Birthday gala starts year of tributes to Hank Aaron

Former Hall of Fame right fielder and current senior vice president of the Atlanta Braves Hank Aaron in Atlanta on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. Numerous celebrations in Aaron’s honor are planned, including a new bronze statue at SunTrust Park, a ceremony at the old Turner Field site, and his 83rd birthday dinner gala. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)
Former Hall of Fame right fielder and current senior vice president of the Atlanta Braves Hank Aaron in Atlanta on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. Numerous celebrations in Aaron’s honor are planned, including a new bronze statue at SunTrust Park, a ceremony at the old Turner Field site, and his 83rd birthday dinner gala. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

He’s Atlanta’s greatest sports hero, and perhaps in no other year will the region show Hank Aaron as much love as in 2017.

A new bronze likeness of Aaron and other tributes to his Hall of Fame career will be fixtures of the Atlanta Braves' new SunTrust Park in Cobb County, which opens this spring. Georgia State University plans to honor the Hammer at its future Panthers baseball field downtown on the site of the former Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where Aaron surpassed Babe Ruth's home run record.

Meantime, on Friday the swells of Atlanta civic and business communities will gather at the Delta Flight Museum to toast his 83rd birthday — the big day is actually Sunday – with a gala in Aaron’s honor to benefit his foundation.

“To be honest with you they’re keeping everything a secret from me,” Aaron said of his birthday celebration in an interview earlier this week with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at his business office in southwest Atlanta.

The party, A Salute to the Life and Times of Henry Aaron, will benefit the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, Hank and wife Billye’s charity to provide college scholarships to children.

The goal of this year’s gala is to raise money to fund 44 scholarships — matching Aaron’s jersey number — in perpetuity. Delta Air Lines, the Braves, Coca-Cola, Turner, WestRock and Cox Enterprises, whose media holdings include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, are among sponsors.

The foundation has aided children across the nation, which Aaron called his life’s proudest achievement.

“Cities can have role models like individuals can,” said Bob Hope, the former Braves spokesman and PR guru who’s been a close friend of the Aarons for decades. “For all the qualities that a Hank Aaron demonstrates every day in his life, he’s just a great role model for us to honor.”

Aaron’s home run was a defining moment in sports history as well as a landmark for civil rights. Threats against Aaron’s life and those of his family were constant as he pursued Babe Ruth’s home run mark.

The threats were so prevalent, Aaron said the FBI wouldn’t allow him to open his mail.

But after Aaron crushed Dodgers hurler Al Downing’s pitch over the left-center field wall on that April night in 1974, it seemed all of Atlanta cried out in joy.

“What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world,” Los Angeles announcer Vin Scully said in his famous call of the game.

“A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.”

SunTrust Park honors

In January, the Braves announced plans for signature touches around the ballpark to honor Aaron. They include a new statue of Aaron swatting his 715th home run as well as a sculpture featuring 755 baseball bats to mark his career home run total.

Silhouettes of Aaron’s iconic swing will mark the ends of each row of seats, while the Hank Aaron Terrace, a level above left field, will display the 715th home run ball and bat, with a bar and lounge area with outdoor seating. The décor will include 715 bat handles, one inscribed with the date and team for an Aaron homer.

The new bronze of Aaron’s 715th homer features the moment of contact from Downing’s pitch. The original Aaron statue will remain in downtown.

“I know a little bit about it,” Aaron said of the new statue. “The Braves have been so wonderful to me. [Braves Chairman and CEO] Terry McGuirk, who I’ve known for a long time, he’s kept me informed.”

As with the birthday dinner, Aaron said he doesn’t know all the surprises in store for him Opening Day at the new ballpark. But he said he is excited for the opening of SunTrust Park.

“The ballpark is absolutely gorgeous. It’s beautiful,” Aaron said.

Georgia State honors

Also last month, Georgia State University and a private development team closed on their purchase of Turner Field and surrounding parking lots. The partners plan a campus extension and mixed-use development, while the school will retrofit the Ted for football.

As part of the purchase agreement, the partners agreed to honor Atlanta’s sports history, including the Braves, the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and Aaron’s historic home run.

A year ago, the Braves decided to no longer contest the location of the original Aaron statue, which was paid for by fan donations.

Aaron said he is happy that statue is staying downtown and that Georgia State will bring new life to the Turner Field area.

“It’s going to be wonderful for the community for the people who live in that area to bring life back to that part of the city,” he said.

Aaron said Georgia State officials have discussed with him moving the original statue to the former Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium site, where the Panthers hope to open a new 1,000- to 1,500-seat baseball field in 2019.

“For me, it was home away from home,” Aaron said of the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. “I learned how to play in that ballpark, I could hit very well in that ballpark. I felt like I was in command there no matter what.”

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