Sports Oddities: A Tree Grows in Center Field
Long before major league baseball arrived in Atlanta from Milwaukee in the mid-1960s and moved into the brand – new Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the city had a long and glorious history with baseball. Its team was known as the Atlanta Crackers, and they were the winningest team in Southern League history. The Crackers brought home 17 pennants, more than any other professional baseball other than the New York Yankees. Their home field was known as Ponce de Leon Park, which was ahead of its time in many ways. Built in 1924, it could hold more than 20,000 fans and featured bucket seats attached to a concrete frame, a major improvement over the wooden bleachers found in most minor league parks of the day.
However, what set Ponce de Leon Park apart from all other ballparks was “the tree.” The tree was a Southern Magnolia located more than 500 feet from home plate in dead center field…. inside the field of play! This necessitated special ground rules to be established for plays involving the tree. It was decided if a ball was hit into the tree (quite a blast) the ball was still in play. Babe Ruth and Eddie Matthews were the only two players to be awarded home runs for this feat, as their moonshots went into the tree’s branches and never came down. The Magnolia was also very popular with both batters and catchers, as the deep green hue made the ball coming off the mound much more visible in an era where the field lights were somewhat dim at best.
The Crackers fans saw the tree in center field as a good luck charm, responsible for the many pennants won by the team. It was also seen as a point of civic pride, as no other ballpark in America could boast of such a unique element in the field of play. In 1947, new ownership took control of the Crackers and Ponce de Leon Park. They saw the tree as a nuisance and announced plans to cut the tree down. This caused outrage amongst the loyal Crackers fans, and a compromise was quickly brokered.
The tree would stay, but the outfield wall would be brought in 50 feet, putting the magnolia just behind the outfield fence. It may have lost its official position as a centerfielder, but in the end, it outlasted the ballpark itself. Ponce de Leon Park was demolished in 1966, as baseball moved on to the new Braves stadium south of downtown. Ironically, the owner who had once wanted to have the tree cut down wound up requesting that his ashes be spread at the base of the tree, a request that was honored.
Ponce De Leon Park Tree Today
Nearly a century later that magnolia tree is still standing above a shopping center erected on the former site of Ponce de Leon Park. It is lovingly tended to by a local arborist at no charge. The tree is located just below the Atlanta Beltline, a hike/bike trail that encircles the city of Atlanta. The arborists have taken small cuttings from the tree and the clone saplings are now growing back at the nursery. The plan is that once they mature, they will be planted along the Beltline to provide a bit of shade for the next generation of Atlantans.
Any other teams looking for a tree to play center field?