Years ago, I used to watch the painfully obnoxious sports commentary show Around the Horn while waiting for Tony and Mike to duke it out on Pardon the Interruption. ATH has since incorporated much better guests, and host Tony Reali is a prince of a guy, but at the time, it was just a bunch of white guys whining about Barry Bonds and tongue bathing Brett Favre. During yet another Bonds session, one of the guys, I think it was Bill Plaschke, contrasted Bonds with Hank Aaron, the man he was chasing for the home run crown, in which he referred to Aaron as “dignified.”
Plaschke (I think it was him, please don’t sue me if it wasn’t) was doing the typical racist juxtaposition white people do between what they consider which Black people are good and which are not. Aaron was one who was considered good and was often given the label “dignified” in conversation. However, no one really made it clear why Aaron was “dignified.” He was a stoic with the press, he was fun but not bombastic like Babe Ruth or graceful like Willie Mays, two players he chased and was compared to. He spoke on civil rights but would never be confused with Muhammad Ali. Ignored and belittled by the white media for most of his career, Aaron now gets the “dignified” label because people don’t know what else to make of him.
Welp, the answers are right in his stellar autobiography.
Hank Aaron was (may he rest in peace) a complex person like all of us. He experienced racism in the south and it impacted future interactions, although he had plenty of white friends and would trust white teammates and power brokers if they acted in good faith towards him. He had faith in God but he wasn’t as devout as someone like Reggie White. He sought to challenge the Babe in part to represent his race and also because he had the confidence he could do it. All of this is covered in his book.
Writers often treated Aaron like a cipher because they didn’t want to grapple with the complex reality of racism that allowed them the power to define Aaron’s career for the public (white) narrative. It’s much easier to call him “dignified.” I don’t think the word pops up once in his bio. Instead, what I read was the personal story of a man who was very proud of his career, very disappointed in the organization that controlled his livelihood for most of it, and who sought to advance the cause of civil rights in the best ways that he could. Aaron is candid about the ways he did this, the ways he interacted with other people, the way he played the game.
It’s a great read for baseball fans, for folks who want to learn more about how sports interacts with civil rights, or who want to know who Hank Aaron was beyond the patter of keyboard gate keepers who don’t go past the surface.