Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Atlanta Baseball’s Very First Hall of Famers

by Tim Darnell

The city’s tradition of baseball
excellence goes back long before the Braves
John Smoltz’s recent first-ballot acceptance into the National Baseball Hall of Fame is only the latest example of Atlanta baseball’s historic, long-reaching connection with Cooperstown, NY.

Long before names such as Aaron, Cox, Glavine and Maddux were elected to the Hall of Fame, two players who got their start with the game’s most successful minor league team in history had long been enshrined in Cooperstown.

The city’s very first baseball Hall of Famer was Luke Appling, who attended Fulton High School and Oglethorpe College in Atlanta.

In 1930, Appling left Oglethorpe to make his pro ball debut with the Atlanta Crackers. He was a solid hitter, and before the season was over, the Crackers sold Appling’s contract to the Chicago White Sox for $20,000.

The man considered by many to be the greatest shortstop of all time would play his entire career with the White Sox.

Appling’s best season was 1936, when he batted .388, knocked in 124 runs (his only 100-RBI season), scored 111 times, recorded 204 hits, and had a team-record 27-game hitting streak.

He interrupted his career to serve in World War II in 1944 and 1945. He played for Chicago until 1950, then was a minor league manager and major league coach for many years. He served one stint as an interim major league manager in 1967.

His batting average was good for the first AL batting title won by a shortstop. It was the highest batting average recorded by a shortstop in the 20th century.

When he retired, Appling was the all-time leader for most games played and for double plays by a major league shortstop, and the all-time leader for putouts and assists by an American League shortstop.

Appling was famous among his teammates for complaining about minor ailments such as a sore back, a weak shoulder, shin splints, or a sprained finger. While much of this complaining was probably for show, it earned him the nicknames "Old Aches and Pains" and "Libby", the latter after blues singer Libby Holman.

Appling later served as a coach and scout for the Atlanta Braves. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964.

Atlanta’s second Baseball of Famer was Eddie Mathews, one of the greatest third basemen in history.

Mathews was signed by the Boston Braves in 1949. He played 63 games that year for the Class D High Point-Thomasville Hi-Toms, where he hit 17 home runs and earned a .363 batting average.

In 1950, Mathews moved up to the Double-A Atlanta Crackers, where he hit 32 home runs. He was brought up to the major leagues in 1952, where he hit hit 25 home runs—including three in one game—for the Boston Braves.

In 1953 the Braves moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he batted .302, hit 47 home runs, and drove in 135 runs. For nine straight seasons he hit at least 30 home runs, including leading the National League twice.

After his playing career, Mathews managed the Atlanta Braves and coached in the Oakland Athletics organization. He was manager of the Braves when Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run mark of 714. Mathews was made a Hall of Famer in 1978.

Atlanta’s tradition of baseball excellence began in the late 19th century, and continued with the Atlanta Crackers. From 1901 to 1965, the Crackers won more pennants and league championships than any other team in professional, organized baseball except the New York Yankees.

Indeed, the Crackers were so synonymous with success that they were known as the “Yankees of the Minors.”

Today, Braves fans are looking forward to John Smoltz’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in July—and they anticipate whether Chipper Jones will be the next Brave to be enshrined into the annals of baseball history. But long ago, the path from Atlanta to Cooperstown was paved by two men who played for the greatest minor league baseball team in history.

Tim Darnell is an award-winning journalist who has written for numerous Atlanta sports and political publications. He is also the author of 101 Atlanta Sports Legends and The Georgia Tech Trivia Book. The Crackers: Early Days of Atlanta Baseball is available from the University of Georgia Press in paperback.