The Asterisk Rises Again
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Let’s hear for the New York Post!
Alone among the New York press, it had the brass to call it like it is yesterday. Their cover commemorating Barry Bonds’s tying of Babe Ruth’s career home mark was a series of needles arranged to form 714 and a headline that read “Hey, Babe: Move Over For The ‘Shambino.’ “The inside was even better, with a headline that read “Say it taint so!” and another which called Bonds the “Sultan of Syringe.”
It’s a shame that the case for ethics in baseball must be made by the tabloids, but increasingly, that’s how it is. By the end of last season, most commentators seemed to be in agreement that if Bonds surpassed Ruth, and, God forbid, Hank Aaron’s career record for home runs, some kind of disclaimer would have to be attached to his statistics. But this season there’s been more of a Let’s-Not-Spoil-The-Party attitude; that Bonds is a cheat and a liar seemed less and less important to the press as the season has gone one.
A typical Let’s-Not-Hang-An-Asterisk-On-Bonds argument was made by John Heilemann recently in New York Magazine: “All the talk in baseball,” he wrote, “about the sacredness of its records is little more than another tactic in the long-running campaign waged by its overseers to mystify the game. To treat baseball as if it were something more hallowed than mere entertainment.”
I love it when non-fans who really don’t care about baseball jump in with stuff like this. All of a sudden we have campaigns waged by “overseers” of the game – wouldn’t it be wonderful if baseball actually had overseers waging such tactics? We wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now. In truth, the people who are supposed to oversee the game by and large have the same laissez faire attitude as Heilemann and others who regard baseball as nothing more than “mere entertainment.” They will, of course, be the first ones to drop out and move on to something more trendy whenever the game ceases to be sufficiently entertaining.
As for the real fans, they’re entertained because they believe that what’s happening on the field has integrity. In Heilemann’s world, such belief amounts to mystification; there is no such thing as cheating and lying, there is merely … entertainment. Such arguments remind us that when the Greeks spoke of an idiot, they meant someone who is devoid of moral sense.
The debate as to whether Commissioner Bud Selig should have an asterisk placed next to Bonds’s name in the record books – it won’t happen, of course, but a lot of people are suggesting it – is interesting because of the historical comparison with baseball’s original asterisk issue. In an interview two years ago, former commissioner Fay Vincent was asked if he thought proven steroid users should have an asterisk next to their names in the record books. “I took the asterisk off,” Vincent replied, referring to the one that had supposedly haunted Roger Maris since he broke Ruth’s single season record of 60 home runs in 1961. “Baseball should leave it as it is … I think to get involved is wrong, and you’re opening a Pandora’s box.” Vincent’s reply is fascinating because, in effect, he was giving himself credit for removing something that was never there in the first place.
The Maris Asterisk is one of baseball’s most cherished myths. It started in 1961 through a combination of efforts by Commissioner Ford Frick and his friend, the controversy-making New York Daily News columnist Dick Young (“Frick and Frack,” as some writers dubbed them). Frick, a Babe Ruth-devotee who claimed to have been at the Babe’s bedside when he died, regarded himself the personal guardian of Ruth’s legend. In July of 1961, as Maris and Mickey Mantle both approached Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season, Frick, worried that the additional eight games in the new 162-game schedule would give them an unfair advantage, called a press conference to announce, “If the player does not hit more than 60 until after his club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark in the records to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”
It was Young who proposed the solution that everyone would remember: “Use an asterisk on the new record. Everyone does that when there’s a difference of opinion.” What no one seemed to notice at the time was that Major League Baseball did not have an official record book, that at least eight different publications (the most popular being the Sporting News) printed their own record books, and that the commissioner of baseball had no authority to qualify any player’s record in any way.
Frick acknowledged as much in his 1973 autobiography, “Games, Asterisks and People,” in which he wrote, “No asterisk has appeared in the official record in connection with that accomplishment.” He still didn’t seem to understand that baseball had no “official” record book to mark anything in, and wouldn’t until the early 1990s.
But the word asterisk on the cover of Frick’s book proved to have more impact than did his explanation in the book, and the asterisk continued to live in myth. It might have died a natural death if Vincent hadn’t declared at a 1991 press conference that he was supporting the “single record thesis” and had ordered the asterisk officially “removed.” Again, a commissioner’s statement helped to reinforce the idea that there was an asterisk. The myth gained further credence in 2001 with Billy Crystal’s critically acclaimed television film, “61*” about the Mantle-Maris pursuit of Ruth’s record. Though nothing in the film actually suggested the asterisk existed, for a new generation the title alone confirmed that it did.
In a very real sense, of course, the Maris asterisk did exist; it existed partly because many people thought it did, but mostly because many fans thought it should exist. To an extent, the asterisk grew out of a statistician’s sense of accuracy, but more out of natural resentment that many fans felt toward a mere mortal who was about to eclipse a god. The vitriol of many fans’ reaction as Maris approached Ruth’s hallowed record surely undermines the notion that the hostility directed toward Hank Aaron as he neared Ruth’s career record was rooted entirely in racism. Fueled, yes, but not rooted in.
Barry Bonds has made liberal use of the race card while trying to write off the antipathy of the press and the fans. What card, one wonders, will he play the closer he gets to Aaron’s 755? Who is he going to blame for the asterisk that is going to hang over his name in the minds of so many fans? And make no mistake, that qualifier will be there, and it will be more real and more lasting than Maris’s. Like Ford Frick, Bud Selig isn’t going to a place a “distinctive mark” next to Bonds’s name in the record book – not because he worships either Ruth or Aaron, but essentially because while serving as commissioner he did nothing to mitigate the conditions which produced the home runs that sparked the debate over the asterisk.
There was no poll on how fans felt about Maris breaking Ruth’s record, but it’s fairly certain that by 1991, most of them no longer held a grudge against Maris for the simple reason that they had no reason to dislike him or denigrate his accomplishment. This is not true of Bonds, who cheated his way to 714 and insults everyone who refuses to ignore that fact.
If the boos and jeers which greeted Bonds at Oakland when he hit his 714th home run are any indication, there will be an asterisk next to his name as long as baseball fans have a memory, and no commissioner’s press conference is ever going to remove it.
Mr. Barra is the author, most recently, of “The Last Coach: A Life of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant.