Hammerin' Henry Aaron should be the first to congratulate Bonds when he breaks his home run record. Instead Hank's line has been: I have nothing to say about Bonds, I don't give a second's thought to whether he breaks my home run record or not, and I sure as heck won't congratulate him when he breaks it. Hank has been saying that since it became obvious a year ago that Bonds would eventually break his record.
There are two things strange about Aaron's dogged insistence that he won't have anything to do with Bonds. One is that he takes that attitude at all. Bonds hasn't been convicted of any crime. He's passed every drug test that he's taken. Yes, the knock is that the tests were superficial and could easily be beaten. But they were the tests of record at the time and he passed them. Even the most passionate Bonds haters don't dispute that his on field accomplishments are prodigious, home runs or not. Aaron in a more charitable moment a year ago said that drugs won't help anyone hit a ball.
Aaron has long been noted as being his own man when it comes to speaking out on past injustices, especially the lack of black coaches and managers in baseball. In the decades since his retirement, Aaron still on occasion publicly lashes out at the lingering racial biases of some owners and front office managers.
But Aaron obviously has been swayed by the Bash Bonds crowd. It's a formidable line-up. It includes top sportswriters, legions of fans, and advertisers (Bonds hasn't gotten a paid corporate endorsement deal in ages). Then there's the man at the top in MLB, Bud Selig whose duck and dodge of Bonds has sent the powerful signal that Bonds isn't worthy of wearing the tag, King of Swat. At least that is without an asterisk in front of the tag.
Now what's even stranger about Aaron's Bonds snub is that thirty-four years ago packs of fans, sportswriters, and some players hammered Hammerin' Henry. They choked at the thought that a black man could break the hallowed record of baseball's greatest white icon, Babe Ruth. Aaron received mountains of hate mail, vicious taunts, and threats to his family. He was surrounded by a squad of security guards at ballparks and armed guards off the field. Aaron was gracious and dignified during the ordeal. He repeatedly praised Ruth's accomplishments.
Bonds hasn't faced the blatant racial hatemongering that Aaron did. But race still lurks beneath the surface in the trash Bonds rage. Start with the polls. Pollsters have gleefully sniffed out the racial divide in the Bond saga. The overwhelming majority of blacks cheer for Bonds to break Aaron's record and a majority of whites don't. A significant number of blacks say that they think Bonds is getting plastered by the press and the fans because he is black. Whites say that's nonsense. It's because he's a cheater and a louse. Bonds didn't help matters with an ill-timed and ill-advised boast last year that he'd take great relish in passing Ruth on the all-time home run list, but had qualms about supplanting Aaron as the all-time home run king. Bonds was roundly denounced for playing the race card since Ruth is white and Aaron is black.
Bonds hasn't shirked from saying that racism is behind much of the taunting by fans. He is partly right. There are a slew of fans and sportswriters who hate the idea of a big, rich, famous, surly, blunt-talking black superstar who routinely thumbs his nose at the media getting such prominent play. It's no stretch to see a double standard in the hits against Bonds. Outspoken blacks, especially black superstars, and especially those that engage in bad boy behavior are often slammed harder than white superstars who are outspoken and engage in bad behavior.
But Bonds is no innocent when it comes to his image and attitude. All high-profile public figures and celebrities are under an intense public microscope. If they screw up, shoot off their mouth, thumb their nose at world, or take a holier than thou attitude, they'll take big hits.
Bonds also has gotten much backing from black and white players, and many sportswriters, and fans. They laud his accomplishments. Despite being dogged by the doping allegations, many of them think that he's been more of an asset than a liability in a sport that has lagged at the gate, and needs any draw -- even a controversial one -- that it can get.
In any case, sports heroes aren't perfect. In fact in many cases they are rotten persons, and that's been especially true in baseball. Where some of its top stars, even legends, have acted boorish, insolent, arrogant, and committed bad, even criminal acts. Take Ruth he was a notorious carouser, got into fights, was a moneygrubber, tried to punch an umpire, and was suspended for nine games.
That said. Aaron should wipe the distaste from his mouth about Bonds. When the inevitable happens and Bonds smacks number 756 out of the park. Aaron should sing his praises. Aaron is too classy not too.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.