A concerned reader recently wrote: "I went by the magnolia tree across from Ponce City Market to get a pic of the Babe Ruth home run marker, and it's gone missing. Would love to see a plea from Curbed to have it restored." Upon investigation of the historic tree in question, it is true that the plaque is missing, but it was not, in fact, a Babe Ruth home run marker, even when it was there. Although Babe Ruth was rumored to be one of only two players (the other being Eddie Mathews) to ever hit a home run into the majestic magnolia that now stands behind the Whole Foods Market in Midtown Place, the now-missing plaque commemorated the historic stadium and the teams that played there — the Atlanta Crackers and Atlanta Black Crackers — rather than Ruth's fabled home run.
If you're not an Atlanta native (or if you're under age 60), you may be wondering why Babe Ruth was swinging a bat around across the street from Ponce City Market in the first place. The answer is that before the Atlanta Braves, before the TJ Maxx and Starbucks and well before the Beltline, Ponce de Leon Park, one of the nation's premier minor league baseball stadiums, stood on the space that is now a strip mall. "Old Poncey," as it was affectionately called, was opened in 1908 as the home of Atlanta's pre-Braves teams, the Crackers and Black Crackers. Its wooden structures burned to the ground in 1923, and the rebuilt stadium was one of the nation's most modern, with individual seats rather than benches and capacity for 20,000 fans. The Eastside Trail was still a train track, and conductors would sometimes stop to watch a game. If the game was dull, spectators could take a dip in the pool next door or wander over to see some alligator wrestling at a nearby restaurant. That is not a joke. The field was demolished in 1966.
Where does the tree come in? Well, the glorious magnolia that you can still visit behind the shopping center once sat in the middle of deep center field, 462 feet from home plate. Ponce de Leon Park was the only field to ever have specific rules regarding a tree on the field. Balls hit into its branches stayed in play, which is where the legendary story of Babe Ruth's home run came from. The ashes of "Mr. Atlanta Baseball," Earl Mann, who owned the team for a decade and was pivotal bringing the Braves to Atlanta, were scattered under the tree when he passed away in 1990.
There are certainly those who still understand and appreciate the historical significance of the tree (last year, Trees Atlanta took cuttings from the tree so that magnolias with the same genetic makeup could be planted along the Beltline), but the marker that used to commemorate its fascinating past is, indeed, missing, and that is a pity. There is nothing whatsoever that indicates it is anything more significant than any other lovely older tree. As Atlanta continues its rapid evolution and growth, it's more important than ever to maintain some respect for the history, landmarks and events that brought the city to this point. The previous plaque, sponsored by the now-defunct Native Atlantans Club, read as follows:
Ponce de Leon Ball Park
Here on these grounds at Ponce de Leon Baseball Park, the Atlanta Crackers and the Atlanta Black Crackers began a tradition of baseball championship and athletic excellence which set the high standard for the baseball we enjoy in Atlanta now.
The Atlanta Crackers, known as "The Yankees of the Minors," were led by Luke Appling, Eddie Mathews, Bob Montag, Ralph "Country" Brown, and many others. For many years, they were owned and operated by "Mr. Atlanta Baseball" Earl Mann, who rose from peanut vendor to owner. Mann led Atlanta in becoming a major league city, and was instrumental in bringing the Braves to Atlanta.
The Atlanta Black Crackers fielded many of black baseball's superstars, including Norman "Geronimo" Lumpkin, James "Red" Moore, James "Gabby" Kemp, and Vinicus (Nish) Williams. The Rev. John and Billie Harden owned the Atlanta Black Crackers for many years and the team played on these grounds when the White Crackers were away.
An Atlanta moment in time.
Preserved by the Native Atlantans Club, Inc. May 2004 with the cooperation of Whole Foods Market
[Plaque photo via Flickr - Nelson Pavlosky. Tree images via Curbed Atlanta. Historical photo via Photographic Collection, Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library - LBCB114-072b, Lane Brothers Commercial Photographers Photographic Collection, 1920-1976.]