He was 0 for 5 in his first regular season game, which was the first day in which players were no longer allowed to toss their gloves on the field when coming in to bat. Soon, however, Time magazine was heralding ``The Talented Shuffler'' who ``is not as dumb as he looks when he shuffles around the field.'' Misperceiving, through the lens of race, economy of motion for lethargy, sportswriters called him ``uncomplicated'' and ``a child of nature.'' Lonnie Wheeler, who helped Aaron write his autobiography ``I Had a Hammer,'' notes that Joe DiMaggio's similar understated manner was characterized as dignified and graceful.
In 1973, as Aaron approached Babe Ruth's record of 714 home runs -- he would break it in April 1974 -- he received, according to the U.S. Postal Service, about 930,000 letters, more than any nonpolitician in America. Dinah Shore was second with 60,000. Much of his mail was hateful. He took out his anger on baseballs. The 1973 season was the last in which horsehide balls were used. Aaron's 714th was the first home run ever hit with a cowhide ball.
When Aaron retired, he was Major League Baseball's last link to the Negro Leagues. Today he is baseball's link to the era when home runs did not cause fans, suspecting steroids, to view sluggers with a moral squint. Aaron became baseball's most methodical -- and, properly measured by total bases, most effective -- hitter after being raised in a household where, he remembers, ``we almost never ate anything that was store-bought. I've gone many, many weeks with just cornbread, butter beans and collard greens.''
Mobile's public library, writes Wheeler, ``opened its doors to blacks before other Southern cities encouraged them to read.'' Spring Hill College here, which integrated -- by conscience, not coercion -- in 1954, was praised by Martin Luther King in his ``Letter from Birmingham Jail.'' Today, if you turn onto Satchel Paige Drive, then onto Bolling Brothers Boulevard (Frank and Milt, nephews of a major leaguer, played a combined 19 seasons), you reach Hank Aaron Stadium, home of the Mobile BayBears.
When Bonds hits his 756th, real fans, who know how to read the record book, will yawn, confident that Aaron's record will remain the real one until Alex Rodriguez, who has 175 more home runs than Bonds did when he was Rodriguez's age, breaks it.