Howard Bryant wrote this article on Hank Aaron’s 75th birthday bash and how much Aaron had to endure in his time and so forth. I agree with him completely that Aaron pioneered a lot and had solid integrity. More than most, I even agree with Bryant that baseball owes a duty of morality to the public. Where I break with Bryant is the eloquent waxing.
In the article, Aaron doesn’t just have integrity; he is “the standard of integrity” since he retired. Aaron isn’t just a clean-imaged superstar; he’s a “Good Housekeeping seal.” In short, the whole article refuses to consider Aaron’s trying a greenie at least once. That doesn’t lower his standards in my estimation, but it does stop the over-the-top adulation of a man.
Integrity has changed conceptually over the last 40 years in society. Since the Ford Edsel days, whistleblowing has been a hesitant yet significant addition to the world of ethics. Hank Aaron could be considered unethical today for not reporting his teammate for offering him a greenie, whereas it would have been fairly well unthinkable to report it in his day. That says nothing about the inherent morality of whistleblowing or ethical norms; it’s a comment on public perceptions and sports/corporate culture.
Concomitantly, baseball as a public institution has changed some, though not as much. It’s not changed to a straight business, but the growth of baseball wiped out some of its chances to be a public institution. To have any sort of institution with high standards, you have to have everyone on the same page; it only takes a few bad or even countercultural seeds to mess with that (Jim Bouton being a good example). Once there’s a substantial minority of players and executives who don’t view baseball as a public trust, it stops being one because nobody’s aiming that way. If a church stops caring about religion and goes for opulence and cash flow, it’s no longer a church; it’s just a bank with less convenient hours. It’s the same thing here.
Besides, to call Aaron THE standard of integrity is somewhat insulting to other players with similarly good images. Why isn’t Dale Murphy the standard of integrity? Ozzie Smith? Brooks Robinson? Johnny Bench? Sean Casey? Sure, none of them were racial trailblazers like Aaron was, and that’s a huge credit to Aaron that I never want to take away from him or anyone. But to lift him up as squeaky-clean above several who may have slightly better claims to it is troublesome.
It’s nothing about Hank whatsoever; it’s the 2009 camera angle on him that bothers me a tinge.