Race revisited

Bonds' critics echo those who belittled Aaron's feat in 1974

could intolerance still be in play today?

Bonds Passes Aaron

August 09, 2007|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,Sun Reporter

The notes left little question for Henry Aaron.

They addressed him by racist terms rather than by name and explained how the country would be humiliated to have a black man as home run king. Some threatened physical harm to him and his family.

"All that hatred left a deep scar on me," Aaron wrote in his 1991 autobiography. "I was just a man doing something that God had given me the power to do, and I was living like an outcast in my own country."

The letters reminded Aaron, the Atlanta slugger who had grown up in the segregated South, that even if schools, voting booths and ball fields were open, a black man could not do something great without tapping that deep, old well of intolerance. In 1974, race still mattered in very apparent ways.

Now, 33 years after Aaron passed Babe Ruth, it's not so clear.

Tuesday night, another black superstar, Barry Bonds, hit his 756th career home run to break Aaron's record, to the chagrin of many baseball followers. But most cite allegations of steroid use and Bonds' standoffishness as the chief reasons. As promised, Aaron was not present at AT&T Park in San Francisco to honor the new king, though Aaron did send a taped video message saluting Bonds' achievement, which was shown on the ballpark's big screen.

Those who automatically dismiss race as a factor in Bonds' lack of popularity, however, may want to consider several polls released this year.

Not only are black fans far more sympathetic to Bonds, these polls say, they are far more likely to believe race is a factor in the way he's perceived.

An ESPN/ABC News poll released in May indicated that 74 percent of black fans were rooting for Bonds to break the record compared to 28 percent of white fans. ESPN said the telephone poll was conducted among a random national sample of 799 adult baseball fans, including an oversample of 203 African-Americans.

A CBS News/New York Times poll released in July found that 62 percent of black fans believed race was at least a minor factor in the steroid suspicions around Bonds. Only 14 percent of white fans felt the same way.

That contrast in perceptions suggests that there are racial issues to be examined around the home run chase.

"It's one of those things that's just there," said Dave Zirin, a sports columnist and author who has written extensively about Bonds and race. "Whether you think race should be talked about in this story or not, it's there objectively. I don't know why we should be surprised. Race and sports have been our twin national obsessions for going on a century."

Zirin, who has written two books about Muhammad Ali, has talked about Bonds on mainstream sports radio (National Public Radio and ESPN) and on radio targeted more specifically to African-Americans. The tone couldn't contrast more, said Zirin, who is white.

`Double standard'

Many mainstream sports fans abhor Bonds, the author said. But he has heard many African-American callers who expressed serious concerns for the slugger's well-being.

"They see this hatred toward him as the same thing that happened to Hank Aaron," Zirin said. "It feels the same to them. It feels like a double standard."

Zirin said he can't reconcile that contrast in tone without considering racism. He believes that if a white star with the same personality and same association with steroids had broken Aaron's record, fans would be ambivalent but less enraged than they are at Bonds.

Not so, said one Hall of Famer who witnessed Bonds' historic clout. Asked yesterday whether he thought negative reaction toward Bonds had anything to do with racism, former Orioles star Frank Robinson said: "Race has nothing to do with it. No, it just has nothing to do with it."

A canvas of fans at Baltimore's ESPN Zone ran the gamut. Devorick Little, 41, of Glen Burnie, said he wanted Bonds to break Aaron's record because "he's been playing for a long time and I think he deserves it. But I think race is a major factor in the way he's being perceived, in addition to being a factor in the entire steroids scandal," said Little, who is black.

Lou Mascola disagreed.

"I don't think race played any part" in the public's disdain for the Giants slugger, said Mascola, 55, a white man from Bristol, R.I. "He [Bonds] just always came off as arrogant."

Todd Boyd, who holds the Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture at the University of Southern California, recently wrote a column for ESPN.com about the racial issues around Bonds. Boyd, who is black, was surprised how angry some readers became at the suggestion race might play into fan backlash.

"Why are you inserting race?" Boyd said they would ask. "Well, I'm not inserting it. It's there. It's almost impossible to talk about the evolution of that record, from Ruth to Aaron to Bonds, without talking about race."

Jules Tygiel, a historian in San Francisco who has written about Jackie Robinson and the Negro leagues, isn't so sure.

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