Last Sunday was Hank Aaron's 78th birthday and for some, an occasion to proclaim Aaron as "The People's Home Run Champion." I took exception to that, in part because I don't know it means to be the "People's Home Run Champion" and, in part, because whatever it means, I knew it was intended to de-legitimize the career home-run record held by Barry Bonds. And again, with nothing more, I knew the effort to de-legitimize Bonds was due to accusations that he used steroids for several years during his playing career with the San Francisco Giants.
Sure, I'm a Giants fan, so say what you will about my bias. In truth, that has nothing to do with my objection to calling Hank Aaron "the People's Home Run Champion." I'm a fan of baseball and baseball history. I understand and appreciate that players, ballparks, rules, playing conditions, drugs, and the health and fitness of players, among other things, have changed over time. And while those factors may affect our debates about who was the best hitter of all time, who was the best pitcher of all time, or even who should be voted into the Hall of Fame, they don't change baseball records.
Baseball records are numbers and numbers are facts.
Once we open up baseball records to debates on how those records could have been, may have been, or might have been different under a myriad of factors, they cease to become numbers and facts. Instead they become judgments about which of these factors are legitimate to consider and which are not. In other words, they become someone's opinion about who holds what baseball record.
So, for example, if Babe Ruth's record of 714 career home runs had never been broken, would we say that Ruth was not the legitimate home-run champion because he played when baseball was strictly segregated? Ruth didn't have to face non-white pitchers or compete against non-white batters? There certainly are arguments to be made about how non-white players may have affected Ruth's home-run totals, but we don't know would have happened. We could have opinions about it, but those opinions couldn't -- and shouldn't -- change the facts.
Ted Williams holds the career record for on-base percentage (.4817), edging out Babe Ruth (.4739). But Williams played his entire career in Fenway Park, a hitter-friendly park. Ruth played fifteen seasons in the first Yankee Stadium, a pitcher-friendly park. Should we crown Ruth the OBP champion?
How should we account for the three years (1943-1945) when Williams served in the Marines during World War II? Or the time he spent with the Navy during the Korean War (1952-53)? If he had played those years, would he still have ended his career with the highest on-base percentage? What about the pitchers who missed playing time to serve in the armed forces during World War II or the Korean War? How did their absence affect Williams' career numbers, if at all?
And what about Bonds and the career home-run record? What if he did take steroids? Do we know how steroids affected his numbers? There's some good evidence that steroids had little effect on Bonds' numbers; others disagree.
What about other factors? Throughout his twenty-one year career, first with the Pirates and then the Giants, Bonds played his home games at pitcher-friendly parks: Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, and Candlestick Park and AT&T Park in San Francisco. With the Milwaukee Braves and then Milwaukee Brewers (1954-66; 1975-76), Hank Aaron played in a pitcher-friendly park (County Stadium), but with the Atlanta Braves (1967-1974), he played in a hitter-friendly park (Atlanta Stadium).
And what about Aaron's admitted use of "greenies" -- amphetamines that were used by players for that extra energy boost throughout a grueling season? Or that Aaron hit his final twenty-two home runs while the designated hitter for the Brewers, while Bonds and Ruth hit their home runs while also playing in the field?
And so on.
For 130 years, professional baseball has been played in different ballparks, in different eras, using different equipment and under different conditions. There will always be arguments about why one of these differences, or another, diminishes or de-legitimizes a baseball record. But those are arguments based on judgments about the importance of taking this or that factor into account.
The beauty of baseball records -- their very essence -- lies in the simplicity of the numbers. There are no arguments. There are no opinions. There are no judgments.
There are numbers and there are facts.
Baseball records are facts.