For all of his achievements on the basketball court, the most famous thing Charles Barkley ever did during his playing days may have been a TV commercial. It was a stark, black-and-white spot for Nike in which he announced “I am not a role model”. Just because he could dunk a basketball, he soberly proclaimed, didn’t mean that he could raise his audience’s kids. The ad, which made ESPN’s list of top 25 sports commercials, generated a lot of discussion about the role of star athletes, especially black ones, in the society at-large. What do these young, strapping millionaires owe their fans and their communities? What is their responsibility to boys who spend hours in playgrounds and parks practicing their moves, hoping to join their exalted ranks one day? Should these kids look up to athletes more than their teachers, more than their preachers, more than their parents?
At the time, I was absolutely down with Barkley. I didn’t begrudge the stars their successes, but I wanted the rest of the world to keep them in perspective. There was no way in the world that Barkley or Michael Jordan or any other athlete could have the same impact on a young life as someone who was there day in and day out, able to provide information, inspiration, discipline and dreams, willing to help sort out the quandaries of growing up, available when things got tough, right there to share the big and little victories.
Years later, I still believe that, in theory. But just as I sat down to write this month’s piece, I got jolted back to my childhood for a moment, and I was reminded that the answer to Barkley’s gauntlet isn’t quite so cut-and-dried. At that very moment, on my TV screen, Barry Bonds was at the plate, with a chance to make baseball history.
Like many a young American lad, my first love was baseball. Never mind that while growing up in Cleveland in the late ‘60s, I didn’t see a lot of very good baseball. The Indians were in the midst of what would be a 41-year drought between first-place finishes, with the only serious pennant chase during that stretch coming in the year I was born, a tad too young to fully appreciate it. No matter: I was an Indians fan, and I soon fell into the inexorable rhythms of a season spent rooting for a losing team. The anticipation of the late winter’s exhibition warm-ups would give way to the excitement of Opening Day and the season’s start, followed by the initial disappointments, the flurry that suggested this might be that magical year, the realization that no such magic would be happening after all, and the futility of playing out the meaningless schedule, all wrapped up by the spark of a late-season call-up from the minor leagues that dangled the carrot of better days ahead all winter long.
But while the Indians sucked, I had no shortage of stars to cheer for. They were displayed for me in the pages of Ebony magazine. For generations, no self-respecting, aspiring black household was without a subscription to Ebony. At a time when black faces in mass media were exceedingly rare, Ebonywas both a template for achievement and a monthly dose of affirmation. It was published by a black-owned company, beautiful black men and women were featured on its covers, and its articles treated the stars, issues, and black life trends of the day with a level of class and respect not forthcoming anywhere else.
Every April, Ebony saluted the start of the baseball season with a photo spread of all the black ballplayers on major league rosters. Some teams, even a quarter-century after Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough, would have only a handful, while others had close to a dozen (out of the 25-player squads). Every black ballplayer (and most of the Hispanic players), from the superstars to the benchwarmers, got a postage stamp-sized black-and-white headshot. That annual feature was the only thing in Ebony I recall reading passionately, studying the faces and memorizing the players and their positions. In 1971, I rooted for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, in part because that year they became the first team in major league history to field an all-black starting lineup for a game.
The years of my youth also happened to be the glory years for blacks in baseball. Some of the game’s greatest black ballers some of the game’s all-time greats, period were active and excelling. It was, looking back, an unequalled confluence of baseball generations: veterans of the last breaths of the Negro Leagues, like Willie Mays and Ernie Banks, acquitted themselves well during their final seasons against stars in their prime like Bob Gibson and Ferguson Jenkins, while young talents such as Dusty Baker and Reggie Jackson reaped the benefits of all that wisdom and experience.
I remember my first Willie Mays baseball card. It was late in the ‘71 season, and I had been collecting cards for about four years by then. I had acquired virtually every superstar of the era except Mays, and it was driving me crazy. None of my friends had extra Mays cards they were willing to trade me, so I was left to the luck of the draw in pack after pack. When the Mays card finally showed up, I swear that time seemed to stop and a choir materialized in my 12-year-old head, singing hosannas.
I also remember the time Frank Robinson inserted himself into the game for my beloved Indians. It was 1975, and the Indians still sucked, but it was a memorable moment, nonetheless. Robinson had been named manager that season, the first black manager in the big leagues (and a player-manager to boot!), and celebrated by hitting a home run in his first at-bat on Opening Day. Now it was July, the Indians had long since fallen out of contention, but it was late in a close game, and Robinson came to bat in a crucial situation. Hit a homer, Frank, I wished and it came true! I don’t remember if we won that game, but it doesn’t matter. It was that moment, a moment when I wished upon a hero, which stands out through the years.
But the greatest of all the black stars back then was Henry Aaron, a slugging left-fielder who spent the bulk of his career piling up huge numbers for the Braves in Milwaukee and Atlanta. He didn’t do it with the flair and flash of Mays; in fact, non-baseball aficionados probably didn’t realize how good he was until he approached one of baseball’s holiest grails. Aaron began the 1973 season 41 home runs shy of Babe Ruth’s all-time career mark of 714. As he slugged his way through the ‘73 season, the publicity mounted and so did the hate mail. Aaron received sackfuls of venom and vitriol for even daring to come close to Ruth. It was only a game, but still there were plenty of folks who didn’t want to see any black man break a white man’s record. Black fans, needless to say, were cheering Aaron every step of the way, not to overturn a white icon as much as to finally become a black icon.
The moment finally came 8 April, 1974 six years and a few days after Martin Luther King was assassinated on national TV. Aaron hit a fastball off the Dodgers’ Al Downing (another black ballplayer of note) over the left field fence, and was congratulated on the way to third base by two white fans that just wanted to share the moment. I was on a cloud all that night, and I dare say every black baseball fan, and a lot of white ones too, were there with me.
Now, none of this hero worship made me a particularly decent baseball player (I also rooted for black football and basketball stars, but wasn’t much better at those sports, either). And I didn’t lack positive black men in my life, what with my dad, uncles and brother-in-law for starters. But watching Aaron, Mays, Robinson, and the others gave me people to root for, people in whom I could invest a personal interest. It wasn’t (and isn’t) that I couldn’t appreciate the talents of white stars; I simply could glean more from the feats of the black ones. What they did meant more to me for the sole reason that they looked like me.
Were they role models? No, not in the hands-on sense, of course not. I never met them, they didn’t help me with career advice, or encourage me to fight the neighborhood bully or my give me advice on how to cope with my first crush. But they were exemplars of success; they were people I could point to as proof that anything was possible for me. They left a mark on me that I cherish to this day. My album of baseball cards featuring some of the black ballers from back then, is my own personal Ebony spread. There’s Aaron and Mays and Robinson, of course, but there’s also Oscar Gamble, his afro puffing out on the sides beneath his cap. There’s also Tommie Agee, the pride of Mobile, Alabama, and the Most Valuable Player of the 1969 World Series. There’s also Lou Brock, the greatest base stealer of his day. And there are many more in that album, players who’ve long since receded into the annals, players never prominent enough to get to make a sneaker commercial.
So when Barry Bonds strode to the plate on the verge of baseball history while I was working on my next issue of Negritude 2.0, of course I dropped what I was doing. He’s the son of Bobby Bonds, one of the black stars I cheered for in my youth, and the godson of Mays. He has become the most efficiently fearsome batter in the game today, perhaps ever. He holds the single-season record of 73 home runs, and barring injury or scandal, he will surpass Aaron’s career mark of 755 in the 2006 season, perhaps sooner. Bonds does not have a reputation as the most gregarious fellow, but that’s more of an issue among baseball media types than among everyday fans, who are happy to watch him hit baseballs into the next area code.
Bonds chase probably wont catch on with the broader public until he passes Ruth (714 homers) next season. It wont be the epic battle of old vs. new, black vs. white that Aarons march represented. In a way, thats a measure of progress. Bonds, 40, is a member of the post-Civil Rights Movement generation, and doesnt have direct memories of sit-ins and Jim Crow (although its safe to presume that hes heard more than one first-hand account from his godfather and others). As such, and because a black man already toppled Ruths mark, I imagine that he wont have quite the same weight of race and American history on his shoulders that Aaron so nobly carried. That might be the greatest legacy left by all the men and women who, in their own ways, rewrote the history books and forced America to acknowledge, if not actually confront, its racial schisms. They made it possible for the blacks who came behind them to make their marks simply as gifted individuals, not as credits to their race.
Possible, but not likely. On the night I wrote this, Bonds stood at 699 home runs; only Aaron and Ruth are in this particular 700 club. ESPN and ESPN2 cut away from their regular broadcasts to show Bonds at-bats, hoping to catch homer #700. I got up from the computer to watch, seeking a live shot of something memorable more than any sense of validation (alas, he didnt hit it that night). But even though baseball isnt as big a deal among blacks as it used to be, and black baseball stars seem to be far less plentiful nowadays, black stars are still black stars, and as long as black life in America remains the adventure in search of wholeness that its been these last few hundred years, black kids will look up to their stars, for whatever reasons, whether or not Charles Barkley thinks thats a good thing. Somewhere in the hood, theres a kid that was rooting for Bonds just a bit more fervently than the rest of the fans.