He shares the record for appearances in baseball's All-Star Game. He had heard plenty of cheers and a few groans when he broke Babe Ruth's home run record, and set the career mark of 755 round-trippers that stands today. Yet on the day Hank Aaron donated his Milwaukee Brewers jersey to the Smithsonian, there were no crowds, no ceremony.
Befitting his subdued demeanor, Aaron walked into the National Museum of American History without an entourage, carrying a garment bag, and handed over the shirt with No. 44 on it to the curators. "It was thrilling. He is such a low-key person. A few people recognized him and he signed autographs. That was that," says Ellen Roney Hughes, a cultural historian at the museum.
For almost 30 years Hughes has been calling and writing to sports figures, their families and agents, begging for this item or that. Now the Smithsonian has 5,000 three-dimensional sports items, as well as thousands of trading cards and other paper materials.
In the fall, the Smithsonian will show the public a sampling of artifacts from athletes who left a mark not only on their sports but on American society. "Sports: Breaking Barriers, Breaking Records" is a project of the American History Museum and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The show will open in Washington in October and tour six other cities.
Hughes, a native Washingtonian steeped in the culture of the Washington Redskins, Washington Senators and Georgetown Hoyas, is the Joe Gibbs of her turf. These artifacts open up a host of memories for Hughes, as well as the public. "Terry Bradshaw's uniform," she says, folding back the protective cloth from the famed quarterback's Pittsburgh Steelers black and gold garb. "That's four Super Bowls!" The museum received Steelers memorabilia with the help of the late Pennsylvania senator John Heinz. "Around 1980, right after the Steelers won a Super Bowl, Senator Heinz had a party on the Hill, and he invited the team and he invited us. They brought the donations and we brought our deeds of gift," she recalls, referring to the document that transfers ownership to the Smithsonian.
And so it goes. A trophy won by Jim Thorpe in 1914, in his last amateur track meet. Sonja Henie's skates. A ball autographed by Jackie Robinson. Gertrude Ederle's goggles, worn during her historic English Channel swim. The tennis dress Althea Gibson wore and the racket she used at her Wimbledon win in 1957. Arnold Palmer's Masters trophy. The shirt of Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes. Jim Brown's football jersey. The batting helmet and uniform of Roberto Clemente. The tennis dress of Billie Jean King. Pele's soccer jersey. The skating costume of Olympian Kristi Yamaguchi. Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls basketball jersey.
Then there's Sandy Koufax's glove. "Oh, what a night. Sports Illustrated, for its 25th anniversary in 1979, arranged for us to get something from every Sportswoman and Man of the year. Billie Jean King, Stan Musial, Arnold Palmer, Jerry Lucas, Bill Russell, Tom Seaver, Bobby Orr, Lee Trevino, Jackie Stewart," she says, still marveling at the assembly. "The whole thing was so overwhelming. We had just gotten started, and to have this big input of confidence, money and the fabulous artifacts, it was confirmation we were doing the right thing."
And there's Muhammad Ali's robe and gloves from the "Rumble in the Jungle" -- his battle against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974 with the whole world watching.
"I kept calling and writing. And his lovely assistant would say, 'Oh yes, he will give it to you. But he wants to bring it.' I said, 'Oh sure,' " Hughes recalls. One day the assistant called and said they were stopping by the next day. Ali did not simply walk in but came with an entourage of bodyguards and staff. "The entire museum was electrified," says Hughes. "He was wonderful to everyone and, of course, we all kept our kids out of school."
The white terry cloth robe, which he autographed for the Smithsonian, is now on a mannequin, being cleaned. Hughes puts on her gloves and smooths down the shoulders. "He went against convention, not having a satin robe," she says, adding that the show's designers want to show everything in a jewel-like setting.
The traveling show will feature 40 artifacts that tell the stories of 37 people. It will include a film not just about the show's stars but also other groundbreakers.
The Smithsonian sports collection began in the 1880s when George Brown Goode, a museum administrator, acquired some amateur sporting equipment. In the storage bins are examples of skates, footballs and tennis rackets of the time. Hughes is carrying forth that tradition by paying special attention to inventions.
The show will include a tennis racket designed by engineer Howard Head. "He invented the flexible ski and the wide-bodied tennis racket. He was meticulous in preserving his drawings and experimental models," says Hughes. The museum received his collection from his foundation.
Also in the section of the exhibition dealing with sports innovations: a roller skate designed by James Plimpton in the 1860s, a swim fin designed by Owen Churchill in 1939, a tennis wheelchair designed by Marilyn Hamilton in 1983.
"The idea of building the collection was to collect sports in the way they relate to American history and American culture. The point is to remember the important things, the events, like Jackie Robinson and Althea Gibson, but also to reveal things, like the Olympics and how they became such a huge part of sports," Hughes says.
Olympians will not be overlooked. There will be an 1896 participant's medal from the first modern Games in Athens, a jersey and hockey stick from the U.S. "miracle on ice" victory at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980, as well as items from sprinter Bobby Morrow, skaters Brian Boitano and Bonnie Blair and gymnast Dominique Dawes.
As she looks at one of the artifacts for the show, Hughes explains that the museum's collecting was revived as a new crop of historians began to tell the American story from different perspectives.
"When I was in school, history was men at war, men at politics, men who made things. When I came to the Smithsonian in the 1970s to work on the Bicentennial, there was a new wave in history, where ordinary events matter . . . people other than politicians and generals," says Hughes, who has an undergraduate degree from Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., and a master's and doctorate from the University of Maryland.
For her, working on the museum's signature show on immigration in 1976 reinforced the importance of sports and entertainment in a cross section of American life. (Her domain also includes the entertainment collection: She acquired Kermit the Frog from "Sesame Street" and the ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" for the museum.)
Sports wasn't a natural avenue into scholarship for the young woman who just didn't have the sports hunger. "I was too short for basketball, too big for gymnastics, too vain to wear the field hockey uniforms," says Hughes. She played and coached softball. But now she simply checks out the major events, such as the Tour de France, and goes with her husband, a sculptor, to Camden Yards to see his beloved Orioles play. In her spare time, she is writing a book on the history of exercise machines.
She loves the stories of how things came to the museum. Consider one of the baseballs signed by Babe Ruth. In 1927, Yankees trainer Doc Woods was embarrassed that his wife had sprinkled disinfectant powder on the door of a child who was quarantined in their apartment building. By way of apology, he asked Ruth and the rest of the team to sign a ball for a sick child. The boy kept the ball -- with Ruth's and Lou Gehrig's autographs -- all his life, and passed it on to his children. In 2002 his son gave the ball to the museum.
The museum has several Ruth balls, and one signed by Ruth and Aaron.
But there is only one belt from John L. Sullivan, the bare-knuckle boxer who once went 75 rounds in 1889. It's a huge and gaudy band of gold, decorated with the boxer's picture and American flags. Hughes explains his lasting place: "He was American's first national sports celebrity, and this was not only a symbol of his power but also the rise of Irish Americans in American life."
There's another singular item from an unlikely source that has as much to do with politics as sports: While Abraham Lincoln was waiting in Springfield, Ill., during the spring of 1860 to find out whether he had the Republican nomination, he spent his time playing handball. (Lincoln had had a court built in an alley.) The small handball that he used to reduce the anxiety, while he orchestrated his bid and waited for the news from Chicago, will be the first ball in the show.