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Major League Legends is captivating for all

Both casual and hardcore fans will enjoy the series
MLB.com

The Smithsonian Channel is not a sports network. The stories of Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams are tales that have been hashed over endlessly.

Which makes "Major League Legends" that much more impressive. The four-part series, produced in conjunction with Major League Baseball, begins with Aaron's segment on Monday. The result impressively surmounts potential pitfalls to create a show that should appeal to both casual and hardcore fans.

The Smithsonian Channel is not a sports network. The stories of Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams are tales that have been hashed over endlessly.

Which makes "Major League Legends" that much more impressive. The four-part series, produced in conjunction with Major League Baseball, begins with Aaron's segment on Monday. The result impressively surmounts potential pitfalls to create a show that should appeal to both casual and hardcore fans.

While each player has a unique story, there are common threads that bring the package together. Each story illustrates obstacles the player had to overcome to achieve greatness. Each solicits input from noted authors as well as psychologists to delve into the underpinnings of the player's success. Each is cinematically striking, with video clips projected onto landmarks such as the portion of the outfield fence over which Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th home run, the facade of Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park's Green Monster. And each is narrated, with appropriate gravitas, by Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner Martin Sheen.

Most uniquely, though, each subject is viewed through a prism of unabashed heroism. That doesn't mean that faults -- Ruth's carousing or Williams' temper, for example -- are whitewashed away. Instead, these traits are recast as merely human failings of baseball immortals.

To underscore that point, mythologist Phil Cousineau is featured in all four chapters. Who even knew there was such an area of expertise?

That leitmotif is least apparent in the opening hour. Still, there is a recurring image of a blacksmith creating a hammer out of hot metal. And while it's an obvious nod to his nickname, Hammerin' Hank, and the crucible of poverty and racism that shaped him, it could also be a reference to the hammer of the Norse god, Thor.

Cousineau also notes that the backlash Aaron received as he approached the all-time home run record could be attributed in part to his challenging Ruth, who had become a baseball god.

The connection becomes more explicit as the series progresses. Part 2, focusing on Ruth, is titled "American Hercules" and the point is made that his larger-than-life off-the-field exploits were an essential part of the myth-making that surrounded him.

So while the familiar details of his upbringing, being largely abandoned by his parents and being sent to the St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore, are recounted, they are now examined in the context of how those experiences influenced the rest of his life and how struggle is an archetypal part of most myths.

He is compared to Prometheus, who introduced fire to the world, and Odysseus. Cousineau proposes that he had ichor -- the blood of the gods -- running through his veins. A shot of the Apollo statue outside New York's Rockefeller Center adds to the imagery.

By Part 3, the connection is even more overt.

Gehrig's "body inspired comparisons to a god," Sheen intones. "But humanity and grace in the face of impending doom made him immortal."

Cousineau invokes Luke Skywalker and Mozart and Camelot. The first baseman is compared to Percival, one of King Arthur's legendary Knights of the Round Table, who, like Gehrig, had to break away from a protective mother to fulfill his destiny.

In the concluding episode, Williams is variously portrayed as Apollo, Narcissus and Nestor as his obsessive desire to be known as the best hitter who ever lived is deconstructed. He also used that same narrow focus to become an expert fly fisherman who is in two angling Hall of Fames as well as being an ace fighter pilot.

All of this provides a context that enriches the more traditional biographical underpinnings. Aaron recounts being told by his mother to come inside and hide under the bed because the Ku Klux Klan was coming to burn a cross on the front lawn. He told his father he wanted to become a pilot when he grew up.

"Boy, there is no black pilot," he recalls his dad responding. He recalls cutting school to hear Jackie Robinson speak at a Mobile drugstore.

Surely, some fans will quibble over who was left off this Mt. Rushmore of baseball greats. But nobody should deny that this quartet, four players who transcended the game and left legacies that have endured long after their final at-bats, is more than worthy of being featured.

Paul Hagen is a national columnist for MLB.com.

Paul Hagen is a national columnist for MLB.com.