The last hero

For many baseball fans, Henry Aaron is still the true home run king. Getty Images

This story appears in the May 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine. It's adapted from a chapter of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron" by Howard Bryant, published by Pantheon Books.

The public didn't want numbers anymore, not with the IRS and federal government hunting down MVPs and Cy Young winners as though they were La Cosa Nostra. Numbers were too suspicious. Numbers just confirmed the con game. Now they wanted a hero, someone who could remind them that the currency of baseball wasn't something as unimportant as the number of times a man could hit the ball over the fence, but about the value systems and virtues that worthless feat once represented.

The apologists and disbelievers and ones who couldn't be bothered, they all tried to minimize the effects of a game without integrity. Those effects, for once, could not be measured by money, but by numbers that could not be argued: McGwire, Palmeiro, Sosa, Clemens and Bonds, 100 combined seasons, 48 All-Star appearances, 2,523 home runs, 354 wins, nine MVP awards, seven Cy Youngs, two single-season home run records and the most famous sports record in the history of the country, all publicly disgraced during the same era by the same issue.

No other sport, at no period in the history of the republic, could ever say that. No other sport could point to half a dozen of its greatest players, and a dozen more of possible Hall of Fame caliber, all from different teams, who couldn't show their faces in public. And now the greatest record in the country was about to fall. Another tainted record. The public wanted someone who could provide a moral compass, someone who could bring them and their game back into the light.

So they turned to Henry Aaron.