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Traveling the Bambino Road: Day Four

Day Four: March 9, 2003

And on Sunday, she rested.

Well, not really, but I did relatively little. I only drove about two hours today, from Macon to Atlanta, and who knows, maybe tonight I’ll actually get eight hours sleep, since I’m not driving to another distant locale.

My day started when I woke before my alarm, at 8:15 am. Six hours of sleep is not bad, all things considered, but I was surprised my body did not feel more tired. Joe Torre said he hardly slept during the 1996 World Series, but hardly felt tired or sleepy. When you are on a grand adventure, your body becomes indefatigable, I guess.

I had spent the night at Melissa and Jim Tessmer’s house. Jim has worked for many teams over the years, including the Yankees, and for the past twelve years was with the Braves organization. He had worked for the Macon Braves until this year when the team moved to Rome (GA) and did not take him along. He still has his keys to Luther Williams Base Ball Park, though, and gave me the grand tour of the place, which looks to house an independent team this season.

The park is either the eighth or the seventh oldest still in operation in the minor leagues, depending who you ask. It was built in 1929 and is named for the then-mayor of Macon, Luther Williams. The park has undergone numerous facelifts over the years, including upgrading from wooden to plastic seats and removing all the Redbird red from the bricks which dated from when the place housed a Cardinals farm team. At one point in the mid-nineties there was such severe flooding in the area that the field was under two feet of water. The water washed seeds of many weeds into the field and it took years to restore it to a state of pure grass again. Kenesaw Mountain Landis threw out the first pitch at the park’s opening. It is said that Ruth played exhibition games in Macon, though not at Luther Williams Park. I mostly wanted to see it just to see one of the grand old gems of the minor leagues.

The park has an intriguing feature in that the press box is set against the front of the roof behind home plate, almost suspended in the air. The birds-eye view has some disadvantages. “It’s home to a lot of birds and squirrels right now,” Jim told me. “They were bad enough during the season but now they’ve really moved in.” Another thing he showed me was the door to a tiny storage room, the ceiling only about five to five and a half feet high. It was formerly the door to the “colored” bathroom. That is the sort of thing that never fails to make a Yankee like me do a double-take.

My next stop was the house of my friend J.P., editor of the now dormant Baseball Ink. It had been gray and chilly during my tour of Luther Williams, and it rained on the road north, but by the time I made it to Atlanta, the sky had turned blue and the sun shone hot. J.P., Tracy, and I headed to the loading dock behind a certain Borders Bookstore to see two giant old magnolia trees.

The magnolia still stands that Babe Ruth hit a homer into
The story behind the trees is this. On the site of that shopping mall there was once a ballyard that was home to the Atlanta Crackers, Ponce de Leon Park. The Crackers have been called the Yankees of the minor leagues for the number of championships they have won and the many great myths and stories that have grown up around the team. This was the team that traded their announcer, the great and recently retired Ernie Harwell, for a catcher. In center, the field was enclosed not by a fence but by a steep, grassy embankment. The train line ran on top of the embankment, and it is said that a Cracker hit a 518 mile long home run by hitting a ball into a passing coal car. The embankment was considered part of the field of play–you could “climb” the hill to get a fly ball the way guys today climb the padded wall. But growing on the embankment was one of a group of huge magnolia trees. Most of the trees were out of play, but ground rules said that any ball hit into the one tree that was set apart a bit from the others was a home run.

Only two men ever hit homers into that tree, and one of them was Babe Ruth. (The other is also in the Hall of Fame, I believe. I’ll leave it as a trivia question for you all to find out who it was.) The ballpark has been torn down in the name of progress, the team is no more, but two of the trees live on, as do the myths.

In the photo of old Ponce de Leon Park the magnolia can be seen clearly.
Then it was to lunch at Manuel’s Tavern. Manuel’s is an Atlanta institution of sorts, which various power mongers, literary elite, police bigwigs, and others (I noticed the “class photo” of a nearby martial arts school on the wall) make their hangout on various nights. I was pointed there to see the aerial photos they have of the old Cracker stadium, which show the magnolias. We also had a tasty lunch there and then headed back to the house to get out gloves and go to Kennesaw Mountain Civil War Battlefield.

The only connection Kennesaw Mountain has to baseball or my story is that Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner of baseball, was named for the battle site where his father lost a leg. Maybe Sherman’s Union troops played some ball there to amuse themselves while they were waiting around, but it sounds like in 1864, when the South was weakening, the Union army didn’t have much time to hang loose. Grant had sent them on a mission to take Atlanta, and they swept through the south with great speed until they hit the earthworks dug in by Johnston’s forces at Kennesaw mountain. The one day of fighting there lead to 2000 Union dead, 500 Confederacy, but Sherman’s army was still the larger and better equipped and eventually the South had to abandon the position. Anyway, I don’t think they had much time to play baseball by that point in the war.

Weird fact from today’s travels: it is prohibited to use a metal detector in the national park! “Take only photographs and leave only footprints.”

After poking around the visitor’s center, J.P. and I found a grassy field on the site and played catch for about a half an hour (I’m guessing on the time here–we threw until my back began to feel sore…). Short toss only–we were having too much fun talking to get much further apart. Plus there is the fact that I haven’t thrown a baseball since that trip to the orthopedist last summer (July, was it?) when I found out about my torn elbow tendon. I’ve been doing my rehab exercises every day on this trip and my elbow feels good, strong, no pain in my wrist. The tendon still looks swollen because I aggravated it shoveling snow last week, but hopefully that will subside. Perhaps tomorrow, after I visit Americus, I’ll try to find a batting cage and get some swings in.

Tune in tomorrow for Turner Field, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and the tiny town that Shoeless Joe Jackson brought a championship to.

P.S. Shout out to the Vortex Bar and Grill — the place in Atlanta for an absolutely superb burger. I had mine with mushrooms, blue cheese, and bacon, with tater tots on the side! Owned by a SABR member, Hank, who graciously provided me lunch in exchange for the chance to talk some baseball.

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