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From Pioneers to Sand Gnats

Book chronicles history of Savannah baseball

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Most people who spend much time in Savannah know that Grayson Stadium — where our own Sand Gnats begin another season of minor league ball this week — is historic in its own right.

But fewer know that Savannah enjoys quite a significant amount of baseball history that isn’t limited to Grayson’s impressive pedigree.

Before Grayson’s predecessor, Municipal Stadium, was erected at Daffin Park in 1926, Savannah teams played at two other sites.

(White teams actually — in those segregated days even the ballparks were separate. The records for African–American baseball in Savannah are sadly very scarce indeed. Grayson Stadium was a major epicenter of the local civil rights movement when its “colored seating” along the left field line was protested in the 1960s.)

The great “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, commonly regarded to be the game’s best pure hitter other than Ted Williams, played for the old Savannah Indians back in 1909, when local teams played at the now–vanished Bolton Street Park just off the Atlantic Coast Line railroad tracks on the eastside. Teams also played at the Savannah Athletic Field at Henry Street and Waters Avenue.

In a century and a half of baseball in Savannah, some of the game’s most notable names have either played for local minor league teams or passed through playing with other teams, including Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Jim Bouton, Lou Brissie, Rafael Ramirez, and Steve Bedrosian.

Few serious attempts have been made to chronicle this history, however, which is one reason why local historian Brian Harold Lee decided to write Baseball in Savannah. One of the archival–photo heavy books issued by Arcadia Publishing, Baseball in Savannah features nearly 200 rare images, many culled from the personal collections of regional aficionados like Skip Jennings, a local baseball historian who contributes the book’s forward.

We talked to Brian last week.

What persuaded you to take on this project?

Brian Lee: I’m just a history geek and a baseball fan. My name’s on it but it’s everybody’s story. I’m just sharing it.

You’ve found plenty of things I’d never seen before. It’s a fascinating look back.

Brian Lee: Of course there’s no central database of this information. A lot of it involved first using internet sources, then tracking down the actual images from there. It’s part of the process, to find leads and then follow up. There are about 180 images in the book but there are a lot more out there in attics and scrapbooks. A lot of the process was just getting the word out.  No history is ever complete. Baseball’s such a nostalgic sport anyway. There’s always that link to the past.

I sort of wanted each photo to represent a season or year. There are some Hall of Famers in the book, so there’s a potential real national appeal. But most of these players nobody’s ever heard of.

It’s been said that the first known photo of a baseball game was taken in the parade grounds at Ft. Pulaski, while Union troops played there. Is that officially accepted among scholars, that the first baseball photo was taken in Savannah?

Brian Lee: The folks at Pulaski seem to think so. One of the photos I have in the book I don’t think has ever been published before.

Along those same lines, I hear often the Grayson Stadium is the oldest currently active minor league ballpark in the U.S. True or exaggerated?

Brian Lee: I haven’t found any specific information that would contradict that. The Grayson we know today was essentially built in 1940, but there’s been a ballpark on that site since 1926. Then of course the left field bleachers were just torn down, which was the last link with the old Municipal Stadium.

Name some of the best players to actually play for Savannah teams at some point.

Brian Lee: Of course there’s Shoeless Joe. There’s Buddy Gilbert, who played with the Savannah Redlegs. I talked with him for hours. He made it to the majors, but ended up quitting over a contract dispute that amounted to $500. He just moved on with his life. There’s Bugs Raymond, who played here in 1906. A pitcher with great stuff, but a little drinking problem! And “Ripper” Collins, who went on to win a World Series with the Cardinals.

It’s not until you get to the 1940s that you really find players that the average person might recognize. Many didn’t play for Savannah but came through town and played during spring training and in exhibition games, like Frank Robinson, Ted Williams, Harmon Killebrew, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle.

Do you have a favorite image?

Brian Lee: My favorite image is probably the program for the 1959 Savannah Reds, advertising the Nancy Hanks train to Atlanta. It’s almost a piece of Pop Art, with this really concerned–looking woman on the cover. Then of course in the late 1950s the last thing you wanted to be called was a Red!

Looking back is there an area that maybe you feel deserves more attention in the future?

Brian Lee: I’d say there’s room for a better job with the racial issues. There’s a whole lot more to that story. For example, I know W.W. Law was leading protests against segregated seating at Grayson Stadium.

There’s an old black ballpark from the days of segregated baseball off Tremont Avenue. The shell of the old grandstand is still there.

Baseball in Savannah is for sale at amazon.com and at local bookstores.

 

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