Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Babe’s Tainted Record

by Jeremy Bird

As Barry Bonds hit No. 714 this past week, baseball pundits across the country began the constant debate about the historic mark.

For some reason 714 has become one of baseball’s most memorable figures. In fact, the average person is more likely to know of 714 than 755, despite the fact that Aaron broke Ruth’s record more than three decades ago.

Part of the reason 714 has become so enshrined in baseball lore is that Ruth has become such a mythic figure. David Zirin, in The Nation, writes:

Babe Ruth "remains the most treasured and important figure in baseball history. Home runs are still called ‘Ruthian.’ Yankee Stadium is still the House That Ruth Built. Ruth is the man with the fifty-four-ounce bat, someone so portly the famed Yankee pinstripes were first stitched on just to make him appear less rotund.”

But, Zirin also notes something extremely important about Ruth's record. The Babe played the game in an entire era that should have an asterisk next to it.

“Ruth’s 714 home run record lacks the spit-shined purity his backers trumpet. The Sultan of Swat made his bones playing against only a select segment of the population because of the ban on players whose skin color ran brown to black. Ruth never had to hit against Negro League greats Satchel Paige or Lefty Mathis to amass the magic 714. Yet no asterisk for institutionalized racism mars the Babe’s marks.”

Exactly. What is not mentioned in all of this 714 talk is that fact that Ruth’s record is unambiguously tainted. No, the Babe was not shooting up. The only performance enhancer Ruth used were hot dogs and beer, as the Phillies fans reminder Bonds on a recent road trip.

However, Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs in a league without the best players of the day. Babe Ruth never faced Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige or any other black pitchers who then threw in the segregated Negro Leagues. There were no Hispanic pitchers in the majors either.

Imagine hitting in the game today without pitchers like Dontrell Willis, CC Sabathia, Pedro Martinez, Freddy Garcia, Livan Hernandez, Jose Contreras, Ervin Santana, or Carlos Zambrano. The list goes on.

True, The Babe hit in larger ballparks, in a league with fewer teams, and in an era without a juiced baseball (or players). Yet, he still played in a tainted league that barred many of the best players of the time from pitching in the majors.

Baseball purists believe that Barry’s numbers should contain an asterisk to highlight its impurity. As far as I am concerned, any record amassed prior to Jackie Robinson breaking the racial barrier in 1947 is a flawed record that should have a larger asterisk next to it than Barry’s.

I am no Bonds apologist. However, I also think we should stop and think about baseball’s own tainted past. Babe Ruth was a great player, but he played in an era marked with racial injustice. Like the current juiced player era, all records prior to Jackie will be forever tainted.

Jeremy Bird's column, "Bird's Eye View", appears alternate Tuesdays

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