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Aaron documentary premieres on 82nd birthday

Crowd gathers at National Center for Civil and Human Rights for 'The Hammer of Hank Aaron'
MLB.com @mlbbowman

ATLANTA -- Hank Aaron was serenaded as he walked into the National Center for Civil and Human Rights early Friday evening. A cozy crowd had gathered within this downtown Atlanta museum for the premiere of a documentary that celebrates the undaunted determination that carried Aaron into uncharted lands of accomplishment.

But before watching this hourlong feature, some of the men and women took advantage of the chance to sing "Happy Birthday" to an appreciative Aaron, who was joined by his wife, Billye, and his longtime friend, Andrew Young, whose political and civil rights accomplishments led him to become the United States' representative to the United Nations.

ATLANTA -- Hank Aaron was serenaded as he walked into the National Center for Civil and Human Rights early Friday evening. A cozy crowd had gathered within this downtown Atlanta museum for the premiere of a documentary that celebrates the undaunted determination that carried Aaron into uncharted lands of accomplishment.

But before watching this hourlong feature, some of the men and women took advantage of the chance to sing "Happy Birthday" to an appreciative Aaron, who was joined by his wife, Billye, and his longtime friend, Andrew Young, whose political and civil rights accomplishments led him to become the United States' representative to the United Nations.

"It's nice to be here," Aaron said with a smile. "I'm 82 years old and I feel quite proud of myself, not from a baseball standpoint, but strictly from a health standpoint. I feel quite healthy. The only thing that is bad that I don't have is my two legs. When I started playing baseball, people said the thing that would hinder me was that the legs would give away."

Hammer timeless: On birthday, Aaron's feats still awe

Aaron's need for a walking cane was expedited two years ago when he slipped on ice and broke his hip. But he still gets around pretty well for a man who collected at least 700 more total bases than any other Major Leaguer. And the energy Aaron still possesses at this stage of his life provides yet another reason to be envious of what he has accomplished while overcoming incredible obstacles.

"He could pass for 60," Young said, extending his compliments by saying, "[Aaron] was at the right place at the right time."

Aaron's historical contributions, which extend beyond the baseball diamond, are detailed within "The Hammer of Hank Aaron," which will debut on The Smithsonian Channel on Feb. 29 at 8 p.m. ET. This film is part of Smithsonian Channel and Major League Baseball's "Major League Legends" series, which tells the stories of four players who transcended the National Pastime and left legacies as true American icons: Aaron, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams.

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"Martin Luther King [Jr.] said we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will perish together as fools," Young said. "I think it was baseball that brought America together in one of its finest hours. Our sports heroes in general helped make this happen."

Aaron was born one year before Babe Ruth hit the last of his 714 homers, and Aaron signed his first contract with the Braves in 1952, five years after Jackie Robinson had broken Major League Baseball's color barrier. Thus, he was repeatedly introduced to racial biases and tensions that only heightened as he got closer to breaking Ruth's "unbreakable" home run record.

This new film focuses on some of the emotions Aaron felt both as a child in racially charged Alabama and as a baseball hero whose heritage heightened outrage among bigots who did not want to see Ruth's record broken by an African American.

Viewers are reminded that there were days when Aaron's mother shielded him by making him hide under his bed until the Ku Klux Klan passed by their house. Aaron also smirks when he reminisces about moving into a white Milwaukee neighborhood. He gained a sense of what his next-door neighbor felt about his arrival when she told him that her dog was incessantly barking because he "hadn't seen too many colored" folks before on their property.

Like many other documentaries about Aaron, this latest one provides a close look at the vitriol that was included with the death threats and hate mail that Aaron received leading up to April 8, 1974, when he broke Ruth's record by hitting his 715th career home run in front of the hometown fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

The significance of the accomplishment achieved in the midst of such strife helped award-winning journalist Howard Bryant and many others to recognize how the chase toward that record-breaking home run served as an inspiration as Americans distanced themselves from the segregation and hate that had consumed the South throughout the 1960s.

Aaron continues to serve as an inspiration both to those who had the pleasure to watch him play and to those who simply marvel at the legendary tales about what he accomplished during his 23-season career.

Though he is slowed by a cane, Aaron delighted some of the Braves prospects last Saturday when they arrived in the home clubhouse at Turner Field and saw the legendary figure working out in a manner that indicated he certainly doesn't feel like he's 82 years old.

"I'm still taking therapy and doing all the things I'm supposed to do," Aaron said. "I think [my legs] will be all right. I sleep well at night."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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