Latest statue hammers home Aaron's legacy

Braves unveil monument to Hall of Famer at SunTrust Park

March 30th, 2017
A new statue of Hank Aaron now sits at SunTrust Park, the Braves' new home.

SMYRNA, Ga. -- Another Hank Aaron statue? This is getting wonderfully old.

OK, there is that one of Aaron in downtown Atlanta, where the Braves played at Turner Field from 1997 until last season. The statue sits near the permanently sealed-off area that highlights the landing spot at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium of his 715th career home run, which passed Babe Ruth's supposedly insurmountable record. As much as Aaron means to Georgia, which is along the lines of peaches and peanuts, he is a Wisconsin icon. He began his Major League career 63 years ago in Milwaukee with those other Braves, and he finished with the Brewers. Even though he never played at Miller Park, he is so beloved by Cheeseheads that they built a statue for Aaron outside of their current place.

Let's see. Is that it?

Well, no. Did I mention they are infatuated with Aaron in Wisconsin? He began his professional baseball career in Eau Claire, Wis., so its citizens have their own statue of the guy outside of the local ballpark.

I'm not even counting that bust of Aaron outside of the Minor League ballpark in his hometown of Mobile, Ala., and here's the latest: On Wednesday night, with the Braves still a couple of days from opening up their new SunTrust Park against the Yankees in an exhibition game, there was yet another unveiling of an Aaron statue, and nothing tops this one.

That's me talking, though. With four and a half of them to choose from, I asked the man himself: Which is the best Henry Louis Aaron statue of them all? He chuckled, and then he chuckled some more, as he sat with his wife, Billye, inside a golf cart before they prepared to depart to face those gathered inside of a section of SunTrust called Monument Garden.

So about those statues, Hank?

"I love them all. I really do," Aaron said, with Billye nodding nearby. "I love them all, because I appreciate whatever motivated people to give them to me, and I'm also just so appreciative to everybody along the way who made the making of those statues possible. You know you go to so many functions, and then you start thinking about all of the honors that have been bestowed upon you through the years. Then you start thinking about what your mother used to say.

"In particular, my mother used to say, 'You've come a long way, baby.' All of the honors, all the accolades. They just mean so much to me."

Here's the bottom line: You can't honor Aaron too much, not unless you believe there is something wrong with giving an eternal hug to somebody who is as extraordinary a person as he was a baseball player. Never is he less than gracious. Aaron is rarely more than a millisecond from one of his infectious smiles, and the folks he has helped during his 83 years on earth would stretch beyond all of his 755 home runs, laid end to end.

So on this occasion, the Braves had their partial christening for SunTrust, courtesy of something they called An Evening With Hank Aaron. Those attending in business attire paid $500 as individuals and $755 (there's that magic number again) as a couple. Not surprisingly, when it comes to Aaron, all of the proceeds will go toward helping folks. In this case, the money is heading for his Chasing the Dream Foundation, which financially supports underprivileged youngsters in search of fulfilling their educational goals.

Oh, and there was that big thing Wednesday night at SunTrust. In fact, it was that big, BIG thing.

The Braves unveiled a statue of Aaron that sits inside the ballpark in front of (all together now) 755 replicas of the Louisville Slugger he used for most of his 23 Major League seasons. The statue shows the exact moment on April 8, 1974, when Aaron crushed a pitch off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing to put Ruth into second place on the all-time homer list.

The statue even has the ball on the bat.

Before the covering was removed from the statue, Braves CEO Terry McGuirk told the gathering, as the event's master of ceremonies: "It's nine feet tall, which is fitting, because Hank has always been bigger than life."

Yes, indeed, and that's whether we're talking about the Hank who grew up poor in the segregated South before he expertly survived death threats while chasing Ruth's record. Or whether we're talking about the Hank who felt an obligation upon Jackie Robinson's death in 1972 to carry on the outspoken ways of his baseball hero when it came to injustices in the game. Or whether we're talking about the Hank who oversaw a Braves farm system that produced Tom Glavine, David Justice, Ron Gant, Mark Lemke and others who set the foundation for the franchise's run to a record 14 consecutive division titles. Or whether we're talking about the Hank who is everybody's favorite father, uncle or grandfather, depending on the generation in his presence.

Aaron is a legendary octogenarian, but he's still an octogenarian, which means he has aching legs, hips and everything else. Even so, his face remains as timeless as that guy who inspired others to place him in bronze around Eau Claire, Milwaukee, Mobile, Atlanta and now Smyrna.

"He's a national treasure," McGuirk said, telling the truth.