Some of the more famous fires in American history have raged within the city limits of Atlanta. There was the devastating one set by General William Tecumseh Sherman and his Union troops in 1864, the fictitious burning of Atlanta that was the highlight of the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, and the inadvertent one started in the 1970s by Chief Noc-A-Homa, the erstwhile mascot of the Braves, who accidentally set his tepee afire while attempting to send up smoke signals. To that charred history the city added another chapter last week. This time it was its baseball stadium that was ablaze.
The fire raged on the club level at Atlanta- Fulton County Stadium on July 20, about 90 minutes before the Braves were to play St. Louis and only 20 minutes before they were to hold a news conference on that level to introduce newly acquired first baseman Fred McGriff. For SI staff writer Tom Verducci, who was in town to report on the National League pennant race, it was the second time in two months that an outing to the ballpark had been unceremoniously disrupted. He also witnessed the 20-minute brawl between the Mariners and the Orioles in Baltimore on June 6.
About 3,000 fans had already filed into the stadium when a food-warming unit apparently tipped over in a luxury box adjacent to the main press box, igniting the blaze. The Braves, who were taking batting practice at the time, and the Cardinals, who were stretching in the outfield, could clearly see the flames. Verducci, who was in a tunnel that leads to the St. Louis dugout, didn't know anything was amiss until a tremendous boom rocked the stadium and fans began screaming. "My immediate thought was, an explosive device had detonated or a plane had crashed into the stadium," Verducci says. "Then I looked up at the press box where my word processor, telephone book and other belongings were, and realized that if the wind shifted, all my equipment and research would either melt or turn to ashes." Flames licked the facade of the upper deck. Debris, still aflame, spilled onto the empty lower-deck box seats. As fire fighters arrived on the scene (appropriately, via the Atlanta bullpen) and word spread that no one had been injured, concern among most fire watchers waned, though the flames did not. A groundskeeper went about watering the infield. And Cardinal catcher Tom Pagnozzi delivered the best of the many fire-related lines, saying, "I thought it was the Padres who were having the fire sale." The fire, which burned for more than 90 minutes, gutted a radio booth, four corporate luxury boxes and the private box of the Braves' general manager, John Schuerholz, who was philosophical about the loss. "Well, the carpet did need to be cleaned," he said. The Braves will get new digs in 1997, when they move into the stadium being built for the 1996 Summer Games. Here's hoping that Atlanta, with an Olympic flame on hand, comes off unscathed.