By Paul Crater
When “baseball” and “Atlanta” are mentioned together, the Atlanta Braves is usually the first thing to come to mind. With their eighteen playoff appearances, five National League pennants, and the 1995 World Championship, the Braves are one of the most successful franchises in Major League Baseball history. Baseball in Atlanta, however, also includes stories of minor league teams, including the Atlanta Crackers, who competed in the Southern Association; and the Atlanta Black Crackers of the Negro Southern League.
The Atlanta Crackers were one of the most successful franchises in history. For most of their storied history, they played at Ponce de Leon Park, considered the gem of the Southern minor league. Organized in 1919, the Atlanta Black Crackers later toured in rural towns across the South and other parts of the nation for over twenty years.
Professional baseball began in Atlanta in 1885 with the Southern League. Before that the South was the nation’s only region without a baseball circuit. The league folded in 1899 and Atlanta fielded a team again in 1902 with the Atlanta Firemen in the Southern Association. The Atlanta newspapers varied in team names, with the Atlanta’s, Windjammers, Firecrackers, Firemen, Crackers, or Colonels. During the 1903 and 1904 seasons, the Atlanta Constitution called the team Crackers. The name Crackers caught on permanently shortly thereafter. The Crackers won seven Southern Association League titles and are recognized as one of the more successful franchises in minor league history.
As the arrival of spring once again focuses our attention to baseball and an exciting new venue to showcase Atlanta’s team, we present this photo essay of past stadiums and historic moments of baseball in Atlanta.
The first professional baseball games were played at Peters Park in the mid-1880s. The park was named for Richard Peters, one of the founders of the city of Atlanta who sold part of his land to build it. Admission to games at Peters Park, featuring covered grandstands and cushioned seats, was twenty-five cents for men while women were admitted free.
The Atlanta Crackers played at Piedmont Park between 1902 and 1906 when the team was purchased by the Georgia Railway and Electric Company and relocated to the east side of town just inside the city limits along Ponce de Leon Avenue where the company owned land.
It was on the site of the man made lake that Ponce de Leon Park was built.
Ponce de Leon Park was built adjacent to a trolley station to accommodate customers, many which used public transportation. The stadium’s seating capacity was 6,800 and later expanded to 8,000. The original stadium stood for sixteen years until September 7, 1923, when a fire consumed the wooden stands.
The rebuilt Ponce de Leon Park opened for the 1924 season. With a seating capacity of 14,000, the new stadium dwarfed its Southern Association competitors by a wide margin. One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Ponce de Leon ballpark was a magnolia tree in deep centerfield, 462 feet away from home plate.
On April 8, 1949, the Brooklyn Dodgers came to Atlanta to play a three-game series with the Atlanta Crackers. The games were televised locally and featured two black players, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campenella. It was the first integrated professional baseball game in Atlanta. Coincidentally, Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruths’ homerun record twenty-five years to the day after Atlanta’s first integrated professional baseball game, making April 8 an historic day in Atlanta baseball history.
A still shot from an 8mm roll of film captures an extremely rare glimpse of members of the 1938 Atlanta Black Crackers at Ponce de Leon ballpark. Professional baseball was segregated from the late 1890s to the mid-1940s. The most talented black players were relegated to playing in the Negro Leagues, which was a professional league with different levels of play. The identities of the individuals in this image have not been determined.
In 1963, hungry for an opportunity to attract a major league franchise, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. quickly shepherded a deal to build a stadium on ground the city didn’t own, with money that had not yet been appropriated. Construction on Atlanta Stadium began in April 1964, shortly after a deal was signed to move the Milwaukee Braves to Atlanta where they would begin play in 1966.
Braves mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa entertains children before a game in 1966. The organization hired two individuals for the mascot job, neither of which were Native American, until they hired Levi Walker, Jr. in 1969 who filled the position until 1986.
Hank Aaron’s chase of Babe Ruth’s sacred home run record in 1973 prompted a flood of attention from media and fans. Two eager young fans chase after Hank Aaron after he hit his record-breaking 715th home run in Atlanta on April 8, 1974.
After years of frustration, the Atlanta Braves finally brought the World Series Championship to Atlanta. Only the third championship in franchise history (1914 in Boston and 1957 in Milwaukee), the 1995 trophy was the first for the city of Atlanta. Often accused of supporting the team only when it wins, Braves fans were more than happy to express their joy in the 1995 celebration.