Major League Baseball and the Smithsonian Channel have teamed up to deliver a four-part series entitled “Major League Legends”:
February 29: “The Hammer of Hank Aaron”
March 7: “American Hercules: Babe Ruth”
March 14: “Lou Gehrig: Iron Knight”
March 21: “Ted Williams: The Immortal”
For us fans who have baseball history and lore as part of the fabric of our soul, we can’t help but be excited to see what happens when Smithsonian turns their attention to four legendary figures from the game we love. The result is an unusual approach that blends psychology, mythology, history, and childhood with sports achievement. Rather than the typical highlight reels punctuated with record-breaking statistics, we are instead treated to an analysis of what drove these four men to reach a level that transcended the game.
Since Henry Aaron is the only living member of this foursome, it’s especially compelling to see him interviewed and reminisce about his childhood poverty, run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan, skipping school to hear Jackie Robinson speak, and rocketing through the Nego Leagues and Minor Leagues to reach the Major Leagues by age 20. He even mentions how his father reacted when young Henry mentioned his dream of being a pilot. Much attention is given to the racism, hate mail and threats the Aaron family endured during his pursuit of the Home Run record, and it’s sobering to hear his wife Billye state “you just learn to cope”. This segment is a reminder of just how Aaron changed the world through his dignity and courage.
In what easily could be interpreted as Aaron’s polar opposite, Babe Ruth became a larger than life figure and the first modern day celebrity athlete. However, the story is never that simple. Ruth was basically a neglected kid until age 6 when Brother Matthias became a father figure at St. Mary’s Institutional School for Boys. Ruth’s prowess on the field is truly legendary, and it seems logical that his starting out in life as an unloved child possibly drove him to seek as much attention and fame as possible. This segment features some terrific photographs and clips, as well as the man and the myth.
With an incurable and devastating disease using his name for more than 75 years, Lou Gehrig is often described as the shyest and most courageous of all sports superstars. He was the wholesome All-American boy with the irrepressible work ethic. Imagine being known for never missing a day of work! A childhood of poverty and an unusually close relationship with his mother laid the foundation of a man who was focused on being the best ballplayer he could be. The personality opposite of his teammate Ruth, it was Gehrig whom the parents hoped their sons would grow up to be like. His is a story of motherhood-baseball-America-loyalty-humility- grace-endurance, and as recently as last year, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) inspired millions to participate in the Ice Bucket challenge to raise money for research. It’s little wonder why Gehrig was the first player to ever have his jersey number retired.
The greatest hitter who ever lived. A fighter pilot who served in two wars. Elected to three Halls of Fame: baseball, fishing and fishing. Ted Williams has been described as a baseball savant, but it’s likely his superiority knows no bounds … at least none he would admit to. Despite a tough childhood (alcoholic dad and absentee mother) and losing nearly 5 full baseball seasons due to military service, Williams posted incredible records (2 triple crowns) and his .406 season is one of those etched in stone baseball numbers. It was also Williams who waited until 1999 at Fenway Park to finally dispel John Updike’s proclamation that “Gods don’t answer letters”.
The series offers plenty of film clips and career highlights, but the real focus is on what made these men reach the pinnacle of their profession after significantly less than ideal starts to life. Insight comes from writers, historians, and Phil Couisineau, a learned mythologist. Also appearing in each segment is Will Leitch, founding editor of the sports blog “Deadspin”. He provides the sports and fan perspective in relation to the more psychological and mythic approach of the others. On the downside, Martin Sheen may not have been the best choice as series narrator, as his enthusiasm often seemed forced. The series is less about sports achievement than it is perseverance and personal ambition and self-motivation … certainly topics that we all can learn from and appreciate.