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  • Writer's pictureLloyd Brown

Remembering the Crackers



Long before major leagues had a team and stadiums in the southern United States, there were the Atlanta Crackers and Ponce de Leon Ballpark. The Crackers were the most powerful team in minor league baseball throughout their 64-year existence, paving the way for the Atlanta Braves to become the first major league franchise in the southeastern portion of the country. The Crackers: Early Days of Atlanta Baseball by Tim Darnell provides an in-depth look at the team and its accomplishments between 1901 and 1965. During that period, the Crackers had the best record of any baseball team other than the New York Yankees. They took home 17 Southern Association championships in less than 65 years.


First…. Why the name Crackers? Some suggest it relates to the definition of a “southern cracker” a derogatory term for a poor white southerner. However, it is much more likely to be a shortened form of the word Firecrackers, the name of a baseball team that preceded it in the Atlanta area. Baseball had been extremely popular in Atlanta ever since the Civil War ended, as it took resident’s minds off the massive destruction the area had experienced during the war. Teams sponsored by schools and local businesses came and went during the 1865- 1900 period.


The Crackers benefitted from having a wealthy owner from being a member of an established league in the Southern Association, and strong leadership in the front office, as John Heisman served as the team president. Heisman is more widely known as one of the most successful innovators in college football, and at the time was the head football coach at Georgia Tech. By its tenth season, the team had already won four Southern Association pennants.


The Cracker's home during those years was in Ponce de Leon Ballpark in downtown Atlanta. It was built on land the team owner already owned and took its name from a natural spring located nearby that promised a long life and other healthy benefits from its waters. The stadium was constructed in a natural bowl with a steep hillside forming its outfield limits. A railroad track was atop the hill just beyond right field. There was also a pair of magnolia trees in deep right-center field. The ballpark opened in 1906, and it was built out of wood, for $60,000.  The Cracker's success on the field, meant success at the ticket office, as they led the league in attendance nearly every season.



Pullen Library Digital Collection, Georgia State University.


Unfortunately, the ballpark burned to the ground in 1923. This forced the team to relocate to Georgia Tech’s Grant Field for the remainder of the 1923 season. A local businessman financed a new concrete and steel stadium for $250,000. The field was named R. J Spiller Field in his honor. The stadium was state of the art for its times, as it featured individual seats bolted into the concrete base, replacing the benches of the previous stadium. The grandstand seated 9,800, while the outfield bleachers held 5,000 more fans. One set of bleachers was for white fans, while the other was for black fans. The scoreboard in center field was changed by hand, and the starting lineups were announced by megaphone to the grandstand.


The Magnolia trees and the railroad tracks atop the hill form two unique stories about Ponce de Leon Park. The Magnolia trees were considered in play and outfielders had to watch where they were going to field a fly ball. Only two players, Babe Ruth, and Eddie Mathews, hit official home runs into the tree and had the ball stay up in its branches. The second story involves a train headed north on the tracks at the exact moment a home run was hit by the Cracker's Bob Montag. A few days later a railroad engineer came to the park with a coal dust-covered ball. The home run had landed in the coal compartment of the train and traveled to Nashville and back… more than five hundred miles. It was duly listed as the longest home run ever hit in the Southern Association history.


In 1932 the Crackers were purchased by the Coca-Cola Company, which is based in Atlanta. This gave the team deep pockets for operations, as teams were not affiliated with the major leagues then. They also placed Earl Mann as the team’s general manager, a title he would hold until 1959. He was an excellent judge of playing ability, and he also had the funds that would allow the team to pay higher salaries than the other Southern League teams. From 1935 through 1965 the Crackers would win eleven league championships.


You might wonder how the Crackers were so successful. Here is a list of just some players and managers who wore a Crackers uniform at some time in their careers… Leo Durocher, Luke Appling, Paul Richards, Ralph “Country” Brown, Eddie Mathews, Tim McCarver, Jack McKeon, Gene Mauch and Chuck Tanner. Their radio announcer, Ernie Harwell, was traded to major league baseball for a catcher. Harwell went on to the Baseball Hall of Fame as the radio announcer for the Detroit Tigers. There is no word as to what happened to the catcher.


Baseball was a very segregated sport for most of the Crackers’ existence. Ponce de Leon Park always allowed blacks in a segregated set of bleachers in the outfield. There was also a team known as the Black Atlanta Crackers. They played in both the Negro National League and the Black Southern League. To make ends meet, they would barnstorm through the South, playing local teams. They played most of their home games at Morehouse College and Morris Brown, two HBCU colleges in Atlanta. The team also played at Ponce de Leon Park when the Atlanta Crackers were playing out of town. A breakthrough occurred in 1948 when the Crackers hosted the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson in a three-game exhibition series. This would be the first integrated baseball team in the Deep South. Even though trouble was anticipated, Robinson was warmly welcomed by both the black and white record crowds that turned out for the series. No racial incidents occurred, and the Crackers added Nat Peeples, their first black player, in 1954.


Minor league baseball faced some tough years in the 1940s, as many of the top players served in the armed forces during World War II. After the war, the minor league teams started becoming affiliates of the major league teams for financial reasons. This took some of the local ownership nature of the clubs out of the equation. Baseball began to be televised in the mid-fifties and early 1960’s, which also drove down live attendance at games. The Southern Association closed in 1961, resulting in the Crackers moving to the International League for its last four seasons.


Major league baseball was on its way to the Deep South, as Atlanta lobbied both the Kansas City Athletics and the Milwaukee Braves. The Braves would move to Atlanta in time for the 1966 season. Ironically, the Crackers would not play their final season in their longtime home at Ponce de Leon Ballpark, instead playing at the brand-new Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, the future home of the Atlanta Braves.


In 1965 Ponce de Leon Ballpark was torn down and replaced by a retail center. The railroad tracks atop the hill have been replaced by the Atlanta Beltline, a recreational trail. All that remains of the ballpark is the lone magnolia tree that stands in center field. When longtime Crackers General Manager Earl Mann died, his ashes were spread at the base of the tree.


The Crackers: Early Days of Atlanta Baseball is a terrific read for anyone who loves baseball history or for any native Atlantan.

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