The Cultural Judgments About Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds — A Model for Holding Trump to Account?
Bonds wasn’t sanctioned for his use of performance-enhancing drugs but he can’t get into baseball’s Hall of Fame despite his accomplishments, and it’s Aaron who was celebrated as the sport’s home run king when he died last week.
How to hold a president to account after he has left office? Perhaps Major League Baseball might offer a model, as it deals with miscreant players after their days on the diamond are over.
The impeachment trial of President Donald Trump will take place in about 10 days’ time. Conviction in the Senate after impeachment in the House of Representatives means immediate removal from office and a potential prohibition for holding office in the future. Given that Trump is no longer in office, does it makes sense to proceed?
That debate is being had. Perhaps Trump himself would like to answer the charges and be acquitted by the Senate. Or maybe he thinks it pointless. After all, no longer president, he has no immunity from whatever criminal charges might arise from the Jan. 6 events at the Capitol.
Then there are those think that the historical record demands a trial, even if Trump is acquitted. And of course there are those who desire a conviction and the “sentence” of prohibition from holding future office.
Finally, there are those who think that there should be a sort of reckoning, but fear that a Senate trial might only inflame, rather than reduce, the partisan passions that are dividing the country.
So what is to be done? That’s where baseball offers a lesson. Last week Hank Aaron died, most famous for breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1974. He hit his 715th home run that April, and finished his career with 755. In 2007, Barry Bonds passed Aaron’s record, finishing his career with 762 home runs.
Yet if you saw the news coverage of Aaron’s death, you may well have thought that he was still the all-time home run record holder. Barry Bonds, if he was mentioned at all, was passed over quickly.
Then this week the annual voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame was announced. Bonds did not get elected for the ninth straight year. Next year will be his last on the ballot.
The electors — baseball sportswriters — are expressing their view that Bonds disgraced the game by using performance-enhancing drugs and subsequently lying about it. His achievements are real — the record books prove that — but they are not considered authentic. Bonds’ position in baseball history is secure; he is one of the best to ever play. But he will not enjoy baseball’s honors.
It’s not a criminal conviction. It’s not even a suspension, as might be the case if he was still playing. Rather it is a cultural judgment, an expression of collective reprobation.
Bonds’ absence from Cooperstown might be considered analogous to the Christian concept of “shunning,” where the congregation socially distances itself — to use a new term in its older meaning — from a wayward member. In certain smaller Christian traditions, it is considered a duty, an application of Corinthians 5:11-13 and Matthew 18:15–17, where a fellow disciple who will not convert and amend his ways is shunned.
Catholic practice never formalized shunning, and certainly is now quite alien to contemporary sensibility. However, there was a time when disapproval would have ruptured normal social relations. Only with abusive priests do we see a kind of shunning in the Church today; even if there are not formal legal penalties, the man is told to disappear and never return.
Shunning is enjoying a massive upsurge in the secular culture and it is quite trendy with some very influential and glamourous people. It is called “cancel culture” and not practiced for religious reasons, but certainly is animated by a moral judgment. There are those, for example, who suggest that those who worked in the Trump administration should be professionally shunned.
Bonds’ home run record has been subject to a kind of shunning; it exists, but people would rather keep their distance from it. Thus Aaron was remembered not simply as the former home run king, but as if he still was.
The record books say otherwise, but baseball culture is expressing a different judgment. There are the facts of the case, the results of the Hall of Fame voting and the general esteem of the fans. Each has its own role to play.
In the case of Aaron vs. Bonds there is more to it than exploits on the field. Aaron is remembered as a man of great dignity in the face of racism, a successor of sorts to Jackie Robinson. He was asked constantly about his records but was gracious enough never to boast. Bonds followed a different path. That does not form part of the Hall of Fame judgment, but is reflected in how the fans remember the two players.
What does that mean for President Trump? Richard Nixon resigned before he could be impeached, and Bill Clinton was impeached and acquitted. Nixon lived for 20 years after his resignation; it has been exactly 20 years since Clinton left office. It’s fair to say to that Nixon’s reputation was greatly rehabilitated in those 20 years; by the time of his death he was regarded as an elder statesman even by his political rivals. Clinton still has time, but Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign of 2016 largely treated him as an embarrassing but unavoidable relative. Especially in circles of heightened sensitivity to sexual harassment of women, Clinton has been (somewhat) shunned.
Senators are proposing various alternatives for Trump. Conviction and prohibition. No conviction but a censure resolution. Leaving the judgment to history. Or perhaps what might sting the former president, who has successfully sought publicity for four decades, the most — being ignored.
A cultural judgment might be more fearsome to the former president than a political or legal one.