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Hank Aaron’s dignity, grace made baseball better game

Hank Aarfollows flight his then-record 715th home run April 8 1974. He finished his career with 755. | Harry Harris~AP

Hank Aaron follows the flight of his then-record 715th home run on April 8, 1974. He finished his career with 755. | Harry Harris~AP

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Updated: July 1, 2012 12:44PM

MILWAUKEE — Thirty-six years have passed since Hank Aaron slugged the last of his 755 home runs, a total that stood out as one of the most prestigious, unassailable records in baseball until Barry Bonds
surpassed it via means that always will evoke suspicion and disdain.

It has been 30 years since Aaron gained first-ballot entry to the Hall of Fame.

At 78, he is gray-haired, soft-spoken, slightly stooped and quite a few pounds heavier than his panther-like playing weight of 180. Yet Aaron has come to symbolize baseball greatness more than he ever did as a player, even as he compiled one of the most distinguished resumés in the game.

The passage of time has increased our appreciation for what he did and for the noble, indomitable and above-reproach manner in which he did it, facing down spirit-crushing pressure. Aaron was a black man chasing after a white legend at a time when Jim Crow was alive and kicking in many parts of the country. Even growing up in the Deep South didn’t prepare Aaron for the animosity he encountered as he sought to supplant the magical Babe Ruth as the home-run king.

‘‘Hank’s dignity and grace in the face of bigotry was and is inspiring,’’ commissioner Bud Selig, his longtime friend, said in introducing Aaron at Marquette University’s commencement ceremony Sunday.

Nearly 2,500 Marquette graduates received diplomas as their families looked on proudly at the Bradley Center. It’s not likely that a single one of those mostly 20-something grads ever saw Aaron play ball, but he was a popular choice to address the Class of 2012 as its commencement speaker. Aaron was introduced to a standing ovation, and applause interrupted his speech several times.

‘‘He is a living illustration of the university’s highest aspirations and ideals,’’ the Rev. Scott Pilarz, Marquette’s president, said in conferring an honorary doctorate in humane letters on Aaron.

Milwaukee has a sad history of unrequited love with its athletic heroes. Vince Lombardi went away. So did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Paul Molitor. Brett Favre. Prince Fielder.

The entire Braves team went away to Atlanta a decade after Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn helped deliver Milwaukee’s only World Series title in 1957. Selig, then a Milwaukee car dealer, sought to right that wrong when he bought the Seattle Pilots and moved them to Beer Town for the 1969 season, renaming them the Brewers.

Five years later, he brought Aaron back from Atlanta, enabling him to close out his Hall of Fame career in a city that always has embraced him.

‘‘The city of Milwaukee helped to shape my dreams and my life and mold me into the man I am today,’’ Aaron told the graduates. ‘‘I can never forget that here I found acceptance, encouragement, self-confidence and lifelong friends.’’

Goal-setting, dedication, resolve and community service were Aaron’s points of emphasis during a 15-minute speech that was as understated, eloquent and dignified as the man himself. Aaron could not be more unlike the smugly self-absorbed Bonds, a churlish poster child for a generation of chemically enhanced musclemen whose slugging feats did more to desecrate the game than to honor it.

More recently Ryan Braun, Aaron’s heir as a Milwaukee MVP, has come under strong suspicion as a drug cheat, even though his 50-game suspension for a positive test was overturned on a technicality.

Aaron maintained a respectful silence and distanced himself from Bonds’ chase of his home-run record.

‘‘There are absolutely no acceptable shortcuts to success in life,’’ he said. ‘‘Cheating for whatever reason and in any field is wrong and is, at best, a temporary solution to a greater problem. At some point, quick fixes come back to haunt you and might destroy your body and your dreams.’’

Because of what he went through, it’s hard to say baseball was a better game in Aaron’s day.

But it’s a better game for his presence.

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