Bonds may get all the HR records in the book, but this will haunt him anyway. Perception is reailty.
Let Steroid Use
Be One for
The Record Books
There is no asterisk on Maris's record and there never was.
BY ALLEN BARRA
Tuesday, March 9, 2004 12:01 a.m. EST
Asterisk, asterisk. Everybody wants to talk asterisks.
For instance, here's former Commissioner of Baseball Fay Vincent replying to a question in a recent interview:
Q: Should he or other players found to have used steroids have an asterisk next to their names as Roger Maris did after taking more games to pass Babe Ruth's single season home-run record?
A: I took the asterisk off. . . . Baseball should leave it as is. . . . I think to get involved is wrong, and you're opening a Pandora's box.
And so the talk of steroid use and how it should affect Bonds's breaking the single-season home-run record in 2001 has brought one of baseball's most enduring myths full circle. There never was an asterisk next to Roger Maris's name nor a record book to enter it in. Commissioner Vincent couldn't remove Maris's asterisk because it never existed.
How did the myth of the asterisk come into being? Apparently it was born in 1961, a combination of the efforts of then-Commissioner Ford Frick and the controversy-making New York Daily News sports columnist Dick Young. Frick was one of Babe Ruth's closest friends and considered himself a personal guardian of the Babe's legend. In mid-July of 1961, when Maris and teammate Mickey Mantle were threatening Ruth's 1927 record of 60 home runs, Frick, fearing that the American League's new 162-game schedule would give someone an unfair advantage, called a press conference and announced, "If the player does not hit more than 60 until after his club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark in the records to show that Babe Ruth's record was set under a 154-game schedule."
It was Young who gave Frick an ingenious idea, proposing to the commissioner, "Use an asterisk on the new record. Everybody does that when there's a difference of opinion."
The problem was that baseball had no official record book. There were numerous record books, the most popular of which was printed by the Sporting News, but the commissioner had no authority to qualify any player's record with an asterisk or anything else. In any event, Frick wrote in his 1973 autobiography, "Games, Asterisks and People," that "No asterisk has appeared in the official record in connection with that accomplishment."
Scarcely anyone noticed Frick's statement. Ironically, the opposite happened: The title of his book simply confirmed the asterisk in most people's minds. It's possible the asterisk idea would have died a natural death if not for Commissioner Vincent, who announced in 1991 that he was behind the "single-record thesis" and ordered baseball's committee on statistical accuracy to remove the asterisk from Maris's record. And so, one commissioner of baseball came out in favor of removing an imaginary asterisk supposedly put there by a previous commissioner, who had no authority to place it in an official record that in any case didn't exist.
The mythical asterisk was resurrected in 2001 by Billy Crystal's critically acclaimed television film, 61*, three years after Mark McGwire broke Maris's record. By using the asterisk in the title of his film, Crystal reinforced the belief that the asterisk ever existed in the first place (though the film never actually indicated that it had). At the same time, the popularity of 61* had an unexpected effect: By vividly depicting the pressure that Maris faced in 1961, the film earned some belated and much deserved sympathy for Maris's achievement. Talk shows and Web sites were littered with fans saying, "It's time to take the asterisk off Maris's record."
Bob Costas put it best, "The asterisk was real because the majority of fans believed it was. When they stopped believing, it vanished." In Billy Crystal's words, it was finally time to say, "Come back Roger, all is forgiven."
No matter what the outcome of the investigation into Balco and their alleged involvement with baseball players, it's too late now to give Barry Bonds a drug test for the 2001 season, when he broke Mark McGwire's record by hitting 73 home runs. It appears that Bonds and other players who have been suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs are safe from having put asterisks besides their names in the official records.
As Roger Maris's experience shows, though, an asterisk doesn't have to be official to be real. If the majority of fans become convinced that Bonds or any other player had an unfair advantage in setting a record, the public will put a mental asterisk beside his name with or without the commissioner's approval. And this time it may be indelible.