Jon Shepherd: Will the true home run king please stand up?

Last week, USA Today revisited Orioles first baseman Chris Davis’ thoughts on whom he considers the true home run king. Davis said, “Bonds was a great player for a long time. But it’s hard to say that Hank Aaron’s record isn’t the legitimate home run record because of all of the allegations, the accusations regarding Bonds.”

This sentiment is not an uncommon one on the field and in the stands. It is a perspective that speaks of what we want baseball to be, a display of pure ability and hard work. It is an image of baseball that is akin to the image of the fictional America captured in “Leave It to Beaver.” Similarly, baseball, like America, possesses a pure past that is actually more of a mixed bag. Life can be complex.

What we do know about Bonds can be stated as him being a great baseball player and that he tested positive for steroids and amphetamines during his career. Whether or not he knowingly used them is technically still a matter of discussion, but the weight of evidence surrounding his use of the testosterone and tetrahydrogestrinone makes it seem, perhaps, unlikely that he was unaware of what he was attempting to do with his use of supplements. Popular sentiment indicates that Bonds using substances that are considered performance-enhancing drugs invalidates his actual performance while the illegality of those drugs lays doubt upon his character.

In his book, Hammerin’ Hank mentioned using amphetamines during the late 1960s in order to break out of a slump. At that point in time, amphetamines were being used by about 5 percent of adults. People used them as a performance enhancer to overcome fatigue. It was an approach that had been gaining in popularity since their widespread commercial introduction during the 1920s. Concerns over their use rose to the point that oral amphetamines were placed by congress on the Schedule III list (the same list where anabolic steroids currently reside) in the late 1960s around the time of Aaron’s admitted one-time use. One could equally argue that Aaron’s use of a performance enhancing drug and use of a common controlled substance might also invalidate him as baseball’s home run king.

As we seek purity, our quest leaves us in a difficult position. How far back do we have to go in order to find where it is technologically infeasible to use chemical enhancement? Well, the first known use of steroids comes from Hall of Famer Pud Galvin’s use of the Brown-Sequard elixir in the 1880s. This elixir was made from the crushed reproductive organs of male guinea pigs, dogs, monkeys, or whatever was available that contained testosterone. At least with Galvin’s use, it was one that was legal as well as permitted by the American League.

Accepting the colorful history of performance enhancing drugs in baseball that stretches into the infancy of professional baseball, does that mean the only acceptable performances have come after the institution of testing? If so, that leaves us only with the accumulated numbers since the 2005 season. Our home run kind would be Albert Pujols at 333 home runs (as of April 9). And do not dare suggest Pujols has ever taken PEDs. He sued Jack Clark for alleging such a thing. (The suit was later settled.)

This exercise seems kind of absurd, does it not? I think the take home here is not that we should accept the use of illegal drugs. Nor is it to praise an arcane system of punishment that pushes desperately competitive players into the hands of pseudo-pharmacists and gym rats for medical treatment that are largely unproven and may be quite dangerous. For example, the infamous usage of human growth hormone has never been positively identified as an enhancer to athletic performance in the scientific literature. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association should be incorporating a system that is designed to protect their talent as opposed to clumsily pretending that long held statistical feats are somehow sacred.

We need to respect that our history is complex. Things we wished never happened, happened. Yes, we should try to eliminate unhealthy elective medical treatments, but let us be adult and not demonize players in the process. Bonds is the home run king. Aaron is an amazing icon. They both are valued components of baseball’s rich and nuanced history.

Jon Shepherd blogs about the Orioles at Camden Depot. Follow him on Twitter: @CamdenDepot. His thoughts on the O’s appear here as part of’s continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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