TV News: Smithsonian Channel Premieres ‘The Hammer of Hank Aaron’

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CHICAGO – One of the greatest records in baseball, the total home run record held by Babe Ruth, was challenged by an unassuming ballplayer named Henry “Hank” Aaron in the early part of the 1970s. The quest to break that record was complicated because Aaron was a black man, and race in America again became an issue. The Smithsonian Channel chronicles that journey, as part of their new “Major League Legends” series, with “The Hammer of Hank Aaron,” premiering on February 29th, 2016.

The Hammer of Hank Aaron
’The Hammer of Hank Aaron’ Premieres on Monday, February 29th, 2016, on the Smithsonian Channel
Photo credit: Smithsonian Channel

The Smithsonian Channel was in Chicago to launch their “Major League Series” – which will also profile Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams – at Studio Xfinity, an amazing 9,000 square foot store where Comcast customers can test, upgrade and interact with a wide range of their TV and security product offerings. The Smithsonian Channel welcomed Dr. Damion Thomas (Curator at the Smithsonian Institute), former major league pitcher (1986-96) “Starvin’” Marvin Freeman and Fred Mitchell, a former Dean of sportswriters for the Chicago Tribune, to talk about Hank Aaron after a screening of the documentary. The panel was hosted by LeeAnn Trotter of NBC-TV Chicago. was there, and got to talk to the panelists and Charles Poe, Senior Vice President at the Smithsonian Channel, regarding “The Hammer of Hank Aaron.” Marvin, you came up in the major leagues in the 1980s. In your study of players like Hank Aaron, what amazes you the most about how African American players were treated in the days shortly after Jackie Robinson broke the color line?

Marvin Freeman: What amazes me was the type of abuse they had to take – during the game and off the field – and how they were able to put that behind them and concentrate on playing the game at a high level.

Marvin Freeman
Starvin’ Marvin Freeman is Projected on the Big Screen at the Xfinity Studio Store
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for Fred, You helped to write a bio of Billy Williams [Chicago Cubs Hall-of-Famer], and both he and Hank were from around Mobile, Alabama. What did you find interesting about that area since it spawned those two great players?

Fred Mitchell: Actually it spawned more than two. Willie McCovey, Tommie Agee and Satchel Paige are from the area. Billy Williams always says it was ‘something in the water.’ [laughs] You came into the sportswriting world around the same time Hank broke Ruth’s record. What do your remember about the divide between black and white regarding Hank’s pursuit and breaking of the record?

Mitchell: I remember he got death threats, and also just the general surprise when Hank suddenly approached the record, because he was low key and never had a noticeably monster year. But he consistently hit 35 to 40 home runs a year, and it caught people by surprise when suddenly he was within striking distance of the record. Another thing I remember is that he was stuck on 713 [total career home runs] at the end of the 1973 season, so we had to wait another year until he broke it at 715. It became about suspense and anticipation. Charles, how did the point-of-view in this Smithsonian documentary, which paired Hank Aaron’s journey with the civil rights movement, come about?

Charles Poe: The entire series is more than the four baseball players, it also is about the impact that all of them had beyond just the baseball field. We felt that Hank Aaron story is tied directly to the civil rights movement. As I’ve pointed before, the story of baseball’s integration didn’t end with Jackie Robinson breaking the color line [in 1947].

Hank Aaron was pivotal because he became more than just the guy who integrated the team. He was a superstar, and his numbers made him so. It was a way to take a quiet and understated player, and fully explain his significance at an historical level. Marvin, since you were a pitcher, and only batted occasionally, you had two home runs in your career – only 753 less than Hank Aaron. What do you remember about those two dingers?

Fred Mitchell
Fred Mitchell, Dean of Chicago Sportswriters
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Freeman: [Laughs] My first home run was against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and it was against Pedro Martinez’s brother Ramon. I was having a game in a great groove, and although Ramon was a great pitcher I was totally relaxed at the plate – when I hit the home run I thought, ‘okay, that’s what I’m suppose to do.’

My second home run was against the Cubs, and me being born in Chicago made it that much more special. I hit it off of Kevin Foster, and unusually he had hit a home run off me a couple innings earlier. When he hit it, my teammates were saying, ‘your Mom just saw you give a home run up to the pitcher.’ So before I got my turn at bat, I told everyone I was going to get him back. We were playing at Coors Field, and I made contact after being down 0-2 in the count. If you made contact in Colorado the right way, the ball is going out. [laughs] As I was rounding the bases, I realized that I might never do it again, so I took my time and enjoyed it. Fred, if you can take a time machine back to one of the live sport events you were privileged to cover, which one would it be and why?

Mitchell: There were just so many I can’t name one. Some of then weren’t even victorious for the Chicago teams. [laughs] The Cubs in the 1984 playoffs come to mind [lost the series 3-2 after leading 2-0]. Ha. That was the series where in Game 5 the first baseman Leon Durham made a key error, and then confessed that someone had spilled Gatorade on his glove before the game. Who broke that story?

Mitchell: I confess it was me. No way, awesome. How did you get it?

Mitchell: I had contacts in the locker room, and got it out of them. That was an unbelievable situation. The ‘Gatorade Glove’!

“The Hammer of Hank Aaron,” part of the Smithsonian Channel’s “Major League Legends,” premieres on Monday, February 29th, 2016, at 8pm ET/7pm CST. See television provider for channel location. Featuring an interview with Hank Aaron. Written by Josh Oshinsky and Aaron Cohen. Directed by Jonathon Laureano and Josh Oshinsky. Studio Xfinity is located 901 W. Weed Street in Chicago. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer. Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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