The one constant through all the years… has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. – Terence Mann in Field of Dreams
Some of Oreon Mann’s earliest memories are the times he spent with his father at Ponce de Leon Park watching the Atlanta Crackers play baseball. Except, Orean was more than just a spectator – his father, Earl Mann, owned the minor league team from 1949 to 1959.
Baseball greats such as Luke Appling and Eddie Matthews got their start with the team and veteran sportscasters Ernie Harwell and Skip Carey cut their teeth calling Crackers games. The team won 17 league championships in its six-decade history, rivaled only by the New York Yankees.
Oreon became a batboy for the Crackers, traveling all over the southeast with the team during long, hot summers when fans would pack into the sweltering parks to enjoy a hot dog and the satisfying crack of the bat.
The Crackers and Ponce de Leon Park are, sadly, both history now. The Crackers, created in 1901, were dissolved when the Braves came to town in 1965. Ponce de Leon Park is now the Midtown Place shopping center (home to Whole Foods, Borders and Home Depot). Earl Mann passed away in 1990 and his ashes were scattered under the famed magnolia tree that once stood deep in centerfield.
Oreon says baseball was part of his father’s DNA. Earl, born in 1904 in Clayton County, was selling peanuts and soft drinks at Ponce de Leon Park by the time he was 12. Later, he sold tickets and eventually became the Crackers team secretary. He went on to manage four different minor league teams – and each won a pennant under his leadership – before returning to Atlanta to become vice-president of the Crackers. He became president of the team at age 30 in 1935, the youngest man to ever hold such a position in baseball.
Oreon has fond memories of his childhood at Ponce de Leon Park, which sat in the shadow of the giant Sears & Roebuck building (later City Hall East) and the hot, uncomfortable flannel uniforms the team wore. The stadium, rebuilt after a fire in 1923, was one of the most modern in the country with gently sloping ramps, actual seats instead of wooden benches, a broadcast booth and could hold 20,000 fans.
“Train tracks ran above the fires baseline side of the park, and engineers would stop and watch the games,” Mann recalls. “Those tracks were where the Atlanta BeltLine is now.”
Oreon became the iconic face of the Crackers as a small boy, when he was photographed for the cover of the old Atlanta Journal Magazine in the 1940s, wearing an oversized uniform and holding a bat over his shoulder in the middle of Ponce de Leon Park. The image, along with dozens of others, are now part of the collection at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.
Earl was nicknamed the “Baseball Genius in Dixie” and his team was often referred to as the “hated Atlanta Crackers” by other teams because of their success. Under his direction, the Crackers won more league championships than any other team in the Southern Association and Ponce de Leon Park also set records for attendance.
Earl’s management skill extended beyond the baseball realm. When the University of Georgia went to the Rose Bowl in 1943, the Bulldogs asked Earl to travel with them as ticket manager. While in California, he got to hobnob with celebrities like the legendary Mae West, who signed a photo of her and Earl together with her famous tagline – “Come up and see me sometime.” Earl was also friends with golf great Bobby Jones and baseball icon Babe Ruth.
Earl also broke the color barrier by signing outfielder Nat Peeples in 1954 as the first African-American to play for the Southern Association. Earl came under fire for trading Peeples to the Class A Jacksonville Braves after only two games in the official season with fans and local media debating whether Earl caved to pressure from whites upset about integration or if Peeples’ performance just wasn’t up to snuff. History has come down on the side of the latter, because Oreon remembers that his father was strong-willed and not intimidated by anyone.
While Earl went on to be inducted in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and the National Baseball Hal of Fame, Oreon said he “wasn’t quite good enough” to have a career in the sport. He coached third base at his alma mater, Oglethorpe University, before going on to a career in computer software development. He still speaks regularly to students and baseball lovers about his father, the Crackers and Ponce de Leon Park.
A lasting memory Oreon has of his father is one afternoon at the ballpark when a sewer main erupted and sent a geyser of water into centerfield. “I said to my father, ‘well, I guess we won’t have a game tonight.’ My father said, ‘sure we will.’ We went over to the meat-and-three restaurant that used to be where EATS is now, had dinner and came back to the park and the water had drained off and the game went on. My father knew every nook and corner of the park and the condition of the field well.”
Earl sold the Crackers in 1959 after attendance began to drop off at the park. More and more people were watching games on television than coming to Ponce de Leon Park. The Crackers played their final season in Atlanta Stadium (which later became Atlanta-Fulton County stadium and was demolished after the Olympics) in 1965 before the franchise was disbanded with the arrival of the Braves.
Oreon says if you go see the minor league Gwinnett Braves, you can get a taste of what Ponce de Leon Park was like at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville. Designers and architects used the old Ponce ballpark as the basis for their design, Oreon says.
Ponce de Leon Park was demolished in 1966 after Earl sold the property. The magnolia tree is all that remains.
But baseball still marks the time.