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Monday, May 22, 2006

'roid rage

I know exactly where I was on the evening of April 8, 1974. Do you?

I was sitting in my family's living room, watching the Atlanta Braves play the Los Angeles Dodgers in Fulton County Stadium. Al Downing was pitching for LA and America was waiting to see if Hank Aaron would break Babe Ruth's longstanding home run record. In the fourth inning, Aaron hit his dinger, pitcher Tom House caught the ball in the bullpen, and American baseball had a new Home Run King. Aaron finished with 755 home runs in his career.

This past weekend, Barry Bonds tied Babe Ruth for second place on that list by hitting his 714th homer. Last Monday night, I watched two Bonds plate appearances, and through the week I saw many more, but the slugger did not make history until this weekend. Unfortunately, I missed seeing it live.

Oh well.

Many baseball fans hate the fact that Bonds has caught Ruth because they think that the star of the Giants has used steroids to become a freak. While others too stand accused, Bonds is threatening to own the game's most cherished records. He already claimed the single season mark.

The all time record is even more important and historically significant. Since 1921, Babe Ruth has been first or second in major league baseball's all-time home run list. That's 85 years!

Then again, few fans ever talk about the taint surrounding Ruth's record. He hit all of his official home runs in an era of racial segregation. Ruth never batted against Satchel Paige or any other Negro League great in a major league baseball game. Jackie Robinson didn't play for the Dodgers until 1947. Ruth had been retired for 12 seasons.

Some baseball historians point out that the game wasn't fully desegregated until the early 1960s. The Boston Red Sox, Ruth's original team, was the last team to sign an African American player. Pumpsie Green made the majors in 1959, 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

By this way of thinking, Aaron too played in a partially segregated era. Willie Mays did as well -- along with Harmon Killebrew and Frank Robinson. If one lumps Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro with Bonds, then 1000s of home runs in baseball history have some sort of blemish.

People who hate Bonds probably won't like this conclusion: Maybe Reggie Jackson should be viewed as the true Home Run King?

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