Abe Schear (Meredith Hobbs)
Editor’s note: For 12 years, lawyer Abe J. Schear has conducted interviews with baseball players, managers, executives and fans, publishing their transcripts in a newsletter, Baseball Digest. Many of the interviews are compiled in a book, “I Remember When.” He also occasionally publishes articles called “Baseball Digestable.” A version of his latest article appears below. Abe J. Schear is the co-leader of the Retail Practice Group and the leader of the International Business Practice at Arnall Golden Gregory. He can be reached at Abe.Schear@AGG.com.
I wish that I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked about the Braves’ impending move to Cobb County. Was I surprised? Certainly. Do I agree with the Braves’ move? Absolutely. Have the Braves taken the high road? Without question.
My series of baseball interviews over the last 12 years has allowed me to gain great perspective and learn so much about the history of the Braves in Atlanta. Before the Braves, Atlanta was a wonderful baseball city with fans enjoying both the legendary Crackers and the Black Crackers at the historic streetcar-accessible park on Ponce de Leon (the “Crackers” nickname was for the mule whip used in farming in the early 1900s).
Many Atlantans avidly rooted for a major league team with whom they felt a connection (notably the Cardinals or the Senators), often on the radio. And the Crackers had wonderful radio announcers as well, particularly Ernie Harwell in the late 1940s. As Atlanta aspired to attract major league baseball in the 1960s, city legends like Mills Lane, Cecil Alexander, Furman Bisher and Ivan Allen became involved, very much behind the scenes.
Atlanta was thought to be the front-runner for the soon-to-be-relocated Kansas City Athletics team. Charlie Finley, then the owner of the Athletics, visited Atlanta; the legacy of his visit was that he noted that the Lakewood Fairgrounds site and the old Girls High site on I-20 were vastly inferior to the current ballpark location at the crossroads of two major interstates, a location which Cecil Alexander noted was “lying there fallow.”
And here is where the analysis of the Braves’ planned move to Cobb loses its historical perspective. The north-south interstate as it comes through Atlanta was in part designed to separate the central business district from the mostly black Fourth Ward. The interstate served its dual purpose to move traffic and cordon off the desirable business district from this residential area to the east (note that this was done before the Civil Rights Act). And then, of course, I-20 further separated the stadium area, already outside the central business district. These two interstates are in many ways like rivers, bisecting areas like the Chattahoochee, leaving each side in its own neighborhood.
Note in contrast that the Falcons now play in the central business district, where Marta is relevant, where people readily walk from the large hotels to the convention center of which the Georgia Dome is a part, and where restaurants abound.
So now, nearly 50 years after the Braves first played in the old Fulton County Stadium, the historic Summerhill neighborhood is slightly more genteel, yet development to the west of I-75/85 on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard has been mostly nonexistent (this area, west of the interstate, had long been the home of many Jewish merchants and synagogues in the 1930s and ’40s; and the original Piedmont Hospital was where right field was in the original Braves park). There are currently few reasons to come to a Braves game early to tailgate or stay late after the game, and I would venture a guess that many would feel unsafe in doing so. There is, of course, no neighborhood feel in the vast parking lots that surround the ballpark.
The Braves have absolutely taken the highest of roads, and to say that the Braves have not been patient plays very loose with the facts, particularly since they have been at their current location (in two stadiums) for over 45 years. It is worth remembering that the Falcons played in the old ballpark until they were deemed essential to the development and success of the convention center.
It is equally interesting that critics have failed to analyze how we, as a community, now have about 5 million more people than in the mid-1960s, and that the property adjacent to the ballpark now has other viable uses, including many which are consistent with current lifestyles. While isolated by the interstates, the parking fields next to the ballpark are in fact but a short distance to downtown. With a well-conceived master plan, this property may be well suited for residential use and student housing and, if significant building takes place, retail and restaurant uses to serve the increased full-time population. By current standards, this is an enormous piece of property, one which is not owned by multiple investors, one where clearly focused long-term interests of the city can be achieved.
The city showed great vision in enticing the Braves to come to Atlanta, an astounding achievement engineered with the guidance of the still amazing Bill Bartholomay. Remarkably, the original stadium was built in just 13 months at a cost of $13.5 million for a team yet to be committed to the city, built by dreamers without plans, money or a team, dreamers whose love for Atlanta is a lasting legacy.
The Braves and the city have been wonderful partners, but businesses and neighborhoods change, goals and needs change, and the Braves and the city surely will continue to have more to gain by working together. What is missing in the move as currently planned is not the “why” of the Braves’ decision but the “what” to do with this enormous opportunity to finally redevelop the northern part of historic Summerhill.