By Maria Saporta
A couple of months ago, a couple of Atlanta Braves representatives told me they owned the statue of Henry Aaron hitting the 715 homerun that broke Babe Ruth’s record.
They told me the Braves would be moving the statue to Cobb County as part of their new baseball stadium.
That struck me as odd. All my research up until then had been that the statue belonged to the citizens of Atlanta and Fulton County.
So I retraced my steps to try to figure out who really owned the statue.
When I contacted Violet Travis Ricks, executive director of the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority, in December, she responded with this ambiguous email:
“We are in the preliminary phase of itemizing the monuments, statues, etc., at Turner Field. The process for determining owners and future location of property at Turner Field has not started and meetings regarding it will probably not occur until sometime next year.”
When I followed up with the research that I had done on the ownership of the statue, she repeated her non answer.
“Hi Maria, I have not located documentation related to the Henry Aaron Statue. As I stated in an earlier email, we expect to meet and confer with the Braves sometime in the next year regarding decisions related to assets remaining or items to be removed from Turner Field. Happy Holidays. Thanks Violet.”
It was a bit of relief when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote a story on February 11 with the headline: “Monument Man: Is Hank Aaron’s statue heading to the suburbs?” Apparently a fellow journalist, Katie Leslie, also was having trouble getting to the heart of the matter about what was really going on with the statue.
So I emailed the Atlanta Braves asking for documentation that they did in fact own the statue. I didn’t get a timely response, so I resent the email to make sure they had received it.
“Thanks, we did receive your email,” responded Beth Marshall, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta Braves. “We won’t be commenting.”
So much for that.
Well here is what I do know.
Veteran Atlanta public relations executive, Bob Hope, has given me a detailed account of how the Hank Aaron statue came to be. At the end of this column, I am including the entire email that he sent to me on Dec. 17 after the Braves claimed to own the statue.
In a nutshell, Hope championed a community-wide effort to build a statue in Hank Aaron’s honor. The money was raised by the people (the Braves did not contribute to the cause), and the statue was donated to the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority – an entity that belongs to the citizens of the City of Atlanta and Fulton County.
Back in October, I had the pleasure to interview Henry and Billye Aaron – and the topic of the statue came up. At that time, there was no question. The Aarons wanted the statue to stay in Atlanta. Since then the Braves organization have been lobbying them as hard as they can – with mixed results.
Well let me be as clear as I can be.
Until the Braves prove to all of us that they own the statue, they should not be allowed to move it.
The statue does not belong to them. And it doesn’t even belong to Henry and Billye Aaron.
All indications so far show that the statue belongs to the citizens of Atlanta and Fulton County. So we should decide the statue’s fate.
Now to my friends at the Atlanta Braves: here is your one and only play.
You can design an elegant, graceful solution.
Of course you know there still are bitter feelings ITP about moving from your home of 50 years to a formerly tree-filled site OTP that’s is not served by rail transit.
Why rub salt in that wound?
Moving the statue to Cobb County would cause even more hard feelings. Plus it would not honor Aaron’s legacy – how it has been inevitably intertwined with Atlanta’s history of racial tolerance and healing.
The only solution is a two-statue solution.
Announce to the world that you will be commissioning a second statue of Henry Aaron. The Colorado-based sculptor Ed Dwight is still alive. You could commission an exact replica. Or you could commission an all new, unique Hank Aaron statue that is worthy of your development at SunTrust Park.
You see Henry Aaron deserves two statues. He belongs in Atlanta where he made history. And he belongs with the Atlanta Braves – to serve as a permanent reminder of the team’s soul.
Aaron’s legacy is big enough to be in both places. No other satisfactory solution exists.
A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, said a Hank Aaron statue belongs in the center of the city among all the other statues of the Atlanta’s greatest leaders – including Henry Grady, Ivan Allen Jr., Billy Payne, Andrew Young and others.
“We have plenty of iconic areas in downtown Atlanta where the statue would be seen by millions of people all year long,” Robinson said. “The objective ought to be what is the best way for our community to honor Hank Aaron. And to me, that is about visibility, historical relevance and integrity.”
One option also would be to keep it at or near its current location – depending on how Turner Field is redeveloped.
Georgia State University President Mark Becker, who is working with local developers on a proposal to acquire and redevelop the Turner Field site after the Atlanta Braves have pulled up stakes, has plans showing how GSU would honor Hank Aaron as part of its athletic venues.
“We need to find a way to honor Hank Aaron in a proper way,” Robinson said. “The community should have an opportunity to figure this out because it appears that it was the community that paid for this statue.”
Bob Hope’s historical account:
From: Bob Hope
Sent: Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014
To: Maria Saporta
Subject: history of Hank Aaron statue….
Here is the origin of the Hank Aaron statue.
After I left the employment of the Braves and Ted’s various ventures at the time, I went to work for The Coca-Cola Company. While attending the 1980 Masters Golf Tournament, I had dinner with former Braves pitcher Pat Jarvis. Pat noted what a shame it was that there was no significant recognition of Hank Aaron’s record breaking home run in Atlanta, saying he thought it would be nice to have a statue like the one of Stan Musial in St. Louis. We agreed to try to make that happen.
The next day I called the Braves and they put me in touch with T. Herman Graves, the director of the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority. I was told it was a stadium authority matter and would need approval of their board if I wanted to donate a statue of Hank at the stadium. T. Herman quickly got that approval.
I formed a 501(c)3 called The Committee to Honor Hank Aaron and we set about the process of pricing, raising funds and selecting a sculptor. By this time, Pat Jarvis dropped out of the effort. However, we had a core of about six to eight people and a board of maybe 20 (I have the board and all the donors in a book at home).
We decided we wanted to make it a “people’s statue” and would list all donors regardless of how much each gave and present those donors in a book to Hank when the statue was dedicated (the book I have a copy of at home). I put in an initial $5,000 once we had priced out the cost of a statue and found it would cost in total about $150,000 (which included a marble base and lighting, in addition to the statue itself).
We had a kickoff press conference at the old Downtown Marriott (now the Sheraton). Bowie Kuhn, the Commissioner of Baseball, was there along with Ted Turner. I made the announcement of the formation of the committee and the fundraising effort. Ted committed the “first donation” of $10,000. In actuality, as an aside, Ted said he would give the last $10,000 once I got that close. However, when I went to him for it, he told me I was doing a great job and didn’t need him, just to raise the rest of the money. He didn’t give any more, nor did the Braves, which was frustrating, but fine.
Bob Hunter of Cousins was on the committee and took care of the RFP process with sculptors and narrowed it to three that were acceptable to the stadium authority. Then, Hank made the decision on a sculptor. He selected Ed Dwight of Denver, who was the first black astronaut and had never done a statue but was an accomplished sculptor. I pushed for the guy who did the Iwo Jima statue that is in Washington. Glad I lost. Ed did a great job. My main contribution is that I got all the photos of 715 I could find and told Ed I wanted it to be Hank completing the swing and looking at the ball soar to its highest point, which is what he did and did well.
The Committee to Honor Hank Aaron, Inc., signed the contract with Ed and it was very much “pay as you go”, with payment dates that gave us time to raise funds.
It took about 18 months to raise all the money and was fairly challenging. We had some very solid contributors of $5,000 each, notables including Vince Dooley and Sam Nunn. David Easterly, who was publisher of the AJC, stepped in near the end and helped us close out the fundraising (we were focused on paying for the statue and he called around to complete the needs of the marble base, lighting, etc. which somewhat snuck up on us).
We had one delay in the dedication of the statue because the mold collapsed (scary) but then successfully unveiled and dedicated it in September, 1982, before a Braves game.
Unless Bob Hunter did some, there was no paperwork. We simply gave the statue to the Atlanta Fulton Country Recreation Authority as agreed.
As noted, I have the book listing the donors, showing the board of the Committee to Honor Hank Aaron and with a letter from me to Hank at the front, saying we were pleased to be able to donate the statue of him.
The unveiling ceremony was very cool. I have photos of the stage with folks like Maynard Jackson, Andy Young and Sam Nunn participating. As an aside, I refused to look at the statue until it was unveiled. I was fearful of being disappointed but was delighted because it seemed perfect.
My only motivation was to please Hank and have a statue for kids to have their photos taken with. During the fifth inning of the game when the statue was unveiled, I left the stadium to go look at the statue. The only other person outside looking at it was Hank.
Hope this helps.
That’s pretty much the story.