GSU baseball field to honor Hank Aaron where history was madeA steady stream of Hank Aaron fans were drawn to the spot where he hit the 715 homer two days after his death (Photo by Maria Saporta)
By Maria Saporta
It was high on his “to do” list.
Henry “Hank” Aaron really wanted to know more about Georgia State University’s plans to build a baseball park on the site of the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which would include a tribute to Aaron and his incredible contributions to baseball, Atlanta and the country.
Longtime friend Bob Hope had reached out to GSU President Mark Becker and Charlie Cobb, GSU’s director of athletics to see when they could show Hank and Billye Aaron their plans.
On Friday morning, Hope got three dates from Cobb for mid-February. So, he immediately called Hank Aaron, who he had spoken to the day before and the day before that, to schedule the visit. The person who answered the phone hysterically said Hank Aaron was dead.
Although Aaron never got to see the plans in person, he did know they were progressing.
“Hank was so excited when Charlie Cobb and Mark Becker said they were moving ahead with plans for the ballpark that they will dedicate in some way to Hank,” Hope said. Aaron had wanted to meet with them after his Feb. 5 birthday and after he had received his second COVID vaccine.
Cobb expressed sadness that he never got to meet Aaron in person.
“We were in the process of scheduling a meeting for February,” Cobb said. “It was fun thinking about going over to see Hank Aaron and showing him what we were thinking.”
While the meeting with the Aarons never took place, GSU is moving ahead with plans to build a baseball stadium and a softball field on the site of the now-demolished Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium – the place where Aaron hit homerun 715 that broke Babe Ruth’s record. That stadium also hosted the Atlanta Braves when they won their only World Series in 1995.
“We want to honor the history,” said Cobb, who added the memorial for Aaron would include the famous statue of him in the middle of the homerun swing that made history as well as the 715-marker with other tributes to the baseball legend.
On the day Aaron died, President Becker issued the following statement:
“No sports figure has stood taller in Atlanta than Hank Aaron, the greatest home run hitter in the history of Major League Baseball. He is a sports legend, was a pillar of the Atlanta community and needs to be remembered as a first-class human being who displayed dignity in everything he did. Georgia State will proudly immortalize him at the baseball stadium we will construct on the site of the former Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. I extend my deepest sympathies to Billye Aaron and the Aaron family.”
Becker has announced his intention to step down as GSU’s president at the end of this academic year. It would be fitting for the community to support funding for the Aaron tribute and the GSU baseball stadium while Becker is still president.
Cobb said the baseball and softball stadiums are “the next piece of the puzzle” in Georgia State’s quest to create an athletic campus that included the repurposing of Turner Field into the home of GSU’s football team and has been renamed Center Parc Stadium.
On Sunday, a steady pilgrimage of Aaron admirers went to the 715-marker to place flowers and keepsakes in his honor. They walked across a large area of asphalt to get to the place where history was made on April 8, 1974.
“This should be a national monument,” said Scott Cunningham, longtime photographer for the Atlanta Hawks, who was disappointed that there wasn’t a more elaborate tribute to Aaron. “I wanted to come because of how much I loved the guy.”
Georgia State estimates it will cost about $10 million in private funds to build out 2,500-seat baseball field and the Aaron tribute. But Cobb said he is open to creating a more significant destination in Aaron’s honor. He estimated that it would take 12 to 18 months to build out the facility once the money has been raised.
“It’s very good for Georgia State,” Hope said. “It will give that facility a lot of personality, and it will have tremendous historical significance.”
Hope said a memorial to Hank Aaron could garner support from Major League Baseball, the Atlanta Braves, the business community – locally and nationally as well as the myriad of people who loved and worshipped the homerun king. It’s even possible the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia would want to support a landmark tribute for Aaron.
Hope has experience with such an endeavor. He led the fundraising effort for the historic Hank Aaron statue, which was dedicated in September 1982. He also helped realize Aaron’s desire for the statue to remain in the city of Atlanta near the sacred place where history was made rather than following the Atlanta Braves to the new Cobb County stadium.
“For Georgia State, it is an enormously big opportunity,” said Hope, who believes the memorial should be commensurate with grandeur of Aaron. “To honor someone like Hank, you can’t do it half-heartedly. You’ve got to do it right. It’s an historical site.”
Cobb said the scale of the Aaron tribute “all depends on funding.” It is not known whether the ballpark would be named after Aaron and whether the memorial will be a plaza or more.
“What’s envisioned is a plaza, but it could grow from there,” Cobb said. “The idea for us is that (the Aaron tribute) becomes a visible piece of the overall development. We want to build a facility for our program and to honor Hank Aaron and his legacy. There’s an opportunity for that to get flushed out.”
Cobb said the tribute would be within the circular blue wall that followed the design of the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The Aaron plaza would be in left field at the point of entry to the stadium. The 715-marker would be part of the outdoor structure “that will be accessible 24/7.”
After Aaron’s death on Jan. 22, the outpouring of love – locally and nationally – showed the appetite that exists to honor a great man who brought racial healing to Atlanta through his athletic feats and philanthropic initiatives.
Let’s seize the moment and create a national historic landmark that will keep his legacy alive for generations to come.
The 50th anniversary of Aaron’s historic homerun will be on April 8, 2024. What a great day that can be to celebrate Hank Aaron and the place where history was made.