Barry & Ty: Kindred Spirits
Barry Bonds hit his 734th career home run last week, a shot that lifted him over Hank Aaron as the National League's all-time home run king. Should he play another season, Aaron's all-time, Major League record would be well within his grasp.* * *
If there is a Bonds home run that will be remembered this year, however, it will be #715, the clout that eclipsed the career mark of Babe Ruth. Indeed, Bonds's performance over the last half decade has challenged Ruth's historical status as the game's ultimate offensive force. Who was the better player? More dominant over his peers? Is Bonds's achievement even legitimate, given his alleged use of performance enhancing drugs? Is he worthy of baseball's Hall of Fame? How do we square the records of the recent "steroid era," a time of expanded biceps and shrunken ballparks, with previous periods in the game's history when the schedule was shorter, there were fewer teams, a dead ball, and--as Bonds has often pointed out--African-Americans were excluded from play?
It's certainly fun to compare players across eras; baseball's record book all but begs us to do so. But statistics, however sophisticated, can only tell us so much. Numbers mean little without context, and in this case, by themselves, they fail to properly illuminate Bonds's proper place in history. Read more deeply into baseball's history books and you'll find that, however intriguing a comparison of the two might be, Babe Ruth is probably not the best marker for Barry Bonds. It's more enlightening to think of him in relation to another controversial player who was similarly considered by his contemporaries to be the greatest ever to don a pair of spikes: Ty Cobb.
Certainly, their personalities bear some striking similarities. Look back over the nearly century-and-a-half history of professional baseball, and you'll have trouble finding two figures more reviled than Ty Cobb and Barry Bonds. Fans, journalists, teammates--their friends are few, their enemies many. Here, for example, is what Davy Jones, who played alongside Cobb in the Detroit outfield of the 1910s, told oral historian Lawrence Ritter about the Georgia Peach: "He had such a rotten disposition that it was damn hard to be his friend....He antagonized so many people that hardly anyone would speak to him, even among his own teammates....He was one of the greatest players who ever lived, and yet he had so few friends. I always felt sorry for him." And here's what David Justice--hardly a flamethrower--had to say to reporter Howard Bryant on the general feeling about Bonds in Major League clubhouses: "Nobody could stand him. But you know what? He was the truth on the baseball field."
Jerky clubhouse behavior is really the least of their transgressions. Cobb's racism is well documented; only his ability on the field kept him from prosecution over a series of vicious assaults on African-Americans. He womanized, drank to excess, and almost certainly gambled on baseball--the ultimate betrayal of the game. Similarly, in their bestselling exposé, Game of Shadows
, Mark Feinaru-Wada and Lance Williams describe Bonds as a philanderer prone to domestic violence, a tax cheat, and a serial abuser of performance enhancing drugs. Jeff Pearlman, who conducted more than five hundred interviews in writing his own Bonds biography, Love Me, Hate Me
, declares, quite simply, that Bonds is "evil." Ouch.
What it is that drives a man to such anti-social behavior is, to a large degree, unknowable. But it's probably not coincidental that both Cobb and Bonds have expressed a deeply felt sense of personal injustice, and that race, in each case, was a key component in the development of that feeling. Cobb, born in rural Georgia in 1886, was a product of the Jim Crow South, and carried with him the prejudices born of that place and time. "He always figured everyone was ganging up against him," said another Detroit teammate, Wahoo Sam Crawford. "He came up from the South, you know, and he was still fighting the Civil War. As far as he was concerned, we were all damned Yankees before he even met us." Bonds, by contrast, has made no secret of his belief that the career and his own relationship with his father, Bobby Bonds, was compromised by baseball's white establishment. Bonds's comments on the game's history reveal a lingering reservoir of bitterness over the difficult experience of professional African-American ballplayers.
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Where the careers of Cobb and Bonds most obviously coincide is in their undoing: both men were undone by a Brobdingnagian hero of the long ball who returned the sport to prominence after a period of controversial decline.
For Cobb, that player was Babe Ruth. When Ruth set the single-season home run mark of 29, in 1919, Cobb was still in the prime of his career--he hit .384 that year, at the age of 32. From that time to his retirement, after the 1928 season, he never hit below .323, and in 1922 he hit .401 (it was his third time over the threshold). But for all his accomplishment, his performance was eclipsed by that of Ruth, who was bashing homer after homer out of American League ballparks, drawing in fans with his long clouts and great charm, in the process repairing the damage done by the ugly Black Sox scandal, which had come out in 1920. America loved Babe, but Ty Cobb most assuredly did not. He did not like Babe personally--he called him a "baboon," among other racist pejoratives; and he did not like Ruth's style of play. "The home run could wreck baseball," said Cobb. "It throws out a lot of the strategy and makes it fence ball." Whether the home run wrecked baseball is a matter of opinion. But there was little argument that Cobb's "scientific" style of play, of using speed and smarts to get ahead, had been superannuated. By 1951, according to Cobb anyway, it was gone. That year, just two decades after his retirement, he penned an essay for Life
magazine titled: "They Don't Play Baseball Anymore." Gone with scientific ball was Cobb's reputation as the game's preeminent player. Perhaps a few old timers still considered him baseball's all-time king; but for most fans Babe Ruth had assumed that position.
Bonds, at the beginning of his career, was as close to a model practitioner of Cobb's scientific style as any modern ballplayer. He did everything well: hit for average, get on base, steal, defend. He hit for power, but not at the expense of his other talents. By his age 33 season, in 1998, he already had 3 MVP awards, and was a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame. But if we are to believe the accounts of Feinaru-Wada and Pearlman, he remained unsatisfied; not with his own accomplishments, but with their perception by the public at large. If 1998 was a magical season for baseball, it was thanks to the home run contest between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa--and not for Bonds's own typically brilliant campaign. Bonds naturally thought himself more gifted than McGwire, and the idea that he should exist in his shadow was hardly acceptable. And so, we are told, Bonds turned to performance enhancing drugs. An injury-plagued year followed, but after that, a new, more powerful Bonds--a Bonds that could challenge the records of Ruth--was born. In 2001 he hit 73 home runs.
Cobb never had access to the pharmaceutical tools available to the modern ballplayer--not that he would have used them. In lieu of the syringe, he used the press to argue for his baseball pre-eminence. Ten years after the appearance of that Life
article and shortly before his death, Cobb published My Life in Baseball: The True Record
. Three decades later, his ghostwriter, Al Stumpf, came out with a truer and far less flattering record, Cobb
, later transformed into the film starring Tommy Lee Jones.
What, one wonders, will Barry Bonds be writing in twenty years?
Mark Lamster is the author of Spalding's World Tour: The Epic Adventure That Took Baseball Around the Globe - And Made It America's Game.