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Traveling the Bambino Road: Day Five

Day Five: March 10, 2003

Today was a day of extremes, from the high tech luxury suites of Ted Turner to the splintered simplicity of Thomas Bell, from the eight lane madness of the Atlanta interstate “connector” to the backroads of pecan and peach country.

Turner Field is one of those snazzy new baseball palaces, where they have incorporated the modern amenities with the history of the sport in the form of memorabilia, art, educational displays, and other cool stuff. If you have been to PacBell Park, Camden Yards, Safeco Field (etc…) then you can predict the amenities part. Luxury suites, amazing scoreboards, wide concourses with variety in the food choices and six hundred televisions throughout the stadium so a fan can wander from her seat and still follow the game.

At Turner Field you can get 21 different varieties of hot dog, according to large signs I saw. And how about “Tooner Field,” the area where kids can play around free of charge? And the “Digital Dugout” where older kids (and adults) can try out SEGA games free, too. Yes, Turner Field has all this and more, at fairly reasonable prices as far as I am concerned.

The catch phrase used by the tour guides at Turner Field repeatedly was “fan friendly.” They put the bullpens where the fans can see them, not the managers (they got closed circuit TV instead). They sell the seats on the far edges of the upper deck for one dollar admission, on the day of game only. And ever since the media reported that an overzealous security guard tried to keep a mother from bringing in formula for her baby, the “no outside food/drink” policy has been reversed. So you can bring your own munchies to the park.

And now the history part. The Braves franchise has a tremendous history, but having had so many homes, in three regions of the country and several different ballparks, the team’s history is easily ignored by modern fans. To remedy this, the Braves have installed a museum of their own in the stadium. Not as large or extensive as the museum at The Ballpark In Arlington (which covers baseball history at large), the Ivan Allen museum at Turner Field focuses on the Braves alone. There is a large section of a Pullman train car, numerous pieces of memorabilia, video presentations on the construction of Turner Field (It was a piece of the Olympic stadium, built with one corner planned for conversion to baseball after 1996.) A large part of the current exhibit is themed on Braves who served in the military.

I have to pause here to say something about war. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. The South is well-covered with a patchwork of National Public Radio stations, so I have been listening to a lot of national news as I drive from place to place. When the country seems on the brink of war, it is easy to see our history as a series of armed conflicts. It’s also easy to give in to feelings of anxiety and fear about it, by letting my view of the world and my evaluation of human history as a whole be dominated by war. Then I remember that the reason I am driving across the country has nothing to do with war and everything to do with two other human endeavors that also are not war: art and athletics. I am a creator. My purpose is to write. When I am done I will have a story, a novel, a piece of creative human expression (i.e. art). And if I have to convince you that art of any kind is a worthwhile human endeavor, then why are you reading this? Likewise sport, athletic competition, a basic form of human striving, of interaction of the human body with the physical world, and with each other. Art and sport. That’s what I’m hanging onto.

Meanwhile, back in Atlanta, there are the Olympic Rings and the Torch, just a block from Turner Field. Talk about a symbol of human striving. And then there are plenty of places where art and sport come together. How about the collection of giant art baseballs, done for the All-Star Game? There is one for each team, each decorated by a different artist or group. They were formerly spread all over the city, leading up to All-Star week, and now they are all displayed outside the stadium. And then there are the statues of Ty Cobb, Phil Niekro, and Hank Aaron in the plaza. Turner Field has been made into a paradise playground for people like me, who are looking for a place to transcend the problems of the world. And just think, I didn’t even see a game there!

After taking the tour of the stadium, perusing the museum for an hour, J.P., Tracy, and I wandered out into the parking lot to see the site where Hank Aaron’s 715th home run went over the wall. They have preserved the piece of the wall and a little piece of grass, in the midst of a large parking lot. The lot has bricks inset in the pavement showing where the Atlanta Fulton Country Stadium infield was, with bases and a home plate made of brass. A nice touch.

I then headed south to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. This is another spanking new snazzy facility and fun for a visit if you are in the area. (Well, let me clarify. The GA Sports Hall of Fame has been around for decades, but this facility is new.) This year’s inductees include Josh Gibson, who was born in Buena Vista, GA, though he made his fortune mostly in Pittsburgh with the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues. Gibson was known as the “black Babe Ruth” in his day. Other previous baseball inductees: Ty Cobb, Johnny Mize, and Phil Niekro.

So which type of museum engenders the most thoughtful examination of its contents, an art museum or a sports museum? The answer depends upon the viewer. In my case, it’s a toss up.

Then it was on to Americus, GA. Off the interstate and into rural Georgia. Unlike the mountainous wilds of North Georgia around Royston and Demorest, on my way to Americus I passed acres and acres of cultivated land. Cherry orchards, peach orchards, pecan farms, and pine forests of varying heights/ages lined the road in endless variations and combinations as I made my way southwest, the farms separated by pockets of wild land, sudden swamps and stands of huge, gnarled trees. My thought as I passed through this landscape? Damn, but this country is beautiful. When the news about Iraq and the U.N. became too repetitive and depressing, I turned the radio off and just listened to the sound of my tires on the uncrowded roads.

Two surprising facts, for me, about the back roads of Georgia. The roads all seem to be well-paved, smooth, and fine. And, no matter how tiny or out of the way the back road gas station was where I stopped, the clerks were Hindi. Why should that surprise me? I guess I just never thought of rural Georgia as a multicultural area of the country. My image of Georgia, and the USA, has been altered. What are the sociological factors that have led to so many convenience store owners being from the Indian subcontinent? But there is not room in this essay to even start answering that. Let’s get back to the subjects of art and sport.

I said above that they built Turner Field as a perfect place to escape the problems of the world. But maybe all the bells and whistles aren’t necessary for that. Thomas Bell Memorial Park was built in 1938 and the structure is entirely made of wood. And it is wonderful.

The park is named for Thomas Bell, a jeweler and optician who brought Shoeless Joe Jackson to Americus in 1923 to play and “field manage” the local nine. Jackson lead them to their league championship, the one great summer of sporting achievement in Americus’ history, and then he moved on. Then in 1938 this wooden park was built, though the plaque dedicating it to Bell seems to have appeared some sixty years later.

When I arrived at the park, it was late afternoon. The air was vibrant with the green-growing scent of spring, and I was excited once again by the sound of bat on ball. Was a game going on? I went through a side gate into the park and found a bunch of players on the field. A coach was pitching to them from behind a screen. It looked like fourteen players, six black, eight white, and he had divided them into three groups. One group was at bat while the other two played the field, and once the group would make three outs, they would rotate. After I had walked around and photographed quite a bit, I sat and watched them. I am guessing they were all high school seniors. They would whoop with delight when crossing the plate, and shout insults to each other. The final group at bat mounted an assault on the leading group’s score–they came within one run to make it 8-7. As a result, they got out of running laps around the field. They were taking turns throwing to each other and hitting in the batting cage when I drove away.

Just a few blocks over is the site where the park that Joe Jackson played in stood. The local Rotary Club, in 1921, built a swimming pool and ballyard in a local park. The field became known as Playground Park because of the playground adjacent to it and the pool. The pool and playground are still there, but the field and rest of the park have long ago been made into residential plots. The first base line used to run along what is now Barlow Street, lined with cottages and small houses.

Then it was back onto the road. My next scheduled stop is Gainesville, Florida, tomorrow afternoon, so I had extra time. And I found I wasn’t ready to get right back on the Interstate. Instead of heading east and making a beeline back to Route 75, I went south from Americus, to Cairo.

Cairo is where Jackie Robinson was born. I doubted I would be able to find his actually birthplace–the house where he was born burned down some years ago and only the brick chimney and fireplace still stand. I do not know if a marker has been erected on the spot either, but I did not have an address for the site. But I still went to Cairo to see what there was to be seen. By the time I crossed the city limits, it was full dark, around eight o’clock at night. Cairo is the sort of place where, by 8 p.m. on a Monday, every business on the downtown main street is closed up for the night. Only the fast food joints on the outskirts were open. But I had fun driving around looking at the old houses and taking photos of signs that said “Jackie Robinson Memorial Parkway” (which seemed to be on at least three different roads running different directions).

But then I was getting tired and it was time to find a place to stay for the night. I found the Cleveland Indians radio station on the AM band and drove happily back to the Interstate as the Tribe faced the Yankees.

Well, maybe not so happily, as the Yankees lost 11-1. Ouch. Maybe it is back to reality after all.

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