Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Barry Bonds, Bad Negro by Gerald Early

Barring conclusive, incontrovertible proof he took steroids, Barry Bonds will one day be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. The vote will not be unanimous. Some writers will hold their noses and vote for him. Others will wish, with sort of Ford Frick-like wisdom, to add an asterisk to indicate that some of his achievements may have been made possible by banned substances.

In his Times column about Bonds on Sunday, George Vescey writes that athletes like him “may wriggle around in Nixonian self-pity.” The mention of Nixon brought to mind something else besides self-pity: the smear. To asterisk-ize Bonds absent real proof, as sportswriters are well on their way to doing in their self-righteous zeal — to protect something, perhaps the integrity of “these games” — would be to smear him.

The smear is a useful and necessary tool in the power game of politics. Now, it is useful in cleaning up baseball. Smears are all right, I suppose, when used in a righteous cause and when the object of them is a creep and a jerk (although there are so many of them in popular celebrity culture that it seems a bit mysterious to single out Bonds). Smears are all right, too, in our society because everything has become politicized and moralized. Good liberals find themselves fighting ironically for standards and non-ambiguity, the same as the conservatives. Our world must consist, as did the world of the medievals, of the good, the bad and the ugly. For someone like Thomas Carlyle, that medieval world was a very good world indeed, and one supposes that there were virtues in its limitations: Stern, self-sacrificing discipline mixed with witch burning.

Vescey would much appreciate it if Bonds would retire tomorrow and save the world the possibility of breaking the career home run marks of Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron. He writes that Major League Baseball is hoping much the same, although Major League Baseball — or whoever speaks for that organization — has been mum on the subject to this point. And why not? Bonds is still good box office and box office is what big-time sports are really all about. In the 1960’s Muhammad Ali taught us that people will come out to see the bad guy. And baseball has, after all, survived some awful sketchy characters on the field, from the virulently racist to the utterly drunk to the cocaine-addled. Surely, it can survive and even enjoy being entertained by some artificially puffed-up musclemen.

When speaking of Aaron, baseball’s all-time home run king, Vescey calls him “dignified.” Aaron has certainly become that in recent years, especially as Bonds’ reputation has slipped. But I remember very well Aaron as a player and I don’t recall that word being attached to him then. What I do remember is that most of the knowing coves thought Willie Mays was the superior player and that if Mays had been able to play half-dozen good years in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, as Aaron did, instead of the wind tunnel called Candlestick Park, he would have easily broken Ruth’s record. I also remember that most of the knowing coves thought Frank Robinson a better player than Aaron and Clemente a better fielder. But this was all before Aaron became a civil rights martyr, due to the threats he received when closing in on Ruth’s record. After that, I think, he started to become “dignified” instead of being a tough-minded, durable ball player.

The word “dignified” brings to mind for me the actor Sidney Poitier. When I was boy in the 1950’s and 1960’s, he was always called “dignified” by the white press — even when they snubbed him. After he presented the best actress award to Julie Andrews at the 1964 Oscars, reporters pushed him out of the way so he would not appear in any publicity photos with her. He was always forbearing about white racism and snubs and whites generally acting silly in the ways that only they can when interacting with blacks. He was sort of the Jackie Robinson of Hollywood.

Robinson is, of course, another “dignified” black man (at least for the first three years he played in the Dodger organization). He was even dignified when he had to testify against Paul Robeson before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949. Robeson was the bad Negro, who would be best repudiated, in the eyes of the Communist hunters, by the “dignified” Negro, Robinson. Today, Bonds is the bad Negro, the hip-hop sociopath who must be prevented from corrupting the achievements of the dignified Negro, Aaron.

Of course, neither Vescey nor any other white sportswriter would say anything like “Aaron is a credit to his race, the human race,” as the New York sportswriter Jimmy Cannon wrote about Joe Louis, another dignified Negro. But today’s sportswriters might say that Aaron is a credit to the game of baseball, which Bonds clearly is not. I am not sure if Aaron wants to wear the Sidney Poitier mantle, it being cumbersome at best, but it seems as if, in this life, the world must always be divided between bad Negroes and dignified Negroes — and dignity hath its charms. I assume it is easier for whites to understand blacks when they can be classified in this way.

Many blacks I know, being inclined to paranoia as blacks are, think that Bonds is being picked on because he is black. Whites are always out to destroy successful blacks — especially black men — in any way they can. This is what many blacks believe. When the ordinary vicissitudes of life come upon a famous black, most blacks are looking for the racism in the woodpile. And blacks always do what Stanley Crouch calls the flip test. When something bad happens to a black person, they always ask would this have happened to a white? Sportswriters are likely not to vote Mark McGwire into the Hall of Fame. He’s white and he was a god in St. Louis during that big year when he hit 70 home runs. We even named a portion of a freeway after him. (I wonder if Ozzie Smith, who did make the Hall of Fame and helped lead the team to a world championship, something McGwire never did, was a bit miffed about that.)

It is also unlikely that white sportswriters are after Bonds because he is black. (I assume many black sportswriters also don’t care for Bonds.) After all, the white sports establishment wants to protect Aaron’s record and he is black. Bonds apparently is a jerk and has been for many years and he may be a cheater as well, dishonest in a way that seems sordid and selfish. They have fair reasons not to like him.

But the pious framework in which they choose to talk about him ultimately does no one — Bonds, Major League Baseball or the public — any good. There is something about it that seems overweening in its condescension, unbearably self-righteous, self-serving, tendentious. It has the whiff of the sort of unctuousness white sportswriters displayed in days past when writing about black athletes like Dick Allen in Philadelphia in the 1960’s, Muhammad Ali soon after his conversion to Islam or Jackie Robinson once he was freed from his agreement with Branch Rickey to act like a pacifist college student at a 1960 lunch-counter sit-in.

Sanctimonious moralizing produces bad analyzing, I always tell my students.

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