The Hank Aaron statue at Turner Field is at the center of a dispute between the city and the Atlanta Braves. AJC File

Atlanta Braves, city clash over fate of Hank Aaron statue

For about three hours Wednesday, it looked like the statue of baseball hall of famer Hank Aaron would be staying in Atlanta.

The agency that owns Turner Field proudly announced it holds documents showing “the people of Atlanta and Fulton County” own the bronze, and that a deal had been struck with the Braves to keep the statue at Turner Field.

Then came a statement from the Braves saying, in effect: nuh huh. The statue, the team said, should go wherever the Hammer wants it.

And with those dueling press statements, the fate over one of Atlanta’s treasured sports landmarks remained in limbo, just as it has been since the day the Braves announced plans in late 2013 to move from downtown to Cobb County after the 2016 season.

It was also a reminder of the dysfunction — to put it mildly — between the Braves’ brass and the team’s hometown.

Keisha Lance Bottoms, executive director of the authority, said the agency found “Olympics-era documents” that clear up the statue’s ownership. A deal with the Braves, she said, would keep the statue depicting Aaron swatting the homer that broke Babe Ruth’s record on the Turner Field property.

Bottoms claimed a deal as a victory for the city. The release, however, did not include a statement from the Braves.

“We were able to work out an agreement with the Braves. We are very excited about it,” Bottoms said in an interview.

Hours after the authority’s announcement, a statement from the team said it was “surprised” by the city’s position and that “we do not have an agreement regarding the Hank Aaron statue.”

“We are in discussions with Hank, and once he makes his intentions clear to us, we will make the appropriate arrangements,” the Braves statement reads.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was unable to reach Aaron on Wednesday. In an interview last year, Aaron said he was conflicted about where it should go.

“On one hand, I think the statue should be wherever the baseball park is, wherever the Braves are playing,” Aaron said then. “After all, I played with the Braves.”

The statue was paid for by fan donations, and not the team, he said, “So if you had to think about it, it all belongs to Atlanta, to the people of Atlanta.”

The Braves and the authority are conducting an inventory of what belongs to whom.

Bottoms late Wednesday released emails to the AJC that showed discussions with Braves executive Mike Plant. It included one exchange from Feb. 3 referencing a document that the authority says provides the proof it owns a number of statues plaques and memorials, including the Aaron statue.

“Accordingly, barring objection from the Aarons, (the authority) will retain the Hank Aaron statue and bust,” the email reads.

In a separate message, Bottoms wrote Plant on Feb. 3, “As fate would have it, I saw Mrs. (Billye) Aaron at a luncheon this afternoon and was able to speak with her about the statue. I told her that we had a very good meeting this morning, and if they are in agreement, the statue will remain. She is was very happy and said that they are in full support of that agreement.”

It is unclear if Plant replied.

Two days later, Bottoms told Plant she had received an inquiry about the statue from the media and that “I will share that we have come to an agreement. I think this is an opportunity for us to highlight the spirit of cooperation we have as we navigate this transition. If you’re interested in providing a quote for a press release, let me know.”

Plant replied Feb.7: “We won’t be making any additional comments on this subject. Thanks for letting me know.”

Bob Hope, longtime Atlanta marketing and public relations guru who organized the nonprofit that collected donations that paid for the statue, said he was surprised to learn a document outlining ownership exists. He said he believed the statue belonged to Aaron, and its fate also should be Aaron’s choice.

Reporters Katie Leslie and Dan Klepal contributed to this report

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