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.
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.
"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."
Aaron grew up in segregated Mobile, Ala.; in 1953, at age 19, he broke the color barrier in the deep-South Sally League, enduring (with teammates Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner) the kind of racist fury Jackie Robinson had felt a few years earlier in the North. John Lewis, the US congressman and civil rights leader, suggests Aaron was endowed with "that extra ounce of grace" that allows someone to endure extreme hardship. And for a black man in America, especially in the South, that meant not showing your anger.
"I think that in order to grow up black in the South, you had to learn that people were trying to do all kinds of things to try to intimidate you," said Mr. Young, recalling Aaron's struggle. "You never got angry. Anger was seen as weakness in the context of civil rights."
In a later generation, Mr. Obama built this understanding into his presidential campaign.
The famously calm demeanor of Obama – like Aaron, he is Number 44 (the 44th president) – can be understood not simply as a character trait, or explained by his never having felt the battering hatred of segregation. Just as significant is Obama's understanding of the psychological and historical dynamics laid out by Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint: "Because of slavery and all the oppression, the lynchings, there's a feeling that the black man is a very threatening creature."
Both Poussaint and Obama used that understanding to help transform the bogeyman stereotype. The psychiatrist worked with Bill Cosby to create the characters in television's Huxtable family. The candidate did so by his remarkable steadiness and by not taking the bait despite unsubtle jabs (consider the Sarah Palin "real America" comment, which many took to be racial code language). The ultimate transformation of the scary black man image was in how America began to see a young African-American as a cool, steady presence. Beside John McCain, who sometimes came across as frenetic, Obama was the steady one we looked to for guidance.
For Aaron, there was a price to be paid for swallowing his anger and enduring the death threats, racist catcalls, and hundreds of thousands of hate-filled letters. "It carved a part of me out that I will never restore, never regain," he said.
Yet he persisted in part because he felt like he was "in the middle of something." Thus, as he rounded the bases in Atlanta on April 8, 1974, he shed not only the ghost of Babe Ruth, but the burden of the struggle which he was in – a struggle that transcended sports, to a deeper realm of courage, resilience, and justice.