Oakland Cemetery tour recalls Atlanta’s baseball heritage


Oakland's Boys of Summer Baseball Tour. March 30-31 at 3 p.m.; July 4-6 at 10:30 a.m.; Aug. 30-Sept. 1 at 10:30 a.m. $10 adults; $5 children and seniors. Oakland Cemetery, 248 Oakland Ave., Atlanta. 404-688-2107.

The city is in ruins — buildings toppled by cannon fire, chimneys tottering amid the rubble, train tracks torched and twisted by an army burning its way to the sea. In the spring of 1866, Atlanta bears the bruises of war. It is a hellish time.

And yet, on the morning of May 12, people emerge from their battered homes. Those who have horses saddle them for a short trip to the eastern edge of downtown; families ready carriages, too. Pedestrians head toward a diamond-shaped tract where 18 Atlantans have promised to put on a show.

By 2 p.m., the site is filled with hundreds, perhaps thousands of people eager for entertainment. A bartender — the most honest guy in town, everyone agrees — takes a seat in a big wooden chair close to the action.

“Play ball!” he yells.

So begins Atlanta’s first baseball game. The match lasts 4 1/2 hours. The final score is —

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Just in time for Braves’ Opening Day on April 1, Oakland Cemetery is hosting a baseball-themed tour of its grounds, where seven of those long-ago baseball players are buried. They include a doctor, a fireman and a guy who earned the dubious distinction of suffering Atlanta’s first baseball injury: He took a line drive where it hurts the most.

Others who have a connection to the grand game also will be featured in the tours, which begin March 30 and will be conducted periodically through the warm months. Also on the tour is famed golfer Bobby Jones, whoplayed baseball before he ever picked up a club, and Christian Kontz, reputed to be the first Atlantan to brew beer. Beer, of course, is synonymous with this noble past time. Saloon owner Sam Downs, whose stone stands in Oakland, was that first umpire.

The tours pay homage to those stalwarts who brought baseball to Atlanta at a time when the town needed a reason to cheer, said Alan Morris, a volunteer at the cemetery.

“The city was a mess,” he said. “Clearly, the citizenry needed something to celebrate. It was really a big deal.”

So big that historian Franklin Garrett included an account of the game in “Atlanta and Environs,” his authoritative history of the city’s early years. He credited merchant Tom Burnett with bringing the game to town when he formed the Atlanta Baseball Club. Burnett outfitted the team with white caps and jerseys and black pants. After a few weeks of practice, Burnett proclaimed his club “the finest team in the world.”

Enter the Gate City Nine, clad in orange shirts, sky-blue pants and black caps. The team, whose name came from an early Atlanta nickname, offered to play the Atlanta club in mid-May. In the days leading up to the game, “little else was discussed” in Atlanta, Garrett wrote.

The game was played just west of the cemetery, not far from where Georgia State University’s football team now practices. One of the Upton brothers could probably throw a ball from Oakland’s wrought-iron gate to the old field.

When Morris, a retired state rehabilitation counselor, learned about the 1866 game, he was hooked. He proposed the baseball-themed tour to the Historic Oakland Foundation, which oversees the burial ground. To borrow a metaphor, the foundation, which hosts 14 tours already, told him to swing away.

Morris did, recruiting another volunteer to help him lead the tours. Each wears an orange shirt that proclaims “Gate City Nine.”

Yes, the Gate City squad. That, dear reader, brings us to the end of this tale.

The final score: Gate City 127, Atlanta Baseball 29 — a whooping so thorough that the Atlanta Baseball Club disbanded. Gate City went on to win more than 30 games before running into an energetic bunch of youngsters from Athens who handed them their first defeat.

And speaking of defeat: On the Braves’ Opening Day, our stalwart nine are hosting the Phillies. Like that 1866 game, this match will take place not far from Oakland.

Let us hope the 2013 game mimics that earlier match: Atlanta 127, Philadelphia 29.