By Maria Saporta
It was both symbolic and intentional to announce the pending sale of Turner Field in a tent next to the famous Hank Aaron statue.
It marked a moment. Atlanta may be losing the Braves, but it will always have Hank Aaron and his remarkable legacy – one that extended far beyond hitting homeruns. Hank Aaron built bridges between the races in the days of segregation in the deep South.
In many ways, Aaron reflects the very soul of Atlanta – in his kind, humble and understated way.
But the question remains. What will happen to the statue of him hitting Homerun #715?
“The Hank Aaron statue is staying in the City of Atlanta,” said Keisha Lance Bottoms, executive director of the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority. “We know it will stay in Atlanta. We’ve had a lot of asks.”
Two of the leading requests have come from the development team that has a $30 million deal to buy the 67-acre Turner Field property – Georgia State University, Carter and Oakland Development, and then a request from the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
The choice apparently is between locating the statue where history was made or locating it where it will be seen by the most people in the center of Atlanta’s tourism district.
“I’m open,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said after the deal was announced. “I want to listen to the advice of Hank Aaron and his family. What I do know – it is going to be preserved in an appropriate fashion. I’m not going to drive that decision. We are just happy to get to this day.”
During the press conference, Reed said: “It’s fitting we make this announcement next to the statue of Hank Aaron. Hank Aaron helped unify the city with one slug. The old stadium was named the launch pad. It was an open invitation to homerun hitters. Today is all about letting go of all the parking lots and saying good-bye to asphalt eyesores.”
Georgia State and Carter, which will co-develop the site in a mixed-use community, have expressed an interest in honoring Hank Aaron as part of their development.
During the press conference, Becker said that part of GSU’s proposal was to put a “baseball park there where we can honor the history of that site and the history of Henry Aaron.”
In a phone interview later, Becker said it premature.
“We would be happy to incorporate the statue into what we will do,” Becker said. “Exactly how we are going to do that, I’m not sure. If we have an opportunity to have the statue to honor Hank Aaron, we would love to do so. We are not at that point.”
Meanwhile, Scott Taylor, president of Carter, said Atlanta has an opportunity to make Hank Aaron Drive one of the greatest streets in America.”
GSU likely will build a historic baseball field on the same site of the now-demolished Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Taylor said the intent is to connect the site to where the Atlanta Braves won the World Series and where Aaron hit the homerun that helped change the hearts and minds of people around the country.
“We have had discussions with the Aarons around honoring his legacy in some appropriate way,” Taylor said. “We recognize the rich sports legacy on the site, and we want to maintain that going forward.”
Meanwhile, Derreck Kayongo, president and CEO of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, said he love to locate the statue near his attraction.
“I came up with the idea that it would be a wonderful opportunity for both of us – the Center and Hank Aaron,” Kayongo said. “Wouldn’t it be great if we had it?”
A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, said the downtown community would be happy to work with Hank Aaron to to find the best spot for the statue.
“I don’t have any problem with it staying there,” Robinson said. “I think Henry Aaron is a great story any place in Atlanta.”
So then it boils down to where does Aaron want his statue to be.
“We have talked to Hank about that,” said Becker about the GSU option. “I’ve heard him say he loves the idea. It’s where history happened.”
But asked whether the plans would include the naming of the baseball field after Aaron or where the statue would be or whether there would some kind of museum or way to fully honor Aaron, Becker was short on specifics.
“We haven’t designed anything yet,” Becker said. “We don’t have any specifics of what we are going to do.”
But the two entities making the decision of where the statue will go – the Recreation Authority and Hank Aaron along with his wife, Billye – would like to know more.
Could baseball diamond be called Hank Aaron Field?
Or perhaps Hank Aaron Field at a yet-to-be-named baseball park – giving GSU the opportunity to sell naming rights while honoring Aaron at the same time.
“It is not something the Recreation Authority has discussed in full,” said Bottoms, who was interested in knowing more about how Aaron would be honored.
When contacted by phone, Aaron said he was touched by people wanting to honor him. But when asked about his preference, Aaron said he first wanted to talk to GSU’s Mark Becker.
“I’m not going to say anything right now until after I talk to him,” Aaron said.
Based on an earlier interview with Hank and Billye Aaron, having the statue remain in Atlanta was especially important.
But then the Atlanta Braves claimed they actually owned the statue, a fact that was rightly challenged. Citizens from Atlanta raised the money for the statue, and they gave it to the Authority back when they unveiled the statue.
The Recreation Authority took a stand telling the Braves the statue would remain in Atlanta.
After months of a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war, the Braves finally agreed to a “two statue solution” that had been suggested in SaportaReport.
Since then, the Atlanta Braves have commissioned internationally acclaimed artist Ross Rosin to sculpt a new Aaron statue that will be part of SunTrust Park.
Hank Aaron deserves no less. His legacy belongs in Atlanta – and with the Braves.