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.