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Like the seasons themselves, baseball has a way of coming full circle.

In the ‘50s, future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson played one of the first games of his storied career at Savannah’s Grayson Stadium with the Columbia Reds.

“Frank Robinson played his first game in this stadium in 1954. He showed up late and hit two home runs,” says Frank Novak, public relations director for the Savannah Sand Gnats.

Now, Robinson is manager of the Montreal Expos, whose single A minor league affiliate is none other than the Savannah Sand Gnats.

Baseball has a way of meeting itself coming and going like that. No other sport has such an abiding respect for the history of the game. And in no other sport does the past come alive quite the way it does in America’s pasttime.

This season, the Sand Gnats celebrate the 100th birthday of professional baseball in Savannah with a season full of special events and commemorations. Perhaps the most notable aspect will be the wearing of historic uniforms of noteworthy teams from Savannah’s baseball history.

“We wanted to take the season and use it to do a look back, starting in 1904, using throwback uniforms of different teams in the South Atlantic League,” says Ken Shepard, Gnats general manager. “We’ll do that four different times over the course of the season.”

That look back begins June 3-5, when the Gnats will don the uniforms of the 1947 Savannah Indians.

“We’re going to try and get Lou Brissie to come for that night,” Shepard says, referring to the all-star pitcher who began his career in Savannah, getting a SAL record 278 strikeouts that ‘47 season.

“June 24-26, it’ll be the 1960 Savannah Pirates. Of course we’ve got to have the Braves in there, so August 5-7 we’ll have on the 1977 Savannah Braves uniforms. And Sept. 2-4, we’ll wear the uniforms of the 1994 Savannah Cardinals,” Shepard says.

“That’ll spread us out over the time period. They’re all championship years , except for the ‘77 Braves, who were in the championship game that year -- the first time they’d been in the playoffs in 15 years,” he says.



The list of big names to play pro baseball in Savannah -- though not necessarily for Savannah -- over the years is stunning. It includes five of the biggest names of all time: Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron.

The cantankerously competitive Ty Cobb began his baseball career with the Augusta Tourists in 1904. Then a teenager, he already displayed his lifelong contempt for authority, enraging coaches by stealing bases without authorization.

While playing the Savannah Indians here in 1905, Cobb brought a bag of popcorn into the outfield with him. A fly ball came his way. Not willing to drop his popcorn, Cobb muffed the catch and let a run in.

He was soon in a fistfight with the manager in the dugout -- one of many famous brawls the “Georgia Peach” would engage in throughout his controversial career.

Ten years before a betting scandal with the Chicago White Sox would ban him from the sport, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson was an outfielder for Savannah in 1909, when the team played in Bolton Street Park off what’s now Henry Street. That year Jackson hit .358 for the season, a South Atlantic League performance that was bested only twice that century.

Despite his illiteracy and rural roots, the Greenville, S.C., native was embraced by Savannah society. He opened a successful dry cleaning business on Drayton Street, and lived with his wife first at 143 Abercorn Street and then on East 39th St.

There’s a common thread between Jackson and Babe Ruth, who wasn’t known as a hitter until after he’d already established himself as a standout pitcher.

Shoeless Joe -- perhaps the game’s most consummate hitter until Ted Williams’s arrival on the scene 30 years later -- tried to change Ruth’s stance in the batter’s box to improve his hitting. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I was able to help Ruth a little before he began to hit,” Jackson told the Savannah Morning News in 1932. “When I first knew him, he was a spraddle-legged hitter, and I taught him to change to pivot hitting. He's the only fellow I ever tried to convert who jumped on to the idea in a minute.”

Ruth would indeed play in Grayson Stadium -- then called Municipal Stadium -- but only after his career was essentially over. In an exhibition game between Ruth’s Boston Braves and the South Georgia Teachers College (now Georgia Southern University), Ruth hit a home run in what would be his final year as a major leaguer. (The Braves won 15-1.)

Mickey Mantle and the defending world champion New York Yankees played the Cincinnati Reds in a 1959 exhibition game in Savannah. Then approaching the twilight of his career, the switch-hitting slugger still managed to hit two of his trademark mammoth home run shots during the game -- both left-handed and each over 500 feet, according to witnesses.

Atlanta Braves great and all-time home run king Hank Aaron, then a skinny second baseman playing for Jacksonville Tars, visited Grayson often in the ‘50s.



The list of greats to play in Grayson Stadium also includes some of the brightest stars in modern history as well: Derek Jeter, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, David Wells, Andy Pettite and Mariano Rivera.

If you notice a preponderance of Yankees on that list, there’s a good reason: New York’s single A affiliate in the SAL, the Greensboro (N.C.) Hornets, was the springboard for most of the current roster of Bronx Bombers.

“Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada played on consecutive squads from Greensboro,” the Gnats’ Novak says. “Anybody who’s on the Yankees right now played here. They were on this field. They didn’t play for Savannah, but they were right here.”

Other famous SAL veterans include Vladimir Guerrero (Albany Polecats, ‘95), Todd Helton (Asheville Tourists, ‘95), and Kenny Lofton (Asheville, ‘89).

“Lofton’s story is interesting,” Novak says. “He only played 22 games before moving on, but during that time he stole 14 bases.”

Juan Gonzalez played in Gastonia, as did Sammy Sosa in 1987. Chipper Jones played in 1991 for the Macon Braves.

“Sandy and Roberto Alomar came up at the same time, at the Charleston Padres affiliate,” says Novak.

Savannah teams themselves claim quite a few big-name Major League stars on rosters gone by.

Standout active players who played for Savannah include the Dodgers’ Adrian Beltre and the Rangers’ Hank Blalock.

But without a doubt the most notable currently active former Savannah player is Eric Gagne, the L.A. Dodgers Cy Young Award-winning pitcher.

“Eric Gagne threw his first professional pitch with the Sand Gnats,” says Novak. “That year the team clinched a playoff spot by one game. They took it all the way through to the championship as the last seed.”

Indeed, Savannah seems to be a fertile breeding ground for fine pitching talent. The inimitable Lou Brissie we’ve already mentioned.

Another immortal hurler with a local pedigree is Steve “Bedrock” Bedrosian of Braves and Phillies fame, who played for Savannah during its long AA affiliation with the Atlanta franchise.

The late Dave DeBusschere, primarily known as an NBA Hall of Famer, actually began his professional sports career in baseball. He was one of 14 players from the legendary 1962 Savannah White Sox team to make the major leagues.

Sadly, that banner ‘62 season will always be remembered for something quite a bit less positive. The team had to leave Savannah for Virginia before season’s end as racial strife over integration reached levels considered too dangerous to field a team safely.

That was the year local civil rights great W.W. Law, then a postman, organized a picket of Grayson Stadium to protest its segregated seating policy, calling for African Americans to withhold their support for the team.

The concession stand off the left field line in Grayson Stadium is a reminder of that shameful era; it was once the “colored” restroom. As if to give the evil spirits of segregation time to fade, the White Sox made the mid-season move to Lynchburg, Va., permanent, and Savannah was without pro baseball from 1963 to 1967.

The strife in the ‘60s was but the cap in a long history of racism in Savannah. A 1925 newspaper account of a black Savannah team’s road trip to play a black Augusta team shows the deeply ingrained bigotry of the time:

“There was a large crowd at the ball park, with a good attendance of white fans, and the game was much enjoyed... Perfect order prevailed among the excursionists, going and returning, as well as at Augusta....”

The Sand Gnats mark the history of African American baseball in Savannah with a Negro League night June 7.



In 1971, Ted Turner used his money and clout to bring AA ball to Grayson Stadium, beginning a 13-year affiliation with the Atlanta Braves that is probably the golden era of Savannah baseball.

“Savannah’s not nearly big enough a market to host a AA team,” explains the Sand Gnat’s Frank Novak. “Look at other AA cities around the country, like El Paso or Round Rock, just outside Austin. We’re not anywhere near that size.”

A pipe dream it may have been, but Savannahians will always have fond memories of Dale Murphy, longtime Braves stalwart who ironically retired the year before Atlanta clinched the National League pennant in the first of a long string of titles.

Murphy played his AA ball for the Savannah Braves during that truly anomalous period for baseball in Savannah. For the first and only time, the local team was not in the SAL, but the Southern League.

And no chronicler of the Savannah Braves years can leave out the 39-year-old Jim Bouton, fresh off a seven-year retirement and his controversial autobiography Ball Four. The eccentric knuckleballer (is there any other kind?) came to town in 1978 for a twelve-game winning season with the Savannah Braves before going back up to Atlanta.

Despite the imposing rosters, those AA Braves didn’t win a single championship. Unable to bring in large enough crowds and with a stadium that ran afoul of new AA and above rules (it’s a mere 290 feet over Grayson’s left field wall), Savannah returned to the SAL in 1984 as a Cardinals affiliate.

In another irony, those Cardinals remain virtually anonymous despite winning back-to-back championships.

“It’s funny. Though they won two championships, those Cardinals produced almost nobody anyone would recognize today,” Novak muses.



But in a way, all these names pale in comparison to one Savannah player whose influence can be felt to this day, not only in the sporting world but in the business world at large.

Curt Flood gave the world free agency.

Flood, who played for the Savannah Redlegs in 1957, refused to report to the Phillies after the Cardinals traded him in October 1969. Flood sued Major League Baseball the next year, saying the so called “reserve clause” allowing the trade violated federal antitrust laws.

In 1972 Flood would lose the lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court. But the narrowly worded decision left the way open for collective bargaining. By year’s end the major league owners gave the reserve clause the coup de grace by agreeing to salary arbitration.

By the time Flood died of cancer in 1997, free agency had made possible today’s mega-salaries. In that year, NBA star Michael Jordan -- himself a dabbler in minor league baseball -- was singlehandedly responsible for at least $10 billion into the U.S. economy. w



The Sand Gnats season begins this Thursday at Grayson Stadium, game time 6:35 p.m.

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Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

Bio:
A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series... more

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