By now you’ve probably read just about every thing you ever wanted to know about Barry Bonds. With all of the attention directed toward the new home run king, I found myself thinking a lot this week about his late father. To Barry’s credit, he talked about his father during the on-field celebration that accompanied his record-breaking 756th home run on Tuesday night. Bobby Bonds was an extremely important man in his son’s life—and a noteworthy figure in baseball history who has become overshadowed by the exploits of his talented and controversial son. He was also a man that might provide us some insight into his son, both currently and in the future.
When the elder Bonds splashed onto the San Francisco scene in the late 1960s and early seventies, a few observers might have been excused for thinking that he would eventually become the game’s home run king, surpassing Babe Ruth, who held the mark at the time. Bobby Bonds displayed such a combination of athleticism, pure power, and baseball instincts that some fans were convinced they were watching the new Willie Mays, too. As it turned out, Bonds and the "old" Willie Mays were playing together in the same Giants outfield, Willie tracking down balls in center field while Bobby used his speed and arm to cover right field. Frankly, it was like having two center fielders on the field at the same time, even if Mays was starting to show the effects of age.
In spite of unfair expectations brought about by the comparisons to Mays, Bonds responded with a succession of marvelously productive seasons from 1970 to 1973. He put up three 30-30 campaigns, narrowly missing out on becoming the first 40-40 player in 1973. (He missed by one home run.) During that four-year span covering the early part of the 1970s, Bonds played like a superstar, with all the earmarks of a future Hall of Famer. At his peak, Bonds could do it all—he had enormous power, sprinter’s speed, athletic grace in the outfield, and a powerful arm that could play in either center or right field. It’s not a stretch to say that Bonds had more talent than his son, when considering his far superior throwing arm and his ability to play center field. That’s just how good Bobby was.
Unfortunately, the Giants saw red flags that may have affected his production in 1974. Bonds drank too much, smoked too much, and his general fast-lane lifestyle raised questions about his commitment to the game, leading the Giants to consider a change. After the ’74 season, a season that saw Bonds slump to 21 home runs and a .256 batting average, the Giants did what was once considered unthinkable, trading Bobby to the Yankees for Bobby Murcer.
Bonds played well in his one season for the Yankees, slugging .512 in 1975, despite having to play in the hitter’s Hades of Shea Stadium. In a way, it didn’t really matter what Bonds hit for the Yankees; he was doomed to unpopularity as the exchange rate for Murcer, who was simply beloved in the Bronx. Bonds could never make people forget the more popular Murcer and soon moved on to Southern California, in exchange for the uncelebrated but talented package of Mickey Rivers and Ed Figueroa.
While with the Angels, Bonds’ outfield play began to draw criticism. He was also disparaged—and rightly so—for his unwillingness to run out ground balls and pop-ups, a chronic problem throughout his career. His reputation tarnished, Bonds began to average about a team per season. After only 26 games with the White Sox, he was traded to the Rangers in mid-season, who then sent him to the Indians after the 1978 campaign. During his one season with the Indians, teammates railed at Bonds for his inability to hit the cutoff man on routine throws and for failing to hit in the clutch. By 1979, Bonds had made so many stops that he earned a reputation—fairly or unfairly—as a player who quickly wore out his welcome despite his overwhelming on-the-field talents of speed and power. Some said he was a good player, but not good enough for teams to make him untouchable. Others felt he was a talented underachiever who disappointed his teams, resulting in the inevitable trade.
Then there were the strikeouts. Bonds always piled up large numbers of K’s, even in his glory days in San Francisco. If he had played in the contemporary game, most fans and writers would have forgiven him. But in the 1970s, a tendency to strike out so often carried with it a nasty stigma—with both the media and the baseball establishment. Some managers felt they couldn’t employ such a blatant "swing-and-misser" in the leadoff spot. Other managers felt Bonds’ inability to make contact prevented him from being a true cleanup man. In the eyes of some, Bonds’ strikeouts made him the square peg in a round hole when it came to finding any suitable spot in the lineup.
Bonds also aged badly. Injuries to his hand, coupled with his off-the-field habits, rendered him over-the-hill by the age of 34. After short stints with the Cubs and Cardinals, Bonds’ career was over by the age of 35, quite a contrast to the ability of his son to play at a peak level while in his late thirties.
Just four years ago, we all learned that Bobby Bonds was very ill, stricken with both lung and brain cancer. He endured a taxing series of chemotherapy treatments that unfortunately could not prevent his passing at the age of 57 during the summer of 2003. At the time of Bonds’ death, I started thinking about the increasing number of players from his era (the late sixties and seventies) who had been hit with lung cancer, the probable result of a culture that too readily accepted cigarettes, in part because they didn’t have the volume of medical information that we have today. Longtime Orioles shortstop Mark Belanger, a persistent smoker, died from lung cancer. Former Mets slugger John Milner, also a heavy smoker, died from the same kind of cancer. And in the fall of 2003, former Orioles left-hander Dave McNally would succumb to lung cancer.
These tragic developments served as a reminder to us that previous eras in baseball history had their vices, too. As much consternation as the use of steroids has created in the new millennium, the cigarette smoking of the 1960s and seventies has begun to inflict its own toll. There is another similarity between the use of steroids in the current day and the heavy smoking (not to mention the drinking) of years past. We don’t completely know the full long-term effects of steroids today, just as many of the players of the sixties didn’t understand the havoc that cigarettes (and alcohol) would cause to their bodies in their later years.
Perhaps that’s just one more item we need to be thinking about this week, in the days after Barry Bonds passed the most significant milestone in the history of the game and stirred some memories of his once famous but somewhat forgotten father.
Bruce Markusen writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com and has authored eight books on baseball, including The Team That Changed Baseball. He, his wife Sue, and their daughter Madeline reside in Cooperstown, NY.