This baseball season, it fell to the sporting press to drag a reluctant Hank Aaron once more into public view, the occasion being Barry Bonds' slow-motion pursuit of a stationary number. Now, anytime an old baseball personage hobbles back into frame, he is invariably described in awed, petrifying language better suited to, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The treatment of Aaron hasn't been any different. A spin through the sports pages over the past few months reveals that he is a man of "cool dignity," "quiet dignity," "innate dignity," "immense dignity," "eternal dignity," "unfettered dignity," "unimpeachable dignity," the very "picture of dignity" who "brought so much dignity to baseball" and who, "having exuded dignity his entire life," continues to this day "exud[ing] class and dignity." Aaron, proclaimed the inevitable George Will, who perhaps learned about dignity from selling his to Conrad Black, was "The Dignified Slugger From Mobile."
No one would quibble with the sentiment, unctuous and condescending though it may be. Aaron's forbearance was indeed remarkable; in many ways, he holds up better in history's eyes than the peer to whom he is often compared, Jackie Robinson—himself a "pillar of dignity"—whose outspokenness regrettably extended to the odd HUAC hearing and Nixon campaign stop.
No, what's unfortunate about Aaron's latest turn in the public eye is that he has been reduced to a sportswriter's cheap trope. The great slugger's dignity is of interest only insofar as it can be picked up by the likes of George Will and swung in the general direction of Barry Bonds. (As of Friday morning, Bonds stands just two home runs shy of Aaron's 755.) "As Barry Bonds continues his gimpy, joyless pursuit of such glory as he is eligible for," Will wrote, "consider the odyssey of Mobile's greatest native son." Or as a Cincinnati Post headline pronounced: "Safe To Say Bonds No Aaron." Of course, with Aaron, it has always been thus. It is the singular curse of his career: to be treated like a sandwich board for the prevailing attitudes of the day.
It was uglier a half-century ago. Aaron hit the majors in 1954, after a stint in the Negro Leagues and a year with the Milwaukee Braves' affiliate in the South Atlantic League, which he helped integrate. As baseball historian Jules Tygiel points out, his timing was impeccable—Aaron was one of the first black ballplayers whose career unfolded more or less naturally, without segregation or war chipping away at his prime.
Once in the bigs, he quickly became, as a comically obtuse 1958 New York Times Magazine profile put it, "a symbol of a new era of slugging," a savage of preternatural talent. (The headline: "The Panther at the Plate.") "Aaron brings to baseball an atavistic ... single-mindedness," William Barry Furlong wrote, going on to describe the "somniferous-looking" Aaron's "insouciance" and "indolence" and taking care to twice point out his "shuffling" gait. No mention was made of Aaron's thorough preparation, before which even Ted Williams salaamed. The Times was far from the only offender. Even Aaron's first manager, Charlie Grimm, went in for this nonsense. He liked to call Aaron "Stepin Fetchit."
Some of this was surely a product of Aaron's shy and unadorned personality at the time, which offered the media little but a bare armature on which to shape whatever they wished. He didn't have Willie Mays' élan; his hat didn't whip off whenever he rounded second. He drove a Chevy Caprice. "Grace in a gray flannel suit," one writer called him.
Likewise, Aaron's performance over 23 seasons—consistently very good, occasionally great, always a notch or two below Mays'—lacked the dizzying peaks that give a career the flavor of personality. He never hit more than 47 home runs in a year, never hit better than .355, never had an on-base percentage higher than .410.