Still Seeing Things In Black or White

During Babe Ruth's career, many suspected he was of mixed-race heritage. Some fans shouted racial taunts at him.
During Babe Ruth's career, many suspected he was of mixed-race heritage. Some fans shouted racial taunts at him. (Associated Press)
By Michael Wilbon
Friday, May 12, 2006

It has been less a home run race than an open forum -- on the effects of steroids, the fairness of media coverage, the iconic place of the Babe and, of course, race. And race is never, ever the least of it.

Hitting Nos. 714 and 715, whenever that happens, won't stop the swirl of speculation either. A great many people who support Barry Bonds think the Major League Baseball investigation into steroid use is targeting him because he's black. They'll tell you the volume of media criticism is louder than it should be because Bonds is black. And they'll tell you that some folks, whether or not they'll admit it publicly, simply don't want Bonds to surpass Babe Ruth, a white man.

Conversely, a great many people who are against Bonds or tired of Bonds or simply don't care about Bonds say he's a cheater who brought all this criticism down on himself, and ought to be held at arm's length. The 2,000 or so empty seats at the beautiful ballpark in San Francisco in recent days may speak to a certain apathy about Bonds, even where he lives, among people who generally like him.

For sure, it's a rather uncomfortable story. There's almost nothing joyous about it. You know there's friction when Jesse L. Jackson is sitting in the stands in San Francisco, on hand to speak occasionally on Bonds's behalf, to have his back, if you will.

Then again, it always seems uncomfortable when the subject is home run records. As Henry Aaron did 32 years ago when approaching the Babe, Bonds is receiving hate mail now, proof beyond a shadow of a doubt (as if we need it) that bigotry is alive and well. But we know it's not only race when it comes to loyalty to Ruth because Roger Maris, a white man, received hate mail in 1961 when he approached Ruth's single season mark of 60 home runs. Maris's hair fell out in clumps that summer because of the pressure, and resentment, that he felt.

Personally, while I don't dislike Bonds, I'm suspicious of him and suspicious of his home run total. I believe absolutely that he used steroids and have no inclination to celebrate any home run marks he surpasses, and feel the same way about Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and everybody else who has given us reason to be suspicious.

And where does race enter the picture?

Bonds probably didn't play on a level playing field.

And Babe Ruth, who only had to play against white players, didn't play on one either.

Baseball enforced a policy that cheated men of color for 60 years, and allowed cheating to create this new suspicion over the last, oh, 15 years.

Still, it's impossible to examine any of this without looking at race. There's even irony here involving Ruth. As Leigh Montville writes in his new book "The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth," his first nickname was contracted from "Nigger Lips" to "Nigger" to "Nig," and that's simply what Ruth was called every day for years.

Montville quotes Ruth's sister, Mamie, as saying that Ruth's skin was "olive, like our mother's side of the family." And Ruth's wide nose and full lips gave him what a great many white folks and some blacks thought was a mixed-race look. In his early years of baseball, whites shouted racial epithets at Ruth all the time from the stands. And any long discussion of Ruth in, say, black barber shops was sure to include a sort of jocular speculation over Ruth's race.

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