During the Barry Bonds trial, New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden wrote a scathing commentary ("Again, a Star Is Prosecuted for His Unlikability" Dec. 10) on what he claimed was "America's discomfort with prominent, wealthy black men."
He listed Bonds with figures like Jack Johnson, Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama, though he admitted that, "one could never put Bonds with Ali or Robeson and certainly not with the president of the United States."
Rhoden, however, did see a parallel between boxer Jack Johnson's arrest in 1912 for violating the White Slave Traffic Act, better known as the Mann Act, and Bonds' arrest nearly 100 years later for obstructing justice and lying to a grand jury. In both cases, Rhoden believes that the prosecutions were actually persecutions of black men already condemned by the American public for their arrogance.
Rhoden believes that Jack Johnson, boxing's first black heavyweight champion, became "a threat to America's social order and had to be taught a lesson." Barry Bonds, baseball's reigning home run king, was no threat to America's social order, but he "all but mocked the grand jury" and provoked the wrath of the government prosecutors.
Barry Bonds, of course, is not the first baseball player to provoke the wrath of the American public, and certainly not the first black ballplayer to do so. Long before Bonds, fans had the likes of Ty Cobb and Carl Mays to revile, and, after baseball began its slow integration, they had Jackie Robinson.
Cobb was one of the most ruthless and feared players in baseball history. Playing with sharpened spikes, he had a reputation for going out of his way to maim an opposing player. He was so despised that surviving members of the first inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame shunned him at Cooperstown. In a group photograph that includes Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Cy Young, Ty Cobb is conspicuous by his absence.
The surly Carl Mays had a well-earned reputation for throwing at batters. As a rookie, he actually started a fight with Cobb by hitting him with a pitch. But the most infamous pitch by Carl Mays was the one that struck Cleveland Indian and Herrin native Ray Chapman in the side of the head and killed him. When Mays was vilified for his act, the only player who came to his defense was Ty Cobb.
The American public had no black player to demonize until Jackie Robinson crossed baseball's color line in 1947. In his first season with the Dodgers, Robinson had to endure racial taunts from the stands, attempts by opposing players to maim him, and anonymous threats on his life. Robinson promised Dodger general manager Branch Rickey he would ignore the hatred for two years, but, after that, he became one of the most aggressive and feared players in baseball.
When my wife, Anita, read the Rhoden commentary, she asked me what it was like in Pittsburgh for black players when I was growing up. I told her that my working-class father took me to my first baseball game in 1948, a year after Robinson's debut, but he wouldn't take me to a Dodgers game because he thought black ballplayers were ruining baseball.
I also remembered how difficult it was for Roberto Clemente when he made his major league debut with the Pirates in 1955. It was only after Clemente died in a plane crash while on a mission of mercy to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua that he became a legendary figure in Pittsburgh. During his career, he often faced a hostile public and press that mocked his accent and accused him of being a hot dog and a hypochondriac.
A year before Barry Bonds began his career with the Pirates in 1986, a Pittsburgh sportswriter compiled a list of reasons fans weren't attending games. He included "too many black players" on the list. Five years later, after Bonds won two MVP awards, another Pittsburgh sportswriter, upset with Bonds' arrogant behavior, asked, "What kind of jerk is this guy... A big one." Bonds went on to win a third MVP award, then deserted Pittsburgh to play for the San Francisco Giants.
I grew up in a white working-class neighborhood in a racially divided city, so I had first-hand experience with America's "discomfort" with black men, prominent or not. All I have to do today is listen to a talk show demagogue to know that racial discomfort still exists in America. But there is a statue at PNC Park in Pittsburgh of Roberto Clemente, a fallen sports hero, once mocked and misunderstood, to remind me that it's possible to overcome our prejudices no matter how deeply rooted in our society and culture.
RICHARD "PETE" PETERSON is the commentator for the WSIU-FM Reading Baseball series. He is the author of Growing Up With Clemente and the editor of The St. Louis Baseball Reader. His essays on baseball also have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in his hometown Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.