Because he was so outwardly bland in personality and performance, Aaron seemed to take on character only in relation to things people felt strongly about: Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, civil rights. On his own he was, and remains, an abstraction, someone whom writers could only explicate with banalities like "dignified." Our perception of Aaron today stems almost entirely from his pursuit of Ruth's 714 home runs, in 1973 and 1974, during which time he faced down an assortment of death threats and hate mail. By then, Aaron had shed his reticence and begun to speak out against baseball's glacial progress on matters of race. Still, very much his own man, he seemed to dismiss some of the loftier interpretations attached to his home-run chase. "The most basic motivation," he wrote in his autobiography, I Had a Hammer, with Lonnie Wheeler, "was the pure ambition to break such an important and long-standing barrier. Along with that would come the recognition that I thought was long overdue me: I would be out of the shadows."
No matter. Aaron was fashioned into something of a civil rights martyr anyway. "He hammered out home runs in the name of social progress," Wheeler recently wrote in the Cincinnati Post. And Tom Stanton, in the optimistically titled Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America, dropped what has to be the most unlikely Hank Aaron analogy on record: "[P]erhaps it's TheExorcist, the period's biggest movie, that provides a better metaphor for Hank Aaron's trial. … Hank Aaron lured America's ugly demons into the light, revealing them to those who imagined them a thing of the past, and in doing so helped exorcise some of them. His ordeal provided a vivid, personal lesson for a generation of children: Racism is wrong."
Small wonder that, upon eclipsing Ruth, the exorcist told the crowd, "I'd just like to thank God it's over."
Now here is Aaron, once again, this time in the midst of the galloping national hysteria over anabolic steroids. In Aaron, we have our cardboard hero, propped up in the corner to stand in exquisite counterpoint to Bonds. He is not the only one dragooned into this particular mess—"Ryan Howard, No Asterisk," went one preseason headline—but it is most certainly Aaron who is shouldering the psychic load. Even the flatness of his career, strangely, now earns him praise.
"[N]ot one of Aaron's single-season home run totals is among the 68 highest of all time, yet he pounded more in his career than any other player in history—and without suspicion of chemical enhancement," wrote Tom Verducci in this week's Sports Illustrated cover story, blithely sidestepping the very real possibility that Aaron popped amphetamines like Chiclets along with, you know, everyone else in baseball. To even consider that would, of course, call into question a rather large piece of the argument in favor of baseball's current war on steroids—Maintain the sanctity of the record books! Ferret out the cheats!—something sportswriters evidently have little interest in doing. Instead, they summon a hero from the past to redress the supposed sins of the present. "I guess," Reggie Jackson told Verducci, "you can call him the people's home run king."
Our national celebration of Aaron is, fundamentally, childish stuff. This is baseball telling fairy tales to itself, pretending the bad things away, using a Hall of Famer as a rhetorical bludgeon and in doing so diminishing the very man it pretends to exalt. There is a word for that. Undignified.