baseball in the old days, too. Minor league baseball. "I always wanted to
grow up," says a former Atlanta newsman, "so I could come to Atlanta
and ride the trains and cover the Crackers. Then I grew up and both of them
were gone." Down through the years the Crackers were one of the winningest
teams in the minors. Start talking sports with anyone who was raised in
Atlanta, and before long he is likely to reminisce about old Poncey, as the
Crackers' now-demolished Ponce de Leon park was called.
Eddie Mathews was
a Cracker. He once hit a ball all the way to the top branches of the big
magnolia tree on the crest of the center-field hill. The Crackers also had
luminous oldtimers like Dixie Walker, Hugh Casey and Whitlow Wyatt. And Ralph
(Country) Brown, who roamed the center-field hill in such legendary fashion he
didn't need to make it to the big leagues. And Bob (Der Tag) Montag and Ebba
St. Claire and Gene Verble. It gives townspeople a sense of identity to have
heroes that the rest of the country never heard of.
For a big game
the Crackers would draw 12,000, which meant fans would be standing all around
the arc of the outfield, which merged into the countryside. Up on the hill
beyond the right-field signboards was a railroad track. You would sit out in
the left-field seats betting on what the next pitch was going to be and people
would tell you stories.
"Saw a man
hit a ball traveled 400 miles here once."
"Yeah. Hit it
all the way up to the tracks there, landed in a train that went to
Memphis." Sometimes the trains would stop there so the engineer and the
brakeman could watch the game. Now jets fly a couple of miles over the heads of
fans in sterile, circular Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (no nickname) and
nobody even waves. When the Crackers left and the tax-supported Braves arrived,
it was like asking people to trade a perfectly good old pickup truck and a
whole lot of money for a new Maserati that wouldn't run.
The Braves did
win the National League West one year, 1969, but they looked bad while losing
three straight to the Mets in the playoffs. Hank Aaron would hit a clutch
double that stayed about seven inches off the ground for 400 feet, but then
some other Brave would throw the lead away with a dumb fielding error.
Turner's sense of what is symbolically important—is now a Braves executive, the
director of player development, but he never liked playing in Atlanta. He
chased Ruth's record before sparse crowds, people figuring the chances of
seeing the Braves blow one were considerably better than seeing Aaron hit one.
Aaron even got death threats. When he went to the Milwaukee Brewers two years
ago, he told reporters it was nice to be back in the major leagues.
That is just one
of the embarrassing things Atlantans can look back on as they sit in Atlanta
Stadium and reminisce. Braves fans ought to talk about the days when they had
Aaron, the way Yankee fans do about the days when they had DiMaggio. But the
team and the fans weren't good enough to establish an Aaron legend, except for
memories of the hoopla and television on the night of his 715th.
Then there was
Richie (or Dick) Allen's point-blank refusal to play in Atlanta, popular hero
Rico Carty being beaten up by Atlanta policemen, old favorite Eddie Mathews
being fired as Braves' manager and Constitution Sports Editor Jesse Outlar
being shot by a mugger as he left the stadium after a Falcon game.