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.