For 33 years, Hank Aaron held the sacred title, hitting 755 lifetime home runs. Now many who watch and play the game are reluctant to crown Barry Bonds the new home run king even after he broke the record on Aug. 7.
Bonds isn't an especially cuddly celebrity. He has publicly butted heads with former teammates, alienated many fans with his arrogance and ticked off the often vicious and carnivorous sports media.
After leaked grand-jury testimony and a high-profile book appeared to connect Bonds to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, those who already disliked the Giants slugger went after him with even more vengeance. It's as if baseball and its fans realized only then that steroid use has been pervasive in the sport for years.
Unfortunately for Bonds, he was the biggest and easiest target to aim at. (For his part, Bonds has always denied that he knowingly used steroids.)
Steroids or not, if you examine the mountain of records and achievements amassed during Bonds' baseball career, there's no denying his greatness.
As Bonds began to edge closer to Aaron's record, baseball commissioner Bud Selig (a friend of Aaron's) finally decided to get serious about addressing the steroids issue.
In 2006, Selig asked former Sen. George Mitchell to lead an open-ended investigation into alleged steroid use in baseball. "Nothing is more important to me than the integrity of the game," Selig said when the investigation was announced.
If that's true, what took the commissioner so long to get on the case? It seemed pretty obvious that bulked up players like Mark McGwire (who retired in 2001), Jose Canseco (whose book on the subject was published in early 2005) and other Bonds contemporaries didn't turn into potential Mr. Universe contestants by simply working out in the gym.
It's the ultimate hypocrisy for the baseball fans, coaches, owners and management who looked the other way for so many to now be so righteously indignant and to focus solely on Barry Bonds.
Then there is the collective pile-on that often occurs when controversial black male superstars like Bonds, the NFL's Terrell Owens and others are involved. Sports talkers always deny race has anything to do with their views, but there's a level of venom found in the rants against Bonds and Owens that goes beyond the sins of the individuals.
Bonds' critics also hold up Hank Aaron as a baseball player who did it the right way. Aaron is an unquestionable hero, and I'm old enough to remember the months leading up to Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's record in 1974.
It's surprising to see, however, how few sports journalists are reflecting on the fact that Aaron was also vilified during his home run chase, to the point of receiving numerous death threats. Lots of folks simply didn't want to see a black man break Babe Ruth's home run record.
As the Mitchell investigation and legal proceedings move forward, the discussions about Bonds' record and overall baseball legacy will likely continue long into the future.
But rather than trying to lay the blame for the entire steroids era in the lap of Barry Bonds, perhaps we all need to take responsibility for looking away from the problem for so long.
Andrea Lewis is a San Francisco-based journalist who was recently named a Stanford University Knight Journalism Fellow for 2007-2008. She can be reached at The Progressive Media Project.