Babe Ruth hit 29 home runs in 1919. This was a new record and it electrified a baseball world that was also in shock over that year's Black Sox scandal. In response, baseball's owners decided to introduce a change that would radically alter the game.
Prior to 1920, a single ball was used for the length of an entire game, or for as long as possible. Fans were expected to return foul balls to play. As cricket is still played today, the condition of the ball was a significant factor in the course of play. Skilled pitchers, after all, use the scratches, smudges and build-up to influence the ball's action and so to befuddle hitters.
What happened in 1920 is this: baseball introduced a new practice of removing balls from play as soon as they acquired the least imperfection. This practice, which continues to the present day, had the effect of substantially shifting the balance of power from pitchers to batters; the clean-ball rule seems alone to have launched the era of the "live ball." Babe Ruth hit 59 home runs the very next season, and then 60 in 1927, a record that stood until Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961.
Baseball traditionalists insist that Maris' record should come with an asterisk, because he managed his feat in a lengthened baseball season. Question: Did Maris achieve less in hitting 61 home runs, than Ruth did in hitting 60, because it took him longer to do it?
But wait a second. Does not Ruth's achievement also deserve an asterisk? This much is true: If we want to understand what Ruth accomplished, we need to take into consideration the fact that Ruth, but not an earlier generation of athletes, was playing in the era of the shiny ball. He couldn't have achieved what he did if not for changed circumstances.
Traditionalists take Babe Ruth's accomplishment as baseline, and against this baseline they mark, or put an asterisk, next to Maris' record. But the decision to treat Maris's performance as the marked case, and Ruth's as unmarked, is entirely arbitrary.
To appreciate this, consider that we might very well mark all pitching achievements prior to the 1969 season with an asterisk. After all, in that season Major League Baseball lowered the pitching mound. This came in the aftermath of the 1968 season in which Bob Gibson and other pitchers so totally dominated batters that it was felt something needed to be done to raise the level of hitting. The mound was lowered to achieve precisely this outcome.
Surely the biggest change of all to transform baseball was the decision to allow non-white players to compete with whites. Was Babe Ruth the best player of his generation? Maybe, but one thing we know for sure: black athletes were prohibited from competing against him and Ruth was prohibited from testing himself against them. We also know that Ruth's lifetime record of 714 career home runs was eclipsed within a few decades by an African-American, Hank Aaron.
Why do we mark Maris' achievement, but not that of white players before integration, or pitchers before 1969? There are probably many factors influencing our feelings about the game and its history. But crucially what we are left with, in the end, are just feelings, or prejudices.
And this brings me to my real point. As we all know by now, the U.S. Government has successfully inflicted humiliating punishment on Barry Bonds. He is now a convicted felon. They didn't try to prosecute him for illegal drug use. And they were unable to convict him of perjuring himself during his 2003 grand jury testimony in connection with the BALCO case. But they did get him for being evasive in his response to questions about his own training practices and this, in the minds of the jury anyway, rose to the level of obstruction of justice.
A reasonable person might be tempted to think that the Federal Government was after Bonds all along, that the real purpose of his compelled testimony before the grand jury may very well have been to put him in a situation in which he would feel forced, or at least sorely tempted, to lie or evade. A reasonable person might be tempted to think that Bonds had been a target all along.
But whatever you think about this to me frightening display of state power, this much is clear: Barry Bonds towered over baseball during his career. He towered over a generation of players many of whom, like him, were high-paid and maybe even drug enhanced. The idea that his accomplishments can be explained by steroids is about as silly as the idea that Babe Ruth's depended on the clean ball, or that Nolan Ryan's depended on the lowered mound.
Landscapes shift. Situations change. People adapt. And they achieve.
The point is not that we cannot make comparisons across eras in sports. Of course we can, and should. Nor is the point simply that numbers never tell the whole story of a human being's achievement, even in a sport like baseball where statistics are highly refined, although that is certainly true.
The point is that there aren't single-metrics for understanding human achievement, and the idea that you can explain why someone is so good at what they do by appealing to a single factor such as a lowered mound, or a shiny clean ball, or the absence of non-white competition, or the use of performance enhancing drugs, is, well, silly.
Barry Bonds deserves a place in the Hall of Fame, right there beside Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. Even if he did use steroids.