Before there was Elvis … before there were hula hoops … even before there were bytes, Facebook and Interstate highways, there was King Baseball with a firm grip on the attention of most of the land.
Elvis swiveled onto the scene in the mid-1950s. Hula hoops came from the same company that made Super Balls and Slinkees. And the Wham O people brought the plastic device to kids of all ages in the late 1950s. And the computer age had the in-the-know crowd talking about bytes about 25 years after President Dwight Eisenhower instituted the Interstate system. Facebook and the social ramble is another story altogether.
Before “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Blue Suede Shoes” came to us from Sun Records in Memphis, there wasn’t enough minor league baseball to go around in the 159 counties of the great state of Georgia.
It was during the aftermath of World War II. Sports in general were a popular diversion from the everyday schedule followed by those getting to smaller cities and more open spaces.
Why, sports even had heros, some back from the war and others plowing the same rows for the same pay as most middle-class Americans.
When it got hot, children played baseball. They had plenty of open fields and could find the one or two balls and the same number of bats to play from mid-morning to sundown.
Adults had their pick of summer leagues if they wanted to play in organized games with actual umpires.
And in 1949, America had 59 different minor leagues.
Baseball was indeed King.
Georgia had Atlanta. And it had so many tracts of pine trees and so many acres overgrown with the Strangler of the South – kudzu – that a person living in the Peach State believed that Atlanta was the center of the universe and every two-lane highway led to its sights and sounds.
In 1949, Georgia had its baseball, fire ants, red clay, kudzu, and Senators Richard Russell and Herman Talmadge. And baseball trumped even the fire ants and either long-time senator.
In 1949, the Georgia State League, the Georgia-Alabama League, and the Georgia-Florida League hovered over Dixie like the dew.
Eight small south Georgia towns made up the Georgia State League. Every one of those eight towns had a ball park with unpainted wooden grandstands. The splintery planks often had more chiggers dancing through them than they did fannies from the 150 or so fans.
The amenities for fan and player alike amounted to snow cones, Coca Cola soft drinks, and dugouts with a partial roof to keep out the nasty noonday sun.
It was a Class D league. There were 32 Class D leagues in the land. But there was only one of them that had fierce pennant races featuring the teams representing Douglas, Eastman, Tifton, Fitzgerald, Dublin, Sparta, Vidalia-Lyons and, of course, Hazelhurst-Baxley.
Players were paid $30 a week. Fans paid 50 cents for a first come-first served seat. And the snow cones were a nickel.
But Hazelhurst-Baxley couldn’t brag to its neighbors in Moultrie, Sandersville, or Thomson because they had Class D franchises in other south Georgia leagues.
If you were a saw mill hand or planted peanuts or found a cotton mill to hire you, there was a minor league team nearby that could use your attendance at its little-publicized games.
Go into Statesboro, Jesup, Carrollton or Americus and look down a narrow strip of pavement to where a 10-foot-high fence ringed a lot. That wooden fence with its advertising signs calling attention to Buck’s Taxidermy or Emmett’s Fix-It shop was a part of the town’s minor league ball park.
The same could be found in Albany, Waycross, Thomasville, Valdosta, and Cordele. Those believing themselves the most fortunate of the Georgia towns had teams whose players were sent in by the St. Louis Cardinals or New York Yankees.
The middle part of the state had towns like Griffin, LaGrange, Newnan, Cedartown, and Lindale with their own favorites to root for . . . maybe one day even seeing a player rise to the major leagues.
A handful of cities a little larger in population than Hazelhurst and Baxley had franchises in the South Atlantic League (or Sally League to those whose soft talk between pitches leaned toward Branch Rickey or Casey Stengel). The Macon Peaches and the Augusta Tigers. The Columbus Cardinals and the Savannah Indians.
Georgia’s acknowledged Ruler of Baseball was none other than Earl Mann’s Atlanta Crackers of the Class AA Southern Association. The Crackers were housed in Ponce de Leon Park, right across the boulevard from the Sears-Roebuck store where everybody going to see Earl’s boys parked for free.
The Crackers had seen Eddie Mathews play third base. They had polished away the rough spots on many other future major leaguers. Look at the roster of the Boston-Milwaukee Braves and you’d easily find one-time Crackers lounging at Braves Field or County Stadium.
Georgia was nearly 35 years away from getting its first major league franchise.
When the Braves came south from Milwaukee, Mathews and Hank Aaron were still with them. But by that time, most of the little towns in southern Georgia had lost their minor league teams. Most of the Class D leagues had dried up and were gone.
Maybe the kudzu and fire ants were flourishing. But baseball was being replaced by dirt bikes, cable television, and Atari games on computers.
It was still July hot . . . but the Georgia State League had some of its wooden bleachers swallowed by kudzu . . . and the chiggers had to find other victims to bother.