Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Augusta’s love affair with ‘base ball’ dates to games
before the Civil War

by Don Rhodes

One of my favorite things to do for special Augusta visitors who are huge baseball and/or music fans is to give them my scaled-down, personalized tour of local places related to Ty Cobb and James Brown.

You especially might be amazed at the number of celebrity visitors who are in awe of Augusta’s rich baseball history which, unfortunately, has been pretty much ignored as a tourism attraction by area political and business leaders.

The same visitors who impressively reel off statistics about Augusta and Aiken’s rich golfing histories are usually the same ones who have a fascination for legendary baseball players and their equally legendary playing grounds.

That list of legendary locations includes Warren Park which became the Exchange Club of Augusta fairgrounds at Third and Hale streets; Jennings Field/Stadium that existed at Allen Park off Walton Way near 15th Street; Lake Olmstead/Heaton stadiums off Broad Street near Milledge Road; and now SRP Park on the Savannah River in North Augusta.

Warren Park especially has fascinated me, it has been a quiet resting place for birds except during two weeks out of each year when the noise of carnival rides competes with emergency sirens on nearby Walton Way and locomotives at the train yards off Laney-Walker Boulevard.

Sixteen years ago in 2005, I picked up world-famous Georgia novelist Paul Hemphill who was staying at the Partridge Inn. It was during his visit to autograph copies of his wonderful and critically-acclaimed biography, Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams.

Hemphill had been sports editor of The Augusta Chronicle from May 1963 until January 1964 when he resigned to become sports editor of the Tampa Bay Times (Fla.). When Hemphill met Cobb, he knew very little of Cobb’s old stomping grounds in Augusta.

I showed him Cobb’s former home on William Street on The Hill where he lived at the peak of his playing days, the Augusta Country Club on Milledge Road where Cobb liked to play golf and the building on the corner of Seventh and Broad streets where Cobb owned a tire store.

But, like most baseball fans, what really emotionally moved him was the former Warren Park.

That’s where we got out of my car, stood at the Hale Street chain link fence and visualized what it might have looked like with the huge grandstand in 1904 when that teenage boy from north Georgia hit his first home run in a minor league game.

Originally, the sport was called “base ball” and written as two words when Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr., a New York City banker, developed the rules and aspects of the game with the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in the early 1800s.

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., now recognizes Cartwright as the “Father of Modern Base Ball” and inducted him in 1938.

Augustans started playing the game with organized teams at least a year before the first shot of the American Civil War was fired at Fort Sumter, S.C.

The augustaarchives.com electronic files of The Augusta Chronicle have advertisements from 1860 for “The Base Ball Club of Augusta.”

An article in November 1860 observes, “The Club was organized last year. The noble and manly game of base ball is an excellent one to develop and toughen the muscles, stir the sluggish blood and impart health and vigor to the whole physical frame. Our young men, especially those of sedentary habits, should oftener engage in it.”

The president of the club was Charles Catlin, who owned a music store on Broad Street across from the United States Hotel. He sold piano fortes, guitars, violins, banjos, flutes, accordions, sheet music and instruction books.

Base Ball from its early years in Augusta was enjoyed by both black and white players although not on the same teams or in the same leagues.

The Augusta Chronicle on June 18, 1878 reported, “Two colored base ball clubs had a match game at the Parade Ground yesterday afternoon. A large crowd witnessed the game.”

The “Parade Ground,” where most of the white base ball games also took place, became city-owned and maintained May Park in the late 1800s in honor of former mayor Robert H. May.

Warren Park, which lasted from 1904 until 1937, was also a city-owned and maintained recreation area where both black and white games were held.

The first time that the University of Texas baseball team ever played a game in Georgia was at Warren Park in April 1912 against the University of Georgia team with Texas beating Georgia 9 to 3.

Paine College athletes annually competed in football games at Warren Park against players from other black colleges in Georgia and other states.

Minor League baseball in Augusta saw its first two black players with Art Williams and Wycliffe Morton signed to the Detroit Tigers in 1955 and assigned to the Augusta Tigers farm team.

That was eight years after Jackie Robinson made his Major League debut in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Williams became the National League’s first black umpire in September 1972 when in San Diego, Calif., he umpired a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres.

Morton, who had earned varsity letters at Howard University playing baseball and football, became head baseball coach at the University of Washington. He was the first black coach in any sport at the college.

If you want to know more about Augusta’s rich baseball or “base ball” history, your first base should be the second floor of the Augusta Museum of History where a nice informative exhibit can be found near the elevator.

It was created by two local “boys of summer,” Milledge Murray and Lamar Garrard, who probably know more about local baseball history than just about anybody else.

They spearheaded the movement to bring about the historical marker honoring Ty Cobb at his former home on William Street, and they have been currently working with the Exchange Club of Augusta to post a similar marker recognizing the history of Warren Park and the club’s fairgrounds.

Their long-range goal is to bring yet another marker on Walton Way honoring the history of Jennings Stadium and Allen Park.

And just maybe along the way ─ if they have time and get some local support ─ they can revive the “Base Ball Club of Augusta” that had its birth with fans 162 years ago! Now wouldn’t that be hitting a home run?

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Don Rhodes is the author of the internationally-sold book Ty Cobb: Safe at Home in the collections of several Baseball Hall of Famers.

Article appears in the June/July 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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