We need to talk about what it means to be the real “home run king.”
And before you think that I’m about to diminish either Barry Bonds, Roger Maris, or Aaron Judge, take a seat and listen up.
I’m not here to diminish any of those guys. I’m here to diminish the very idea of diminishing those guys.
When we call someone a ‘king,’ why do we completely ignore the way that monarchies actually function? When someone is a monarch, they are a monarch for their era. Queen Elizabeth II was the Queen of England. King Charles taking over the crown after her death doesn’t mean Elizabeth relinquishes her title as the longest-reigning monarch in British history.
And no one I know is wasting time and energy putting an asterisk next to Elizabeth’s name for being a Constitutional Monarch instead of an Absolute Monarch. She was a product of her era, but she still wore the crown. The details of her rule are the footnotes and context that make her reign interesting.
That brings me back to baseball. Part of the beauty of baseball is the recognition of the variance from era to era. The Dead Ball Era, the Live Ball Era, the Integration Era, the Expansion Era, the Free Agency Era, and the Steroid Era are the footnotes and context we provide for the players that earned their crowns.
Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in a season. The context was that it happened in a 154 game season, and he did it without having to face a single black pitcher. There are no asterisks, those are just the details.
Roger Maris hit his 61st home run in his 161st game of the 1961 season. 1961 was the first season that the AL played 162 games. Through 154 games, Maris had 58 home runs. Not to mention, Mickey Mantle’s entire body fell apart in September of that season when he had 54 home runs himself, leaving Maris to chase the record alone. There are no asterisks, those are just the details.
Aaron Judge hit his 62nd home run this week to pass Roger Maris for the AL crown, and two of the home runs he hit this season would only be considered a home run in one park in the entire Major Leagues- an advantage provided by playing in Yankee Stadium with its short right field porch. There are no asterisks, those are just the details.
Barry Bonds carried 3 MVPs and three On Base Percentage titles into the Steroid Era. He passed Ruth and Roger Maris to become the single season home run king in the 135th game of the 2001 season. He did it while leading the league in walks. He did it batting against pitchers that had access to every chemical resource that he did. And he did it in a season where Phil Nevin, Luis Gonzalez, Shawn Green, Todd Helton and Jim Thome all interestingly posted their best-ever home run seasons.
For Barry Bonds, there should be no asterisk. Those should just be the factual details and context surrounding Bonds’ place as the Home Run King, not only of his era, but of the NL, and MLB.
The only thing left to legitimize not only Bonds, but the era in which Bonds played- an era that not only saved baseball from the disinterest brought upon by a work stoppage, but also provided a path forward for baseball to put guidelines in place for performance enhancing substances moving forward, is his inclusion in the MLB Hall of Fame. The same Hall of fame that chose to include Bud Selig in 2017, despite him being in charge of not only the Steroid Era, but also the work stoppage that many people claim necessitated the Steroid Era.
The same Hall of Fame that has no issue carrying the name of notorious asshole and attempted murderer Ty Cobb, and the same Hall of Fame that proudly carries the legacy of Gaylord Perry and his 300+ vaseline-aided wins and 3500+ spit-enhanced strikeouts.
I’m not advocating that anyone be kicked out of the Hall for the sake of purity, I’m asking that baseball simply recognize its royalty with respect to the details and context of their eras, as they’ve done with every era but the one Barry Bonds reigned over.
Baseball’s greatest shame isn’t the Steroid Era, baseball’s greatest shame has always been the exclusion of its Monarchs, starting with the Monarchs out of Kansas City of the Negro Leagues, and now with the refusal to recognize the true Home Run King.
Let that sink in