Sports of The Times; In Johnson's Rise and Fall, A View Into Bonds's Plight By WILLIAM C. RHODEN (NYT) 895 words
Published: April 7,
San Francisco - A FEW hours before the Giants opened their 49th season here, Barry Bonds walked through
the clubhouse, bat and, it seemed, time in hand. As Bonds passed, I said that I had a question to ask -- about boxing, not
Bonds is this generation's Jack Johnson, and I wondered if he was familiar with the man who became a champion, then a legend.
Both hold valuable real estate in our sports landscape. Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion, in 1908, at
a time when the heavyweight championship defined manhood and for many was a metaphor for white male supremacy.
Bonds is on the verge of supplanting Babe Ruth as the second most prolific home-run hitter in baseball history.
More important, I wondered if Bonds was familiar with Johnson's rise and fall.
Bonds said he was. He said he had watched ''Unforgivable Blackness,'' Ken Burns's documentary on Johnson. Bold and bodacious,
Johnson enraged segments of the black and the white communities. He flaunted his power and independence. He openly traveled
with, went out with and married white women -- the ultimate taboo of his era. He taunted, bragged and belittled his opponents.
Bonds simply plays by his own set of rules.
''He had to throw a fight, right?'' Bonds asked, referring to Johnson's controversial loss to Jess Willard on April 5,
1915. Historians are split. Most say Johnson was beaten fair and square. Others say he threw the fight.
Randy Roberts, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and a biographer of Johnson (''Papa Jack: Jack Johnson
and the Era of White Hopes''), said he didn't know a lot about Bonds, but that from what he knows, the two have many similarities.
''Jack Johnson and Barry Bonds are proponents of the chaos theory,'' he said yesterday in a phone interview from Pittsburgh.
''Johnson lived his life in perpetual chaos. If he didn't want it that way, it wouldn't have been that way. The only thing
he did not want was to be forgotten.''
Like Bonds, Johnson was media savvy. Roberts said: ''His greatest challenge was to stay in the news once he was no longer
champion. Joe Louis was a godsend for Jack. He always talked about Louis's flaws, he always predicted that he would lose fights.
He knew that would enrage black reporters. Johnson did it to be in the media.''
I'm convinced that Jack Johnson would have had a reality show. ''His life was a reality show -- a running reality show,''
''He felt any publicity was good publicity,'' Roberts added. ''Good, bad -- if people are talking about you, it's good.''
The most important thing for Bonds to know about Johnson is how his career was compromised and short-circuited when powerful
forces within the federal government decided he had become too big for his britches and had to be brought down. If a succession
of ''white hopes'' couldn't beat him, the government would.
When Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig caved in to pressure and deputized a posse to pursue Bonds and past steroid use in
baseball, I thought this could be to Bonds what the Mann Act was to Jack Johnson.
''When Jack Johnson said, 'They're out to get me,' he was right,'' Roberts said. ''Not only were they out to get him, they
In 1910, Congress passed the White Slave Traffic Act, which came to be known as the Mann Act. The legislation was designed
to stop the proliferation of immigrant prostitution. (Section 6 of the Mann Act empowered the commissioner general of immigration
''to receive and centralize information concerning the procuration of alien women and girls with a view to their debauchery,
and to exercise supervision over such alien women and girls, receive their declarations, establish their identity, and ascertain
from them who induced them to leave their native countries.'')
Roberts said that Johnson was targeted because he was a threat to the racial order of the day. ''The great fear of the
day was miscegenation -- black men and white women,'' he said. The federal agent faced with applying the Mann Act to Johnson
said that the application was misapplied. ''But the government said that the only way to nail Johnson was through the Mann
Act,'' Roberts said.
Johnson was among the first men to be prosecuted under the act. He married a prostitute and had actually persuaded her
to stop in order to devote her attentions to him. Before they were married, however, they had violated the Mann Act by crossing
a state border. Johnson was a so-called Mann Act offender.
Selig can't go after Bonds for gambling on baseball, and in good conscience he can't go after Bonds for violating any rules
within the baseball fraternity. Selig can let the newly formed commission report and the federal government punish.
With a bad knee, how long can Bonds stay ahead of Selig's posse?
Bonds received a warm, extended ovation when he was introduced yesterday, though there was a smattering of boos. He walked
twice, struck out and scored a run in the Giants' 6-4 victory over the Atlanta Braves. But if the Giants' season-opening series
at San Diego was any hint of things to come, the next few months will see baseball fans at their crudest.
The posse Selig unleashed last week is raring to go, ready to shadowbox with a latter-day Jack Johnson.