The Atlanta Braves are having a good season this year. They are currently in the lead with a winning record and they are beating the New York Mets as I write this.
The Mets have frequently been one of those bugaboo teams over the years that even when they aren't playing up to the Braves' standards can put the bite on them and beat them. I've seen it with my own eyes. But so far the Braves have won two of the three games during their home stand with one more game to go before the L.A. Dodgers (formerly from Brooklyn) come to town. But my focus isn't the upcoming game or even so much the current season the Braves are having, it's thinking about the long arc of the Braves in Atlanta over the decades and how they seem to have always been there in my life. Of course, if you're in your 60s or beyond you will remember a time before the Braves.
BB, or "Before Braves" in Atlanta, the team was the Atlanta Crackers. They started in a wooden stadium down in a little valley on Ponce de Leon Avenue across from where the big, old Sears building is.
The Crackers were a minor league team that called Atlanta home from 1901 to 1965. That's quite a run. They were one of the winningest teams in baseball, winning more league championships than any team except the New York Yankees (those Yankees ... grrrrrr).
The choice of the name for Crackers isn't clear. Cracker can be a derogatory name for a poor, white Southerner or a name for someone that really hustles. And the name of the team before the Crackers was the Atlanta Firecrackers, so it could have been a play off that. This team was consistently good over the years and had several players make the Baseball Hall of Fame including Eddie Mathews, and legendary Braves announcer Skip Caray started off with the Crackers.
The Crackers were around long enough that when a new stadium was built in Atlanta to lure a major league team to Atlanta, they were able to play their final season in it. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium would be home to the Braves from 1966 to 1996, but for one brief season the Crackers got the big league treatment.
In the years just after World War II several league records in attendance were set at the Ponce stadium. In true minor league oddball fashion, the center field fence line had a magnolia tree growing there. It was the only ballpark that allowed for a tree in the outfield, and in the '20s Babe Ruth hit a home run in the tree. Last I heard the tree is still alive on the property!
The attendance record for a single game was in 1949 when the Brooklyn Dodgers came to town when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. The final game drew a crowd of 25,221, of which 13,885 were black fans to cheer on Robinson as well as their home team. Although the Crackers were last heard from in 1965, there are still many older fans that remember them, and their memorabilia sells well to this day.
Then, in 1966, the Braves moved from Milwaukee. They had been from Boston years before that, but now they had a new home in the South. And apart from Atlanta and even Georgia, the Braves are perhaps the most popular team throughout the South seeing as how states like South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi and many other Southern states don't have a major league team of their own. And in the 1990s when Ted Turner owned them and ran their games on his cable "Superstation" which aired across the U.S., he proclaimed the team "America's Team." I have family in Nebraska and in those days they would watch the Braves play and cheer them on.
As a little kid I played tee-league and some Little League here in town and I thought the Braves had always been Atlanta's team. I was shocked when I got old enough to hear they came from, gulp, Milwaukee!
My first fan experience with the Braves was either their first or second year they were here, and when you bought a bottle of Coca-Cola, on the underside of the metal cap there was the picture and name of one of the players. I collected them and learned those players by heart even though it would be a few years before I got to actually go to a game. When I did get to go I took my baseball glove to catch foul balls (I never did).
Those names still bring up great memories. That 1966 roster was my first baseball heroes like Phil Niekro, Chi-Chi Olivo, Ron Reed, Joe Torre (who would go on to break my grownup heart when he worked with the New York Yankees), Felipe Alou, Eddie Mathews, Rico Carty and, of course, Hammerin' Hank Aaron. In 1966 the Braves played 162 regular season games and won 85, losing 77. More than one and a half million fans came out to the ballpark that year. Hank Aaron was paid ... you ready for this ... $70,000 for the season.
One of my cherished childhood memories is going over to my grandparents' house in the summer. The days ran long and it was dusk for hours, it seemed. And as soon as I got out of my parents' car and headed to where they were sitting on the porch I could hear the Braves game on the radio. The radio was inside and they listened to it while sitting outside through the screen door. We might play checkers while we listened, or the grownups would talk or we might have watermelon, but the Braves game was our soundtrack.
Speaking of radio, just for fun, next time the Braves are playing, turn on the game on the radio. It's usually on WBLJ. Now listen to a baseball game and pretend you know nothing of it. The language is strange and unique and there are so many sayings that make no sense outside of the game. There are sliders and changeups and stolen bases and cracked bats and bunts and sacrifices. If you knew nothing about baseball and listened to a game for the first time on the radio I dare say you would still know nothing about it.
The Braves had a tough run of it the first 25 years in Atlanta. They were statistically the worst team in the National League. For a kid growing up in Dalton, I was consistently cheering them on even though I was consistently let down. Thank goodness for Hank Aaron's home run challenge to Babe Ruth's record. Even when the Braves lost a game, if No. 44 Aaron hit another homer that was reason to cheer and be proud. On April 8, 1974, Hammerin' Hank knocked home run 715 to become the new home run king. I think everyone was a Braves fan that day.
Once Aaron's home run goal was met things got back to the ongoing grind of a team that never seemed to bring home a pennant. The worst showing? About a year and a half after Hank broke the record, only 737 people showed up for a game against the Astros. This in a stadium that seated more than 50,000. For the rest of the '70s and '80s I was a Braves fan but only because I had been born one.
Then some magic finally came in the form of Ted Turner. Turner was expanding his television holdings and had a station, WTBS, that went out over satellite and so went all over the country. One of his ideas was to broadcast the Braves and have sports programming. Turner was a "buy" guy instead of a "rent" guy so he bought the Braves. And finally, since my years of collecting bottle caps and listening to the ballgames on the radio with my grandfather, the Braves were winners. Multiple trips to the playoffs and the World Series and a win in 1995! Finally.
I was glued to the TV in those postseasons. The roster in that period included a new batch of names I won't forget: Wohlers, Perez, Pena, McGriff, Lopez, Klesko, Justice and four Hall of Famers: Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. I always knew the Braves could be champs, all it took was patience on my part and lots of money on Ted Turner's part.
The Braves have a new stadium that's just a few years old. I was lucky enough to see the Braves play in the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and in Turner Field, but I haven't gotten to the new park yet. Soon, very soon.
The Braves had a rough year their first opening season in the new stadium but they've risen like cream. They're having a good year and I wish now they still put their pictures on Coke bottle caps. The players now include Acuna, Freddie Freeman, Dallas Keuchel, Brian McCann, Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo, among others. I'm watching the games now with my father instead of my father's father, but with the Braves, it's been a lifelong pleasure.
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.