The moral argument for keeping Barry Bonds out of Cooperstown doesn’t hold up

The Hall of Fame has enshrined mediocre talents and stone-cold racists. It can open its doors for the home run king.

The 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame class, led by New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, will be formally enshrined in Cooperstown, New York, on Sunday. But for the seventh consecutive year, Barry Bonds failed to get enough votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to be included. For years, people have passionately argued for excluding Bonds, Roger Clemens and other benighted characters of baseball’s “steroid era.” Yet, as the opportunities to vote in Bonds trickle down to a precious few, it may be time to revisit both the wisdom and the morality of that position.

John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian since 2011, makes an obvious point about Bonds’ performance on the field.

“I would say that if I were asked, apart from pitchers, who were the greatest baseball players of all time, and your answer were to be someone other than Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or Barry Bonds, that you’re crazy.”

He pauses momentarily before picking back up. “[Bonds] is at that level.”

Bonds, a left fielder, began his 22-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986 before signing with the San Francisco Giants in 1992. His Hall of Fame-caliber career, solidified well before the allegations of performance-enhancing drugs, is quite literally one-of-one: seven-time MVP (including four consecutive from 2001 to 2004), 14-time All-Star, eight-time Gold Glove winner, 12-time Silver Slugger winner, two-time batting champion, three-time TSN Major League Player of the Year, the all-time leader in home runs (762), walks (2,558) and intentional walks (688), and still the only man to hit at least 400 home runs and steal at least 400 bases (500-500, too).

Barry Bonds was a seven-time MVP (including four consecutive from 2001 to 2004), 14-time All-Star and the all-time leader in career home runs (762).

Dean Coppola/Contra Costa Times)(Digital First Media Group/Contra Costa Times via Getty Images

Other organizations have seen fit to honor Bonds. He was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2015 with former Giants manager Dusty Baker. The Giants retired his No. 25 jersey in 2018. And earlier this year, Bonds was inducted into the California Sports Hall of Fame.

But Bonds was passed over for the starting lineup in MLB’s All-Century Team in 1999 in favor of the more popular Ken Griffey Jr. And his deliberately confrontational approach to the media — David Halberstam once called it an “abuse of power” in which Bonds engaged in “unprovoked, deliberate, gratuitous acts of rudeness towards all kinds of people” — may be hurting him now.

In recent years, Bonds has expressed regret for the way he acted.

“I’m to blame for the way I was [portrayed] because I was a dumbass … I’ll be the first to admit it,” he told Sports on Earth in 2016. “I was just flat-out dumb. What can I say? I’m not going to justify the way I acted toward people. I was stupid. It wasn’t an image that I invented on purpose. It actually escalated into that, and then I maintained it.”

Of course, the behavior that poses his biggest obstacle to Cooperstown is his alleged connection to performance-enhancing drugs.

This was the New York Daily News front page headline on July 26, 2014. Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and Bonds are still waiting for their Hall of Fame call.

Photo By: /NY Daily News via Getty Images

Bonds was the highest-profile player linked to a federal investigation of illegal doping at the BALCO lab in the Bay Area. According to a 2007 federal indictment, anabolic steroids were found in Bonds’ system in November 2000 — three years before baseball implemented a drug testing system. A mistrial was declared over three charges that he made false statements to a grand jury that he never knowingly received steroids or human growth hormone. But a jury did find him guilty of obstruction of justice for evasive testimony about his drug use. Bonds appealed, and in 2015 a federal appeals court overturned the verdict. He never admitted to nor was he convicted of using performance-enhancing substances, although in many pockets of the court of public opinion, especially the one holding court over his spot in Cooperstown, Bonds remains a stain on the game’s legacy.

For Claire Smith, Major League Baseball’s first female beat reporter and a longtime voter in favor of Bonds, there’s always a sense of what if.

“If there wasn’t that constant cloud following him, I think that period would have been really without compare in terms of the brilliance of an artist at work at the plate. But it always was under a cloud,” said Smith, who has been honored by the Hall of Fame for her work. “It was always accompanied by Barry being closed off and scowling and not being the easiest person to be around.

“I just regret that we didn’t get to see him in a vacuum. That it always had the baggage, it always had the era. Other people had been allowed to shed the era and go on with their lives and rehabilitate their image. [Barry] never had that opportunity.”

In 2017, Joe Morgan, Cooperstown’s vice chairman and a 1990 Hall of Fame inductee, sent a letter to Hall of Fame voters urging them not to consider steroid users for future inclusion. “Players who failed drug tests, admitted using steroids, or were identified as users in [MLB’s] investigation into steroid use, known as the Mitchell Report should not get in,” he wrote. “Please keep in mind I don’t speak for every single member of the Hall of Fame. … I do know how many of the Hall of Famers feel.”

More than a decade removed from the Mitchell Report, which identified more than 85 players and rocked baseball to its core, the debate about whether players connected to PEDs should have a place in the Hall of Fame is still hot. Protecting the integrity of the game is most important, some argue. Bonds’ inclusion would be an insult to Hank Aaron, others claim. A few, such as Reggie Jackson, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones, stand on the other side of the aisle. Pete Rose, baseball’s most infamous exile, noted in January that without Bonds the Hall of Fame doesn’t deserve its name.

Barry Bonds spent 1986-92 with the Pittsburgh Pirates before joining the San Francisco Giants for the 1993 season.

Photo by Robert Beck/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Cooperstown is already full of questionable inductees based on their on-field performance alone. When you add questions of morality, there are Hall of Famers who now don’t look so great. Consider the story of Adrian Constantine “Cap” Anson.

Cooperstown officially opened its museum doors on June 12, 1939. Anson, considered the greatest player and manager of the 19th century, was among the class of ’39 after being voted in posthumously by the Veterans Committee. He had the stats: The first member of baseball’s 3,000-hit club, he led the league in RBIs eight times and was a four-time batting champion who averaged .415 in 1872 and .399 in 1881, albeit in far fewer games than today’s standards (and even those numbers are apocryphal).

Anson, as many baseball purists are well aware, was a racist. Famously, on July 14, 1887, Anson, of the Chicago White Stockings, refused to play against the Newark Little Giants because of its black pitcher, George Stovey. It wasn’t the first time Anson had objected to competing against black players. But on this particular day, the directors of the International League met and decided that contracts would no longer be offered to black men except for those already employed in the league. In a separate gentlemen’s agreement, blacks were excluded from the major leagues beginning in 1885 and baseball’s color barrier would last another 60 years, until the name Jackie Robinson entered the American conscience and changed the course of history.

How can Major League Baseball, which proudly celebrates Robinson’s legacy every season, continue to keep Anson, who has become synonymous with the history of segregation in baseball, in its most hallowed halls while Bonds remains a pariah? Segregation was far more destructive than performance-enhancing drugs in regards to evaluating talent in baseball. This much is irrefutable. Baseball history would be completely different if players such as Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige had been given the opportunity to suit up against Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

“If you’re going to have an asterisk in baseball at all — and the commissioners have already ruled you should not,” Thorn said, regarding the assertion that Bonds’ records should be recognized as tainted, “then that asterisk might more easily apply to every white player prior to 1947 because those players did not face the best possible competition. From my standpoint, moralism ought not to enter into it. You’ve got some very dubious characters already with bronze plaques. It’s a little late to close the barn door, because those cows have already left. If you’ve got Cap Anson in there, then I think your moral barometer is very difficult to keep high.”

Another inconvenient truth in this debate over morality is that drugs didn’t enter baseball for the first time in the ’90s. Players introducing chemicals into their bodies was anything but new by the time the Nike-endorsed catchphrase “Chicks dig the long ball” made its way into the public lexicon.

Barry Bonds was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2015 alongside former Giants manager Dusty Baker. The Giants retired his No. 25 jersey in 2018. And earlier in 2019, Bonds was inducted into the California Sports Hall of Fame.

Photo by Jeff Chiu/Pool via Getty Images

“There was a lot of performance enhancement in the pre-steroid era,” noted Jon Light, author of The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball. “I would say most likely it began after the war, in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Then it became a taboo subject as word leaked out in the ’60s and ’70s.”

It can even be argued that the steroid era helped save baseball. By the mid-’90s, the game was in a dark place. The 1994 work stoppage 112 games into the season had exponential effects: The Montreal Expos were the prohibitive World Series favorites. Had the team won it all, there is an alternate universe where the franchise never leaves Canada for Washington, D.C., a decade later. Halted, too, was Tony Gwynn’s quest to be the first player since Ted Williams in 1941 to bat .400 — he was batting .394 when the strike began. Fans quickly soured on the game and turned almost exclusively to the NFL and, soon thereafter, Michael Jordan’s return to the NBA.

Two things helped erase the bad taste of 1994. The first was Cal Ripken breaking Gehrig’s 56-year-old record for consecutive games played. The second was the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

If not for the steroid era, “you wouldn’t have had these guys who did the so-called wrongs doing what they did and keeping baseball in the spotlight. Period. It would be like boxing now,” said St. Louis-based Yardbarker columnist Matt Whitener. The McGwire/Sosa home run race “was the most timely, lifesaving occurrence in the history of baseball. It is one of the biggest pivot points in the popularity and the financial success of this league now. Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, Giancarlo Stanton. All these guys who are cashing checks now are doing so because baseball survived that winter on the backs of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa doing what they did. And Barry Bonds is just as big a part of that picture as them.”

Baseball has positional stars now. The Aaron Judges, Stantons, Machados, Harpers, Mike Trouts of the world. But there are no superhero or supervillain figures in the game today in the way the NBA has LeBron James or the NFL has Tom Brady, the towering strongmen who captivated the die-hard baseball enthusiast and made the casual fan cop tickets for a mere sighting. Bonds was, it seems now, among the last of a dying breed.

“I think the major difference between the steroid era and now is that people allowed themselves to believe in Paul Bunyan and follow players as larger than life,” Smith said. “I think today people just say, ‘Oh, OK, he’s the best player in baseball, but there’s no it factor.’ The energy of that era has not been duplicated.”

In his final home game for the Giants, Barry Bonds waves to fans as he leaves the field at the end of the sixth inning against the San Diego Padres on Sept. 26, 2007, at AT&T Park.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In his seventh year on the Hall of Fame ballot, Bonds finished with 59.1 percent of the votes. A player needs 75 percent to get into Cooperstown. This represented a small uptick from the previous year’s finish of 56.1 percent. According to the current rules, Bonds has three years left on the ballot. After that, the all-time home run leader would need an alternative path into the Hall of Fame, most likely through the Veterans Committee. Players from Bonds’ era are voted on twice every five years.

Bonds has never made a public spectacle about the honor. But for a giant, no pun intended, whose professional story is so intrinsically tied to America’s pastime, it’s hard to believe it’s not important to him.

“I think every player who reaches a certain stature in the game, [Cooperstown is] the last exclamation point you want to put on a great career. In Barry’s case, he probably would love to take that stage while his godfather, [88-year-old] Willie Mays, could be there to applaud him,” said Smith. “I’m pretty sure that [85-year-old] Hank Aaron would be there to applaud him because Hank has always been very generous in his approach to Barry and what took place. I’m sure that Barry would love to be on the stage with those two guys. Can he live without it? Sure, because he might not have an option.”

Barry Bonds has three years left on the Hall of Fame ballot. After that, he would need an alternative path into Cooperstown, most likely through the Veterans Committee.

Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Pool via Getty Images

A world where Bonds beats the 10-year cutoff seems almost impossible to imagine. For the time being, the all-time home run king appears destined to be an outcast.

“When Babe Ruth exceeded the average level of play in his era by two and three times, we imagined that no one would ever exceed the average to that extent ever again,” said Thorn. “Yet, the one person who has ever exceeded Babe Ruth on a season-to-season basis, exceeded the norm to his extent, is Barry Bonds. He did the impossible.”

Baseball’s gatekeepers aren’t in a charitable mood now. A final home run trot for Barry Lamar Bonds may look unlikely. But don’t count him out.

Liner Notes

This article has been changed to correct the timing of the International League’s decision to stop offering contracts to black players.

If you liked this essay, you can take home a lot more great writing from Andscape by getting our new book, BlackTold, on sale now, wherever books are sold.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.