By Walter Brasch
An undercurrent of boos mixed into the cheers when Barry Bonds hit his 755th homerun, Aug. 4, in San Diego to tie Hank Aaron’s record. Several in the crowd even hoisted cards bearing an asterisk to indicate they were sure the record was tainted, the result of a widespread belief that Bonds had used steroids, a charge he consistently has denied.
The boos and asterisks were minimal, Wednesday, when Bonds launched an 86 mile-per-hour fastball into deep right-center field at the Giants’ home park to break Aaron’s record, and then become the center of a 10-minute ovation, capped by a videotaped tribute by Aaron. Not present was Major League Baseball (MLB) commissioner Bud Selig, whose personal contempt for Bonds and a close friendship with Aaron, left little doubt that he wasn’t pleased about what he knew was inevitable.
A grand jury is still investigating Bonds about perjury and tax invasion charges, the result of his involvement, probably unwittingly, with a group that knowingly supplied steroids to athletes.
Sportswriters and fans will continue to question Bonds’ almost super-human feat; they will suggest the record shouldn’t be recorded, that if it is, it should be marked by a question mark or asterisk. And they will be wrong.
Also tainted by charges of illegal steroid usage is Mark McGwire, who broke the one-season homerun record in 1998 and finished his career with 583 homers. Like Bonds, McGwire never acknowledged using illegal steroids, although he did admit to using an over-the-counter drug that was legal under MLB’s rules. Nevertheless, because he was perceived by the public as having used steroids to enhance his at-bat power, baseball writers gave him only about 23 percent of their vote this year for inclusion into the Hall of Fame. For more than a century, MLB didn’t have a steroids use policy. Those players, and there are probably hundreds, have no asterisks marked against their names or records for having used any performance-enhancing drugs.
Even if Bonds and McGwire used steroids, which they vigorously deny, the baseball establishment has allowed numerous individuals into the Hall of Fame who have had questionable morals, or who have abused baseball’s regulations, among them pitchers who greased, sanded, and nicked baseballs, adding “spitball” to a repertoire of fastballs, sliders, change-ups, and curveballs. Among those in the Hall of Fame is pitcher Gaylord Perry.
Perry, a two-time Cy Young winner, won 314 games in his 22-year career (1962-1983), and was ranked as one of the top 100 baseball players of all time by the Sporting News. Perry, his teammates on eight major league teams, umpires, the owners and managers, MLB executives, and the fans knew he threw the illegal spitter, probably hundreds of times. His autobiography was even titled, Me and the Spitter (1974). But, there are no asterisks after his name.
Also in the Hall of Fame are spitballers Stan Covaleski (1889-1984) of Shamokin, inducted in 1969; Red Faber (1888-1976), inducted in 1964; and Ed Walsh (1881-1959) of Wilkes-Barre, inducted in 1946, and whose 1.82 career ERA has yet to be matched; However, Covaleski, Faber, Walsh and 14 other pitchers were “grandfathered” by MLB and allowed to throw the spitter after it became illegal in 1920. Nevertheless, there are no asterisks by their names in the Hall of Fame.
There is no asterisk, although it’s commonly believed there is one, next to Roger Maris’s 61 homeruns in 1961 that beat Babe Ruth’s one season record. However, Commissioner Ford Frick, once a close friend of Ruth’s, decided in the middle of the season that if Maris, or any other player, hit the 61st homerun after the 154th game, Ruth’s record would stand and the new record would be recorded as having been hit in a 162 game season. Nevertheless, fans, who for reasons truly unexplained, loathed Maris almost as much as they now loathe Bonds, decided to tag the achievement as an “asterisk.”
Pete Rose won’t even get an asterisk. Perhaps the best hitter in the history of the game and a two-time Golden Gloves winner, Rose, admiringly known as “Charlie Hustle,” is banned for having bet on sports. But, the baseball writers have placed alcoholics, wife-beaters, and racists in the Hall of Fame; none of them have asterisks by the name.
For a sport with a history of major league problems, Barry Bonds shouldn’t be marked with an asterisk, and Mark McGwire and Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame.
[Walter Brasch, a former sports writer and public affairs reporter, is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University. Among his 17 books are ‘Unacceptable’: The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina and Sex and the Single Beer Can: Probing the Media and American Culture, both available at amazon.com]