- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2006

So far this season, Barry Bonds isn’t exactly sprinting to pass Babe Ruth’s 714 career home runs. But it has been the focus by those who consider Ruth’s 714 number second to Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs some sort of symbolic statement.

Which is fine with those guardians of Ruth’s legacy, since the attention on Bonds only has served to raise interest in the Babe.

“We’ve gotten more calls about the Babe now than ever,” said Mike Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore.

But part of that attention by Bonds’ supporters has been because they regard Ruth’s home run totals as counterfeit, because he played at a time when the game was segregated.

So what does that premise really mean? Are we to believe that major league baseball would have been populated with black ballplayers when Ruth played? Figures show that in 1975, the height of black ballplayer participation in the major leagues, 27 percent of all ballplayers were black. So at the very most, one out of every four players could have been black if there had been no color barrier, though it is a stretch to think it would have been in the time that Ruth played.

Of those, how many would have been pitchers? How many really would have had an impact on Babe Ruth’s home run total? Or are Bonds’ supporters claiming that black players were so much better than white players, that the Negro Leaguers would have simply reduced Ruth to a quivering mass of jelly at the plate?

Are they claiming that black players were just naturally superior to the white players, and even the most mediocre black pitcher would have dominated white hitters? I hope they are not claiming that we are talking about some sort of super class of ballplayers, here.

If not, then we are just talking about ballplayers — some very good, like Dick Redding and Willie Foster, and some not so good. And when Ruth did face Negro Leaguers in barnstorming tours, that is how he did — sometimes well, sometimes not so well.

According to research by Negro League historians, Ruth faced Redding once in a 1922 game and struck out three times. Another time against Redding, Ruth had two home runs. How much, really, would the presence of black ballplayers have affected Ruth’s numbers? I guess as much as those who hate what Ruth represents to them want them to.

These matchups also illustrate a distinct difference between the perceived benefit of Ruth playing against a segregated field and Bonds using steroids. Ruth had no choice in the matter. The color line was not drawn by him, but by the owners. Bonds and any other player who used performance-enhancing drugs made a conscious decision to use them. And now Bonds may face the legal consequences of that decision with a grand jury now examining whether he committed perjury when he testified in 2003 that he never used steroids.

In fact, research has shown that if it were up to Ruth, he would have welcomed the presence of black players in the major leagues. He often played against Negro Leaguers in barnstorming games.

“From the research I have done in this area, all signs point to Ruth having befriended the black ballplayers and enjoyed playing against them,” Gibbons said. “I think if it had been left to Babe, the racial barriers would have been broken down many years before 1947 [the year Jackie Robinson broke the color line].”

Since that color line was broken, the number of black players in the major leagues rose to the high of 27 percent in 1975 and been falling steadily since to a low of about 9 percent now.

If Babe Ruth deserves a race asterisk because he didn’t face black players, then does Barry Bonds deserve at least a half-race asterisk (in addition to the steroid asterisk) because the number of black players has declined during his time? Since Aaron faced more black pitchers than Bonds, should he have an asterisk that shows his 755 home runs meant even more?

No.

Nobody needs any asterisks. Whatever Barry Bonds does, it will never diminish what either Hank Aaron or Babe Ruth did, and people always will recognize that. And no matter what Barry Bonds does, all the reality programming in the world isn’t going to change what he did, and people always will recognize that as well.

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