First published: May 10, 1990
(In the days of the Atlanta Crackers baseball club, a large magnolia tree stood in center field, on a terrace rising just above the playing level. Until the latter seasons at Ponce de Leon Park, when a scoreboard blocked it out, the tree was in play. Only Eddie Mathews, then a kid of 19, ever hit a ball into the tree, the story goes. I can confirm that, but I can't deny there may have been others.
In the season of 1956, the Crackers had a center fielder named Jack Daniels, his real name, who was for one season the best center fielder I've ever seen. Anywhere. He was the only one I ever remember running up a bank to make a catch under a magnolia tree.
Ponce de Leon Park is gone, the ground auctioned off 25 years ago. Down the left-field line is a place called the Great Mall of China. In right field, where billboards rose in rows, is a catering service. In center field, the old magnolia tree still stands, maybe a little larger, maybe not.
The other day I went out to see the tree. Litternuts had left Snickers wrappers, Kentucky Fried Chicken bags, McDonald's cartons, styrofoam cups beneath it, the stuff you see where America displays its bad manners. But we had a visit, the tree and I.)
Well, Tree, long time no see, or something like that. You still look the same, haven't changed a leaf. I know how us old guys like to hear that, but I mean it. You look like you could still go nine if they transplanted you to center field downtown in the stadium. And you might cover more ground than some we've had.
I tell people about you being the only tree I ever saw play center field in pro baseball, and they don't believe me. They should have been here when you were in your prime and the Crackers were winning all those pennants. Don't be modest, you did your part. You were their 10th man long before anybody ever thought of the wretched DH.
(Don't ask me what that means. I can't even talk about DH without getting sick at my stomach.)
I wonder, Tree, if you ever miss the old gang. Some of them are still around town. Bob Montag, the home run king, Buck Riddle, who hit a few himself, Dick Grabowski, Bob Sadowski. Don't see anything of Whitlow Wyatt anymore. He never leaves his county.
Mathews came through and managed the Braves and went, and Chuck Tanner, too. Both asked about you. I lied. I told them you were doing great. I didn't tell them I hadn't seen you in 20 years. Clyde King was through town the other day and I told him I'd just visited you. This time I wasn't lying.
I always guessed that if any of the old guys came to town and asked about you, it would be Jack Daniels. "Sour Mash, " they called him. I always thought he was your closest friend, much time as you spent together around that terrace. Nobody could go up that rise and pull in a drive like he could. Then make the throw. Then come to the plate and give you as much action.
The season he played center field for Clyde King, Jack Daniels had the most curious set of stats I ever saw. He'd spent a season with the Braves, mostly doing defensive gigs and caddying for the big hitters. When he got to Atlanta in ‘56, he was only 29 years old but he was on his way down. The season he had, Tree, was like one last shot of a Roman candle.
He led off, and was the most unusual leadoff hitter I ever saw. His time at bat was either a home run, a walk or a strikeout, it seemed. He hit 34 home runs, walked 143 times and struck out 113 times. Scored 126 runs, led the club in e verything. In his 669 times at bat, he reached base 320 times, counting walks and hits, and that's nearly a .500 average.
Tree, you just didn't see that being done in those days. You should have appreciated him. You had the best view of any of us.
The last news I had of him wasn't good. While he consumed a good deal of the product whose name he bore, that wasn't his problem. He'd had part of a leg amputated because of some diabetic condition, and that's second-hand news. Tell you one thing, you could have Mantle or Mays or Reiser or any of those guys, but for one season with the glove, I take Jack Daniels.
I haven't asked you about your memories, but then I forget that trees don't talk, except in movie cartoons or Disneyland. If you could, you would tell me if Mathews was really the only guy who reached you with a drive.
Oh, there's a lot you could tell. Do the railroad men still wave when the train passes on the bank? Did the guys in the left-field bleachers really make bets on balls and strikes? Have you found happiness without the Crackers?
I don't want any answers, Tree. Just let me get away from here before I get any sillier.
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