George Will

This city has belonged to five nations -- France, Britain, Spain, the United States and the Confederate States of America. Or four, if you think, as Lincoln did, that the Southern states never succeeded in seceding, so the CSA never existed. In any case, Mobile has done much for the national pastime of the country to which it currently belongs.

Mobile has incubated tremendous major league talent. In a few games in 1969, the ``Miracle Mets'' had an all-Mobile outfield. Five Hall of Famers were raised here -- Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey, Ozzie Smith, Billy Williams and the man whose achievements gain luster from the contrast between him and the man who may soon surpass one of those achievements. As Barry Bonds continues his gimpy, joyless pursuit of such glory as he is eligible for, consider the odyssey of Mobile's greatest native son.

Henry Aaron's parents had moved south from Selma, drawn by work in the shipyards during World War II. So many blacks came here that Davis Avenue -- named for Jefferson Davis -- became known as Little Harlem.

You think that is incongruous? Try this. Grip a bat as a right-hander -- but with your left hand on top. That is how the man who would hit 755 home runs in 23 major league seasons gripped his bat when, as an utterly uncoached 17-year-old, he signed his first professional contract, with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, who recognized an uncut diamond.

When he boarded the train to his future, he had $2 in his pocket. He had never had his own bed, and with the Clowns often slept six nights a week in a bus. He remembers sitting with teammates in a Washington restaurant ``hearing them break all the plates in the kitchen after we were finished eating.''

Aaron's signing bonus with the Milwaukee Braves was a cardboard suitcase. In his first Spring Training, during a game against the Red Sox, Ted Williams came running from the clubhouse to see whose bat was making that distinctive sound. The bat had a slender handle and was whipped by wrists developed hitting dipping and floating bottle caps, pitched by Aaron's playmates when, as was usual, baseballs were scarce.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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