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What Hank Aaron and Barack Obama have in common

Thirty-five years after Hank defied threats and hate mail to break Babe Ruth’s home-run record Obama is also showing us a deeper realm of courage, resilience, and justice.

By Sandy Tolan / April 8, 2009

Los Angeles

Thirty-five years ago today, on a cool evening at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Hank Aaron shattered the most hallowed record in sports: Babe Ruth's career home run mark of 714. Yet Mr. Aaron's feat was remarkable not for its dethroning of a mythic American hero, but for its legacy of grace under fire – a legacy that would be invoked decades later in a race for the White House.

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When Aaron swung at a fastball from the Dodgers' Al Downing and ran around the bases for the 715th time, he didn't feel like celebrating. "I was just glad it was over," Number 44 recalled many years later. Aaron, a black man, had just endured nearly two years of death threats, and literally tons of vicious hate mail – simply for daring to challenge the Babe.

A sampling:

"Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies...."

"Retire or die!!!"

"My gun is watching your every black move...."

"I was just trying to play baseball," Aaron told me in 1999, the 25th anniversary of 715. But for Aaron it would never be "just" about baseball. As the threats poured in, Braves officials assigned him a 24-hour bodyguard. FBI agents watched over his daughter, Gaile, at Fisk University in Nashville, while police escorted his younger children to school in Atlanta. In a chase that should have been joyous, Hank Aaron risked his life each time he stepped into the batter's box. Few of his fans, or even teammates, knew what he was going through. "I saw a lot of loneliness," said Aaron's confidant, Dusty Baker, who played alongside him in the outfield and watched in awe as Aaron blocked out the threats to focus on his task. "When you get a strong black man, the more you mess with him, the stronger you make him."

Like President Obama's quest for the nation's highest office several decades later, the slugger's ordeal had become part of a historical struggle shared by countless African-Americans.

"That was a time when Martin Luther King was saying to everybody, 'If you haven't found something you're willing to die for, you probably aren't fit to live,' " recalled Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and top aide to Dr. King. "And I think Hank had decided that his life was vulnerable, and that if it meant dying in the course of doing his best, I don't think he actually worried about it."