‘The Hammer’ loved the ‘Launching Pad’

As the baseball world focused on Barry Bonds’ pursuit of Henry Aaron’s hallowed home run record this past summer, it came as a surprise that Fulton County Stadium, the site of Aaron’s 500th (1968), 600th (1971) and 700th (1973) home runs, as well as No. 715, had been gone for 10 years already, replaced by Turner Field. Perhaps it was time for a look back at a stadium that surely had its ups and downs, but in essence opened the Southland to major professional sports.
Below is a story on the stadium’s history, divided into three eras: The Aaron Era (1966-74), the Lost Years (1975-90) and the Return to Glory (1991-96). As you’ll see, Fulton County Stadium had more mood swings than a Hollywood diva.

                               The Aaron Era
The funny thing is, Atlanta wasn’t supposed to house the Braves at all. Originally, it was thought that the Atlanta A’s would be the home team.

Since the 1930s, Atlanta wanted a ballpark, but the first serious proposal didn’t come in until 1956. While it was true that for years Atlanta had fielded such minor league teams as the Crackers and Black Crackers, it was the St. Louis Cardinals that was considered the southernmost MLB city.

Atlanta’s major league aspirations were bolstered when the new Continental League offered the city a franchise, followed shortly thereafter by the fledgling American Football League. A stadium authority was formed in 1960, only to see its hopes dashed when the Continental League folded (with the Mets and Colt .45s being incorporated into the National League), and the AFL chose Oakland, Calif., instead.

But the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce persisted, suggesting in 1961 the construction of a domed stadium at the site of an old racetrack south of the city. This, too, seemed for naught until a visit by Charles O. Finley, who was looking for a new home for his Kansas City Athletics. Then-mayor Ivan Allen showed Finley a site that was part of an urban renewal program only a mile south of the state capitol and located near a 32-lane highway interchange. Finley was very interested, and Allen began working with various financial, federal and civil groups to make the Atlanta ballpark a reality. But again, the city’s plans were torpedoed when Finley could not muster enough support from his MLB co-owners to allow a move south.

All was not lost, however. The Milwaukee Braves, who had ridden a wave of popularity after a move from Boston in the mid-1950s, which had included NL pennants in ’57 and ’58, were experiencing declining attendance at County Stadium and scanning the horizon for a lucrative alternative. Atlanta rolled out the red carpet, promising a spanking new stadium in an untapped Southern market. Atlanta was satisfied it had a deal. But Milwaukee would not go down without a fight. Therefore, although the Braves signed a 25-year lease for the stadium in 1964, they would be forced to play the ’65 season at County Stadium.

Meanwhile, construction of Atlanta Stadium began. Under architects Heery & Heery and Finch, Alexander, Barnes, Rothschild & Paschal at a projected cost of $11.4 million (finally $18 million), the grass field stadium would be a poster child for the circular multipurpose “cookie cutters” which dominated MLB (primarily the National League) in the 1970s. It would seat 51,500 and house both an MLB and NFL (Falcons) team. The construction would be speeded by its circular design, employing identical prefabricated frames. It would be strong enough to support a dome in the future, if needed.

Perhaps the builders rushed a bit too much. Although the Braves would not be relocated from Milwaukee until 1966, the stadium was ready for 1965, but some details, such as the playing surface and its drainage, were bad for years. Also, unlike other multipurpose facilities, there were no movable sections (the football gridiron was positioned from foul line corner to foul line corner) and many seats were distant from the action – not unlike Oakland Coliseum. Also, there was virtually no overhang between the upper and lower decks.

With the Braves bound to Milwaukee for ’65, the Atlanta Crackers had the honor of breaking in the new stadium, which had dimensions of 325 feet down the foul lines, 385 feet in the power alleys and 402 feet to center. However, they weren’t the most famous team to play there in ’65. On a sweltering night on Aug. 18, the Beatles performed at Atlanta Stadium as part of the group’s nine-city North American tour. (Tickets were $5.50 for field level and $4.50 for the upper deck). All went well, and the lads were supposedly impressed with the outpouring of Southern hospitality and a sound system which actually allowed them to hear themselves over the thousands of screaming fans who showed up.

Finally, 1966 rolled around, and the Braves officially arrived in Atlanta. The team’s first opponent that April 12 was the Pittsburgh Pirates, with Braves catcher Joe Torre belting the first homer. (Torre would play a role in the stadium’s final act, as well.) Though the Braves would lose that night, the South had officially become “Major League.”

Of course, Hank Aaron was the star of the team, and he loved the stadium. The location of the stadium, in an altitude second only to modern-day Denver’s, coupled with the circular design, would lead to balls flying out of the park – hence the “Launching Pad” moniker. The home runs, along with the pitching of future HOF’er Phil Niekro, helped bring the Braves to the top of the newly-formed NL West in 1969. Unfortunately, they would run into the Miracle Mets and lose three straight in the first NLCS.

Aaron would also play a role in the stadium’s first All-Star Game, homering in a 4-3 NL victory. However, the best was yet to come for “Hammerin’ Hank,” as he marched toward Babe Ruth’s record of 714 homers.

It is somewhat ironic that this great ballplayer, as stoic and steady as Ruth was flamboyant, would mount his assault as an African-American in a Southern city where tensions between whites and blacks (especially in the Atlanta Stadium area) were strained. But Aaron persevered, and on April 8, 1974, he crushed No. 715 off the Dodgers’ Al Downing, touching off a memorable celebration.

However, a declining Aaron would be traded to the Milwaukee Brewers a year later, and the Braves would sink into a funk that would last 15 seasons, save for one notable exception.

Before we move on to phase two, let us pause to remember two distinctive Fulton County Stadium personalities from those early years. First, there was Big Victor, a rather large totem-pole figure whose head tilted and eyes rolled after Braves dingers in 1966.

He would be replaced by the infamous Chief Noc-a-Homa in ’67. Noc-a-Homa had his own teepee, starting out on a platform behind left field and eventually moving all over the outfield stands. The Chief would do war dances and such, trying to incite the increasingly lethargic Atlanta crowds during those dog days and years of the late 1970s and ’80s. They tried to ditch Noc-a-Homa twice, in ’82 and ’83, but both times this led to prolonged losing streaks, so he kept coming back.

The lost years – Ted Turner to the rescue
On Sept. 8, 1975, the Aaron-less Braves drew a record low of 737 fans to a home game vs. the Astros. There were rumblings of a move to Denver or Toronto.

It was at this time that brash communications magnate Ted Turner stepped in. Determined to keep the Braves in the South, he turned to a number of wacky promotions to encourage fans to attend Braves games. Among them were wet T-shirt contests, ostrich races featuring Braves radio announcers, weddings, cash grab scrambles and 25-cent beer nights. The topper came when Turner himself grabbed the reins of the club, suiting up and directing play in the dugout. He went 0-1 and was immediately banned from any further activities by the commissioner. But on the field, the Braves, in their famous feather sleeve/softball uniforms, continued losing. By the end of the 1970s, the only rays of hope were newcomers Dale Murphy and Bob Horner, and they would feature prominently in the “one notable exception” previously mentioned.

In 1982 under skipper Joe Torre, the Braves put together a magical season which commenced with a 13-game winning streak. They would record their second NL West pennant, only to see their hopes crash and burn like in 1969, this time to the St. Louis Cardinals. Attendance would climb to nearly 2 million. The next year attendance climbed to 2.1 million.

It was during this down period that Fulton County Stadium, as it was now officially called, underwent a renovation. In 1977, all the wooden seats, a light blue, were replaced by blue, orange and red plastic seats. Some of the woodies would be relocated to Greer Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., home of the Nashville Sounds minor league park. They would later find their way into collectors’ hands in the early ’90s. More on them later.

Overall, the mid-to-late ’80s were pretty bad for the Braves. Even a Fourth of July fireworks display in 1985, which was to follow a contest vs. the Mets, fell victim to rain delays and extra innings (171/2, to be exact). As a result, the Braves commenced firing their rockets at 4:01 a.m. on July 5! But better days were ahead for Turner and Braves Fans.

Return to glory
When we think of the Braves today, we view them with a mixture of respect and awe. Since 1991, the team has established a level of excellence that might never be equaled, winning the NL pennant or Eastern Division title year after year – even the Tomahawk Chop got tired long ago. I wonder if Braves fans even remember those horrible seasons of the 1970s and ’80s. OK, so they only won one World Series (1995), and they haven’t been able to get past the Yankees. Who cares? If you were a Braves fan in 1990, you’d have thought another decade of misery was in your future. But things were looking up.

First, the playing surface was finally improved. It‘s incredible to think that until 1989, the stadium did not have a full-time groundskeeper. Its maintenance was done through city employees. But new manager Bobby Cox and GM John Schuerholz changed everything, ripping out the old infield and resurfacing the rest. Another thing that helped was that the Falcons, who had played at Fulton County Stadium since their inception in 1967, moved out to the Georgia Dome, thus sparing the field a beating each August through December.

In 1991, the Braves would go from worst to first, reaching the Fall Classic, which truly lived up to its name. Kirby Puckett/Kent Herbek Twins overcame three losses at Fulton County Stadium to win the Series in seven.

Attendance would again rise with the Braves’ fortunes. The team would again defeat the Pirates in a thrilling NLCS on a memorable single by then-unheralded bench player Francisco Cabrera, and go on to face the Blue Jays in the World Series. They lost that series in six games. But with pitchers such as John Smoltz and Tommy Glavine (soon to be joined by Greg Maddux) and sluggers David Justice and Fred McGriff, the Braves kept rolling, narrowly missing a third consecutive World Series appearance when they fell to the Phillies of Lenny Dykstra and Darren Daulton in the ’93 NLCS.

After the ’94 strike prematurely ended the season, the Braves were back with a vengeance in ’95. With a recharged team led by Javy Lopez, Ryan Klesko, Chipper Jones and that great pitching staff, they finally went all the way, defeating the Cleveland Indians behind Glavine and reliever Mark Wohlers.

By the early ’90s, the Braves had been looking into possible sites for a baseball-only ballpark, due in part to the departure of the Falcons and the desire for a non-doughnut retro park that had become the rage since Camden Yards had been built in Baltimore. Originally the organization had targeted the suburbs, but their fate was determined when Atlanta was chosen to host the ’96 Olympic Games, necessitating a ballpark to be built near Fulton County Stadium. The plan was that after the Olympics, the facility would be transformed into a more intimate retro park, with Fulton County Stadium being razed for a parking lot.

The 1996 season would be the Braves’ last go-round at Fulton County Stadium, and it was an exciting one, with the team overcoming early season problems to ride Smoltz’s Cy Young performance to the NLCS, where they would defeat the Cardinals after disposing of the Dodgers in the Division series.

On Sept. 23, 1996, there was a formal farewell ceremony at Fulton County Stadium. Fans were given commemorative hats and plastic ticket holders, and the ushers wore tuxedos. Former mayor Ivan Allen, who had been in office during Fulton County (Atlanta) Stadium’s inception, threw out the first pitch. Braves highlights through the years were shown between innings of the Braves/Expos game. “Auld Lang Syne” took the place of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch. The Braves won, 3-2, and the postgame celebration began.

More Braves highlights on the scoreboard were followed by a laser show, and then a host of great Braves players, led by Phil Niekro, took the field. From Ralph (Roadrunner) Garr to Terry Pendleton, many eras were represented. Of course, the greatest ovations were reserved for ’80s hero Dale Murphy and Hammerin’ Hank.

The World Series, Fulton County Stadium’s “final” last hurrah, would pit the Braves against the Yankees, managed by Torre. What was strange is that although the Yanks lost the first two in the Bronx, they would sweep all three contests in Fulton County Stadium before winning game 6 back in New York for all the marbles.

Yes, the final year of Fulton County Stadium had been a momentous one, what with the Olympics and World Series, but now it was time for the wrecking ball. An Atlanta group called Save Our Stadium tried to keep the facility alive, but it was deemed too costly to maintain.

It is ironic that Fulton County Stadium ended up costing about as much to demolish as it was to build. First, the roof panels were removed, then the lights. The grandstands went next, followed by an implosion on Aug. 2, 1997. The entire process was designed to allow for as much recycling of materials as possible.

As far as collectible fixtures, a sale was held over one weekend preceding the implosion. Many seats, signs, etc., were released to the public. You can find seats in blue, orange or red anywhere from $125-$325.

Of course, the earliest seats are the most desirable. These woodies, in a light shade of blue, were moved to Greer Stadium, home of the Nashville Sounds, in the ’70s and remained there until their removal in the early ’90s.

I bought a double that was pretty beat up. They’d been painted a blue more in line with that of their parent club of the time, the Yankees, so I had to restore them, eventually fashioning them into one solid seat. The funny thing about these riser doubles is that they came with a huge, heavy stabilizing beam that bolted through the bottom of the posts but still necessitated being attached to a wall to keep the seats upright. I ended up chucking the beam and attaching conventional stands. You might still find one of these woodies occasionally on eBay, but I would think these are all in the hands of collectors.

As previously mentioned, Fulton County Stadium is a parking lot for Turner Field now. The diamond and foul lines are marked in brick, and bronze plaques mark the bases. There is a monument to Aaron’s 715th homer where the outfield fence stood. You can also see relics from Fulton County Stadium on the grounds of Turner Field, including the bronze statues of Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro and Ty Cobb in the entry plaza. In addition, there are seats, a turnstile and a re-creation of the dugout with the original bench, bat and helmet racks, etc., as well as lockers in the Braves Museum and Hall of Fame.
Fulton County Stadium opened pro sports to the South, and it was the scene of great moments and great teams. Not too shabby for a doughnut, don’t you think?

Collectors can write to Paul Ferrante at 23 Benedict Ave., Fairfield, CT 06825; baseballjourney@sbcglobal.net. His Web site at www.baseballjourney.vze.com.

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