Author: Zach Dillard, FOX Sports South
ATLANTA — On Feb. 5, 2010, two prominent visitors arrived at Ross Rossin’s Atlanta studio.
The first visitor was a good friend of the artist, former mayor of Atlanta and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young. The second was Henry Louis Aaron, one of the greatest baseball players to ever live. It was Aaron’s 76th birthday.
“I will never forget that day,” Rossin said.
On that Friday evening, Rossin photographed the Atlanta Braves legend, owner of 755 career home runs and a plaque in Cooperstown. The photographs led to a painted portrait that now sits in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery along with Rossin’s work on Young, Morgan Freeman and Maya Angelou. The relationship led to two additional paintings and a 9-foot-tall statue of Aaron inside SunTrust Park, which was unveiled at a private ceremony on Wednesday night.
At the event, Aaron fittingly relayed the story of his 1976 retirement, when he described to those around him that swings that once felt like home runs started fading at the warning track: “I’ve given baseball everything I’ve had.”
Rossin mapped out every detail in preparation for the new ballpark’s centerpiece monument.
It started out as rough sketches and small models. The 53-year-old sculptor discussed every detail with Braves executives and baseball experts. He met Aaron at the franchise’s Turner Field offices to photograph him holding a bat from various angles. The entire process lasted approximately one year.
Rossin grew up in Bulgaria. When Aaron launched his historic 715th home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time record, in April 1974, Rossin was a 10-year-old kid in southeastern Europe, largely unaware of baseball’s overseas popularity. He was watching soccer while The Hammer was altering the American sports landscape. It wasn’t until Rossin moved to Atlanta that he became acquainted — and subsequently fascinated — with Aaron’s journey to baseball immortality.
“As we all know it was far beyond just the athletic achievement and breaking that record of Babe Ruth’s, but breaking barriers and overcoming obstacles, so I could relate to him in so many ways — somebody coming from Eastern Europe and dealing with political and economic changes and cultural changes. So that made it slightly easier to understand his struggle to a certain degree.
“ … On that level, on that plane, I could relate to him to a certain extent, and understand the drama, and understand the struggle, the power and the tremendous need of integrity in remaining true to yourself.”
The statue will sit in SunTrust Park’s Monument Garden, a walkthrough commemoration of past Atlanta Braves moments and achievements near the third-base entrance. Wednesday night’s ceremony featured Aaron’s family, including his wife, Billye, Braves CEO Terry McGuirk and vice president John Schuerholz, former owner Bill Bartholomay and Young. Former MLB commissioner Bud Selig even called McGuirk prior to the festivities to send his regards.
“I’m seldom at a loss for words,” Billye said, ” but tonight I am.”
Rossin echoed Billye Aaron’s words.
“It’s a great day for me because I did something for my city, the city I love, the city I care very much about,” he said. ” … Doing something like this that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people will come and enjoy it makes this obviously a great deal for me. And being able to capture one of my heroes in life, a true living legend, it’s phenomenal.
“It’s phenomenal on so many levels.”