Commentary

Aaron's ethic: Now more than ever

Originally Published: February 5, 2009
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Hank AaronAP Photo/Harry HarrrisHank Aaron's 715th home run still has cachet that Barry Bonds' record-breaker doesn't.
The breaking news came before breakfast: Free agent Manny Ramirez turns down a one-year, $25 million offer from the Dodgers. The e-mail, a response from a fan, landed at exactly 9:32 a.m. Tuesday, heavy with frustration, annoyance, resignation, more signs of the apocalypse.

"What does he want? How out of touch with America and our struggles is this guy and his agent?" the message read, the news story attached. "I'm sitting here today with 5,000 layoffs happening around me and he turns down $25 million to hit a ball?"

Minutes later, a follow-up message arrived. It read, "I sour more on sports every day."

The e-mails were sent by a reader, a father of two who epitomizes the American sports fan. He spends his disposable income on tickets, jerseys and the DirecTV baseball and football packages. He is planning the pilgrimage to Cooperstown this summer to see Jim Rice inducted into the Hall of Fame. Yet, he has become increasingly disillusioned by the game's lack of piety.

He doesn't require of athletes that they be political figures or saints, but he demands that they appreciate their good fortune and accept the basic responsibilities that come with it.

So I suggested to him that if Ramirez represents the latest narcissism of a contemporary sports world so increasingly disconnected from the people who sit in the stands that a breaking point seems inevitable, he should think for a moment on his way to Cooperstown about one Mr. Henry Louis Aaron, who turned 75 years old on Thursday. Ramirez and Aaron make for a vital contrast during a vital time. While so much of the sports world tries to convince itself (and us) that it still represents the honorable ideal -- that it still serves the public over the profit, the work over the reward; that the games and its players haven't given themselves over completely to money without class despite the mounting evidence to the contrary -- Henry Aaron celebrates his diamond anniversary of life pleasantly untroubled.

[+] EnlargePresident Clinton and Hank Aaron
AP Photo/Ron EdmondsIn 2001, President Clinton presented Aaron with a Presidential Citizens Medal. They'll be reunited at Aaron's 75th birthday celebration.
It is a humorous and appropriately victorious irony that Aaron stands taller today than he did when he was playing. He is even more important now than he was then.

It is exactly the contrast to contemporary elements such as the Ramirez case that gives Aaron his special, enduring power. Where others of his generation have faded, or are remembered as ballplayers rather than great men, Henry still stands. It is why, 33 years after he played his last game, he remains the standard for integrity; why, during the ruinous steroid era, Aaron is baseball's Good Housekeeping seal; why so many of today's great players -- from Rafael Palmeiro to Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr.  were anxious for his approval.

Aaron never knew this. Three years before he died, in 1972, Jackie Robinson said Aaron was the person most capable of carrying out his mission of equality, not just on the base paths but also in the front offices.

Thursday night, at the Hyatt Regency on Atlanta's Peachtree Street , some 800 guests will gather to celebrate Aaron's birthday. Ted Turner will be there. So will Bud Selig. The new secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the former president, Bill Clinton, will attend. They will celebrate a man who epitomizes the values many fear have escaped us.

"Solid. He's solid as a rock," Turner said Thursday morning. "A solid person. You can depend on him. He's never flaky. He never drank too much. You pat him on the shoulder, and his shoulder is solid. He's just a great guy … I'm not scheduled to speak tonight, but if someone asks me, I'm sure going to wish him a happy birthday."

Follow Aaron, and you will find baseball and you will find America .

In 1956, Pittsburgh's Bobby Bragan became the final holdout to leave the third base coaching box and manage from the dugout. That was also the year Aaron won his first batting title. In 1957, when he won the National League pennant for Milwaukee with an 11th inning home run off of Billy Muffett of the Cardinals, the left side of the of the Milwaukee Journal's front page showed Aaron being carried off the field by his teammates.

The right side included a photograph of the National Guard escorting black children to integrate Little Rock High School .

In 1974, when Aaron hit the season's first home run off the Reds' Jack Billingham -- the victim also of Aaron home runs Nos. 528, 636, 641 and 709 -- in the top of the first inning of the first game of the year, the ball for the first time was covered with cowhide instead of horsehide. A week later, the all-time home run record belonged to him.

Hank AaronAP PhotoThese days, baseball needs Aaron's integrity, dignity and values even more than ever.
In 2009, Aaron is written about with reverence; the word "dignity" is never far from his name. In 1954, the same man was referred to in print as "Stepin Fetchit."

Datelined New York , a March, 1954, story from the Milwaukee Journal read this way:

His name was not on the National League's 1954 list of players nor on the roster released by the Milwaukee Braves at the start of the season. He throws sidearm from the outfield and runs the bases like Stepin Fetchit with a hopped up motor. But if baseball men, including those employed by the Braves, know their business, Henry Aaron is one of the most promising hitters in the major leagues. They say he could very easily become a great one.

In addition, the 20-year old Negro from Mobile, Ala. is deceptively fast, and at least an ordinary hand at getting his outfield chores done, even if he has his own way of going about them.

He injured his ankle as a teenager, and the result was a stiff-legged running style that turned into a racial slur. Some teammates, Joe Adcock especially, called him "Snowshoes;" and the press repeated the nickname in print, adding to it the perception that Aaron was slow-witted. His first major media exposure, a 1956 Saturday Evening Post profile by Furman Bisher, referred to Aaron's "satchel posterior" and "shuffling gait." When he won the MVP the next year, as the Braves won the pennant and the World Series, Time Magazine ran a profile of him titled "The Wrist Hitter" with a sub-headline that called him, "The Talented Shuffler."

In part, it read:

Though he was an infielder in the minors, Aaron claims to enjoy playing right field for the Braves because "out here I don't have as much to do, especially not as much thinking." Thinking, Aaron likes to imply, is dangerous. But by now everyone knows that Aaron is not as dumb as he looks when he shuffles around the field ("I'm pacing myself"), and some experts think he will ultimately rank among the game's great hitters. Says Manager Birdie Tebbetts of the Cincinnati Redlegs, one of the keenest judges of talent in the game (Time, July 8): "Aaron could win the batting championship for the next five or six years, if he gets to be a well-rounded hitter and learns to hit to right and drag bunt. He's that good."

That was Henry Aaron's America.

When a train comes speeding right at you, engines maxed, horns screaming, exhaust choking the easy blue sky, the instinctive man leaps blindly, hoping he is fast enough and lucky enough to find safety. The hopeless man stands firm in the face of the onrushing violence, jaw clenched, prepared to meet his fate.

But the truly confident man, the one who respects fear but is guided by providence, that man lays flat between the two rails, convinced the force and fury will vindicate his judgment and pass him by.

Two years ago, a bullet train of circumstances not of his own making sped toward Henry and, as it did, he very publicly and very definitively showed baseball once again which of those three men he is.

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds and Hank Aaron
AP Photo/James FinleyAaron kept his distance from Barry Bonds in 2007. But they appeared together at the presentation of the 2004 Hank Aaron awards.
Bonds was near Aaron's career home-run record. The game was in steroids crisis, and some of the heroes who had helped bring it back from the 1994 strike, well, they didn't look so heroic anymore. The apologists and the disbelievers and the ones who couldn't be bothered to understand the impact of steroids on the game tried to minimize the effects of a sport without integrity -- of interest without belief in the product -- and those effects, for once, weren't measured by money, but by numbers that could not be argued.

McGwire, Palmeiro, Sosa, Clemens and Bonds: 100 combined seasons, 47 All-Star appearances, 2,523 home runs, 354 wins, nine MVPs, seven Cy Young awards, two single-season home run records and the most famous sports record in the history of the nation, all publicly disgraced during the same era by the same issue.

No other sport, at any period in time in the history of the republic, ever faced that. No sport ever dealt with the tarnished legacy of a half-dozen of its greatest players, and a dozen or so more of near-Hall of Fame caliber, as baseball did from the years between 1995 and 2007. The steroid era.

And now the greatest record in the country was about to fall, and the new record-holder carried the taint. The public wanted somebody to provide a moral compass, to bring them and their game back into the light.

So fans turned to Henry.

The public didn't want numbers anymore, not with the IRS and the federal government tracking baseball as if it were La Cosa Nostra. The numbers were too suspicious. The numbers just confirmed the con game.

They wanted a hero, someone who could remind them that the currency of baseball is more important than just the number of times a man hits the ball over the fence, that there are value systems and virtues to give that feat meaning. Ted Williams, the cantankerous but hearty, authentic American, was gone. So was Joe DiMaggio, though it is virtually impossible to envision him leading a public debate on values.

Jackie Robinson, of course, was long gone, too, and Willie Mays was making more a fool of himself every day he opened his mouth on a subject about which he knew little. ("I just don't think steroids help you at all. They just don't do anything," he said.) Star power and nostalgia alone wasn't going to do it this time. The word "integrity" was back in vogue. The public, as well as some of the people associated with the game, realized, too late, that what had been lost was the very quality that gave the sport its power.

And it was there, at the precise moment when he held the floor all to himself, that Aaron chose not to engage.

The writers wanted to hear from him.

So did the public.

So did the players.

Bonds called, asking Henry to support him.

[+] EnlargeHank Aaron
AP Photo/Morry GashAaron has aged gracefully as his stature continues to grow in baseball.
Henry would not commit.

Aaron knew he couldn't win on the Bonds issue. He told intimates that Bonds was a "lose-lose." If he spoke out against Bonds, he risked the criticism that he was a bitter old man who couldn't deal with his record's being broken. If he supported Bonds, he would be tacitly endorsing the steroid era.

So he chose to say nothing, save for a video tribute the night Bonds broke the record in 2007.

"The one thing Henry hated was cheating. The whole thing bothered him," Ralph Garr, Aaron's teammate on the Braves for seven seasons, said. "Why do you think he and Gaylord Perry never got on well? He might not have said anything, but anyone who knew Henry Aaron knew that the whole thing about drugs, that really bothered him.

"You'd have been ashamed to do stuff like that around him. He'd form his opinion from the inside. It wasn't Henry Aaron's way to tell you about your business. That's why he's not going to mention Barry. He's gonna let that train pass."

And there is that irony again. For so much of his playing career, even while he compiled unmatched career numbers -- first in home runs, RBI, extra base hits, at-bats, games played, total bases, plate appearances, intentional walks; second in runs (tied with Ruth), third in hits when he retired -- Aaron was made aware of what he was not. He was not flashy. He did not hit mammoth home runs. He did not amass titanic single-season home run numbers.

But here he was more than a quarter-century later, once again out front even as he offered the minimalist amount of commentary on the issue. Aaron was still more important, more vital for his substance, than the rest. And therein lies the ultimate lesson of Henry Aaron.

The greatest virtue of authenticity is that it never loses value, even if its most important qualities at times go unnoticed. Eventually, craftsmanship, and the sweat that goes into it, will be respected. He is a 75-year old monument to old but sturdy American virtues -- the doing of the work -- that parents tell their kids about. The kids roll their eyes . . . until they become parents themselves.

Then, suddenly, it all makes sense.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, and is currently writing a biography of Henry Aaron. He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.