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Segregation-Era Baseball Records Need Asterisk

DeWayne Wickham on Tuesday wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today that I wholeheartedly agree with, and the matter is so important to me that I felt it deserved more than just a diary. Wickham writes that the indictment of Barry Bonds last week on perjury and obstruction of justice charges re-kindled a discussion of the infamous asterisk debate regarding his records. Bonds was, of course, indicted for lying in grand jury testimony he gave regarding his use of steroids during his playing career. Many argue that the federal indictment of Bonds means that the feds have come up with sufficient evidence that can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Bonds used steroids, and thus had an unfair competitive advantage which produced illegitimate records.

Now, I'm not really going to delve too deep into that bag of worms. Do I think that Barry Bonds used steroids? Absolutely. I think that at this point, only the real Bonds zealots would deny that. And it is very plainly obvious that anabolic steroids give you a competitive advantage, a competitive advantage that is in this case, illegal in baseball. That is, to some degree, cheating. However where I depart the train away from the steadfast Bonds critics is how to treat this information. I am of the opinion that Barry Bonds is one of the most talented baseball players of all-time, and that he would likely still have numbers right now that would rank among the game's best were he not using steroids.

However I am not sure exactly how to quantify the benefit Bonds derived from steroid use, and I believe that no one else can either. We can continue to pile on Bonds as part of some McCarthyistic witch hunt if it makes us feel better, but it isn't particularly productive and it certainly is not a black and white matter. I'm pretty sure that a majority of baseball players from the last 15 years have used some sort of PED during their playing career, be it amphetamines or 'roids. To go after all of those that violated baseball's rules is a quixotic task that will never reach an accurate closure.

Besides, if we want to start punishing culprits from the steroid era, we need to start at the top. Those in the Major League Baseball hierarchy that were complacent with illicit drug use are just as much to blame as those who actually used the PEDs, maybe even more so. Because by not taking any real steps to rectify the course that many baseball stars were on at that point, team officials and MLB officers implied their acceptance of these practices. Actions are the only thing that matters in this scenario, all the self-righteous rhetoric be damned.

So unless we are prepared for a full-blown witch hunt that will target all of the people responsible for the steroid era, both in and outside the clubhouse, we need to just drop it. Because an occasional sanctimonious lynching of one player's career here and there to satisfy the public's blood-lust is not a remotely acceptable path for baseball to follow. If you start punishing Barry Bonds and making arbitrary calls on which of his records matter and which don't, you can't stop there. It is time for baseball fans to stop focusing their attention on pointless re-hashings of the past, and towards holding MLB executives accountable for their actions regarding the future of this matter.

And that brings us back to Mr. Wickham's column in USA Today. A greater injustice in baseball than the steroid crisis is this generation's continued view of the segregated era in baseball with legitimacy. It is true that both the all-white nature of pre-1947 baseball and the effect of steroids on a player are not quantifiable with respect to statistics. But surely the arbitrary exclusion of an entire race (is this ever not arbitrary?) from participation in your sport qualifies as an clearly unfair competitive advantage for those privileged enough to be born white and athletically talented up until the mid-20th century. Aside from the fact that segregation is just one of the most immoral institutions in modern history, it also is a practice that undermines the legitimacy of all statistics in baseball before 1947.

Would Josh Gibson be our all-time home run king had he been allowed to participate for the full length of his career in Major League Baseball? I don't know, but the fact that we won't be able to find out due entirely to the prejudiced collusion of MLB owners is enough for me to say that all pre-1947 records need to have an asterisk afixed next to their respective positions in the baseball record book. It's about fairness.