide is coming through loud and clear on ESPN’s coverage of Bonds record-breaking homerun tonight. John Kruk and Eric Young really have nothing but praise for Bonds, and when they are prompted to address the steroids issue, both are answering in the same way – lots of people probably did it; it doesn’t really change how good he is, etc.

  8. jweil, not only that… I thought it was terribly innappropriate to have Lance Williams call in to the show… so very classless…

  9. Charles

    What I think is silly about Williams calling in is that it’s not as if a) there is a single baseball fan who doesn’t already know what Williams thinks and, therefore b) what possible fresh perspective could Williams possibly bring to this discussion? He’s acknowledged that he has no information on Bonds after 2003, and we know what that information is. And, the biggest problem with Williams is that since he’s only investigated one player, he can’t possibly speak to the larger question about the context in which Bonds is said to have used, including the unnamed number of pitchers against whom he competed.

  10. J the story is gone. The cycle has past. The negative spin is diminished and all soap opera socially distorting drama has become late night post Star Spangled Banner static.There’s no more juice in the squeeze.

    What will they think of next?

  11. Mizzo, that story is gone, but until something happens with the grand jury, there will still be speculation. That will still feed news cycles, but not as regularly as the chase did.

  12. I’m glad you wrote this. I read that exchange between those three and was left with nothing more than Exhibit 20012000.012089 of the Psychopathic Racial Personality. When race is a variable, otherwise logical people lose their capacity to assess and process information – regardless of its complexity. For these three people (with careers steeped in “the rational”) to arrive at the conclusion that Ruth is tops (by granting a pass to pre-1947 MLB) is patently absurd.

    It reminds me of the international policy/advocacy organization Freedom House which provides rankings of “freedom” for each country around the world. Back in the 1970′s, during apartheid, Freedom House actually issued two rankings to South Africa – one to the white nation (granted the highest freedom ranking) and one to the aggrieved indigenous Africans (issued the lowest freedom ranking). The process was, in and of itself, a reaffirmation of white supremacy. It was wholly illogical and without precedent. The US was never issued two ratings even though it was the US which provided the South African blueprint.

    Neyer and company have about as bad a case of the PRP as I’ve seen. Perhaps I should only read their analyses as they relate to “white” players.

  13. I think it was tasteless of ESPN to interview one of the writers of that game of shadows book last night after Bonds broke the record…

    There should be a couple of different headings when comparing homerun hitters throughout history…

    You could argue Babe Ruth because he was doing it and noone else was. Like Dwil said, he had more homeruns than most teams had in most years… he was hitting homeruns in an era where nobody was really hitting them.

    You could argue that Hank Aaron was the best because he held the record for so long.

    You could argue Bonds because he broke the record that Aaron set…

    I would say Ruth was the best homerun hitter simply for the fact that he hit them in a time when there weren’t that many hit.

    I would argue Aaron is the most consistent home run hitter because of all those years with 40 or more. He played an awfully long time to be able to reach the milestone and he was able to do it without the attention that Ruth once got… Plus, Aaron was hitting his in an era when guys were beginning to hit 30 and 40 homers a year…

    I would argue Barry is the most prolific home run hitter in history because of his ability to hit them and hit many of them in so few “official” at-bats. He walks so much that for him to be able to get a good swing 1 out of 4 at bats is simply outstanding.

  14. Taking nothing away from Babe’s accomplishments, I can not as a Black man give credit to someone who played in an era where NO minorities of any kind played. How would batting against Satch–with Josh catching–and seeing Buck Leonard and Oscar Charleston in the field not change things?

  15. It’s like saying George Washington was my hero even though he owned slaves…just not reasonable by any stretch.

  16. J.

    This –

    To assert that race doesn’t matter – that if Bonds were a white jerk, etc., he’d be treated the same way – is to speculate in a way that is impossible for us to do intelligently. Let’s flip this for a moment – what if the press corps covering baseball, instead of being – what is it? – 96% white, were 96% Black? Would our perception of Bonds be exactly the same, if that were true? Caple agreed with Neyer’s point and mentioned Tony Gwynn. But, Gwynn is very safe, the kind of African American that white media love to love, because he’s so easy, cooperative and non-confrontational. But, what if a mostly Black press corps were pestering white players about stuff the media cared about? For example, imagine persistent questioning for years directed at Cal Ripken with such questions as: don’t you think you had it kind of easy growing up, being given such privileged access to the game by your father? Or, don’t you think you’re being selfish by staying in the lineup for personal records, and not the good of the team? Would Cal have been so gracious all those years? And, if he grew weary, wary and mistrustful,and snapped at times, and told the media he didn’t want to talk to them, would we still think of him as a “great guy?” Now, the fair answer to all those questions is “I have no idea.” Maybe he would have.

    - is masterful. Seriously.

  17. The 96% black argument was absolutely tremendous. Actually one of the most unique perspectives I’ve heard on the whole thing (this site keeps on coming). I’m sure your average “race has got nothing to do with it” guy will say that’s because black people are racist.

    But, outside of that, I thought it was a good look at the HR issue. No vitriol, no unnecessary hyperbole, just straight talk. And as much as I can’t respect Babe Ruth as a player I’d say he’d be it. Only because he dominated his era and I think era-specific numbers are absolutely critical. Now had Bonds not been walked a lot he’d have come pretty close…but Ruth had, well Ruthian numbers.

  18. You can’t even have this conversation without mentioning Lou Gehrig AND Bob Meusel as hitters in the lineup behind Ruth. Neyer lost a great deal of credibility in this fiasco. Are these guys too tired to run the stadium numbers and the batting lineup/order indices? Neyer’s talking about pulling Negro League numbers! Negro please. Do the job with the numbers you have.

    I’m asserting that the segregation era did not end in 1947. Imagine assuming that the performance of whites was “statistically insignificant in 1946″ but “statistically significant” a year later when only 2 Black players were in the league. That would be crazy. Wouldn’t it be crazy if there were only 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 Blacks in the league? Sure it would. The segregation era may have formally ended with JR, but the statistical significance of that endured well into the 1960′s in the NL and the 1970′s and early 80′s in the NL.

    It seems to me as though the comparison should be between Aaron, Bonds and Michael Jack Schmidt or Harmon Killebrew.

  19. But you can go alot of ways with this argument, what if the African-American kids of today cared as much about making a major league ballclub as they did in the sixties? you can say this era’s talent pool is watered down as compared to then as well. What if Cubans were allowed to play in the MLB now w/ out having to leave their families?

    There are alot of whatifs and no perfect answers so you have to weigh all the variables for yourself. They lowered the mound in 1969 to keep pitchers from dominating and that had a big effect. and on and on and on.

    But it is fun.

  20. JB –

    that’s exactly the point…this game is/always has been/always will be political…it will be part of the socio-political fabric of the nation and it is no way divorced from that tapestry. and that’s why the mere suggestion that Bonds is the boogeyman that rooned the game for airbody is patently absurd. Tony Oliva came from Cuba – but if he’d come 30 years earlier, his Black body would have been forbidden from playing in the “major” leagues.

  21. Temple. i am so very glad that you brought up Gehrig and Meusel. Aaron also played alongside Eddie Matthews half of his career. Bonds has had the worst complementary support by far. Bonilla and Kent are the only two decent bats and both of those guys numbers were aided greatly by playing with Bonds.

  22. Yep.

    Certainly there were other names worth mentioning like Lazzeri, but Ruth was nestled in a powerful lineup his entire career. I don’t say that to diminish him. There are other ways to do that.

    I believe he could have challenged for the record in ’93 (61 at that time) if he batted third, instead of fifth behind Will “The Thrill IS GONE” Clark and Matt Williams. He hit 46 batting 5th and neither Clark nor Williams had career years in ’93.

    I also believe that if Matt Williams had been able to stay healthy, he would have made a tremendous difference for Bonds. Williams was a damn good player (excellent on the bag). He had solid power and scared the daylights out of pitchers.

    Bonds’ walks, for me, set him apart from the other players I’ve seen. His plate discipline is Carew-esque.

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