As baseball season gets underway, Tolan compares Hank Aaron to Barack Obama in Christian Science Monitor commentary

Posted April 8, 2009

Journalism professor Sandy Tolan (pictured above) published a column on the Christian Science Monitor's Web site April 8 comparing the performance of two pioneering public figures: baseball great Hank Aaron and President Barack Obama.

Thirty-five years ago, on April 8, 1974, Aaron hit his 715th career home run, breaking a record held by Babe Ruth for nearly 40 years. As interest in Aaron's performance grew and it became clear that he was on a path to eclipse one of baseball's most revered figures, racial tensions surged to the forefront, Tolan writes.

"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," Tolan writes. "'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."

Although Aaron displayed grace under fire, Tolan explains, the political temperature of the time prevented Aaron from showing his seething frustration sparked by the furious reaction to his performance. Taking lessons from the nonviolent protests of the 1960s, Aaron hid his anger and projected calm in his public appearances.

Years later, Tolan sees a similar strategy at play as another racial barrier is broken.

"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," Tolan writes. "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.'"

Overcoming this stereotype was key to Obama's success, Tolan writes. "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," he says. "Beside John McCain, who sometimes came across as frenetic, Obama was the steady one we looked to for guidance."

In the end, Tolan sees Obama's victory as further proof that a calm demeanor in the face of hardship gives the best results, bringing us "to a deeper realm of courage, resilience and justice."

Sandy Tolan has reported for radio and print outlets for more than 25 years. His book Me and Hank, A Boy and His Hero 25 Years Later uses interviews with Hank Aaron to chart the impact of Aaron's record-breaking performance on race relations in America. His second book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East was a finalist for the National Book Critics' Circle award.

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Sandy Tolan


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