As Abe Schear tells it, his introduction to major-league baseball bears the classic marks of a 1950s boyhood.
Schear grew up in a small Ohio city and cheered the Cincinnati Reds. He collected baseball and put extra cards into the spokes of his bike wheels to create that special rattle and roar as he rolled along. He read about baseball every day in his hometown newspapers and stayed up at night listening to games on a transistor radio he’d snuck into bed.
“I was listening to games when I was supposed to be asleep, with the radio under my pillow,” Schear recalled recently. “Baseball took me to faraway cities. Baseball was my view into the rest of the world when I was a little boy.”
Schear, now 69, is a real estate lawyer with the Atlanta firm of Arnall Golden Gregory. After graduating from Emory University and its law school, he stayed in Atlanta, where he discovered, and got interested in, a new and different kind of baseball story. For the past two decades, he’s recorded Atlanta’s baseball history through a series of one-on-one interviews with players, politicians, league officials and fans. He circulates them in a newsletter called “Baseball Digest.”
During many of the years Schear was listening to ball games on that radio beneath his pillow, Atlanta was a minor-league town. The Atlanta Crackers (and the Black Crackers) played at Ponce de Leon Stadium, a romantic old ballpark across from the huge Sears, Roebuck & Co. building (now Ponce City Market). Freight trains rolled past (on tracks where people now stroll the BeltLine). A magnolia tree grew in the outfield. (Although the park is gone, the tree’s still there.)
Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, Atlanta, like a base-stealer headed to second, kicked it into a higher gear and raced to become a new kind of city. Atlanta didn’t just get bigger, it got better known and became a place people wanted to be.
Sports played a big part in Atlanta’s new image. In the middle 1960s, the football Falcons and basketball Hawks set up shop in Atlanta. The Braves moved to town (after years in Boston and Milwaukee) and in 1966 played their first game in a new stadium that the city’s promoters had dreamed up to lure a team.
Things didn’t end there. In 1970, Mohammad Ali made his comeback in Atlanta after years of boxing exile. The Braves showcased Henry Aaron, one of the greatest players of all time and who, in 1974, would break Babe Ruth’s homerun record during a game in Atlanta. In the years since, Atlanta has hosted Super Bowls, the World Series, Major League Baseball’s and the NBA’s all-star games, and the NCAA’s Final Four. In 1996, the Olympics raised its flag over the town.
Atlanta’s evolution into a big city wasn’t an accident. As Schear and others have written, the city’s changes followed a plan conjured by local boosters who sought to raise the city’s business profile internationally. Sports played a big part. Those early boosters wanted to lure major league teams to Atlanta so their city’s name would appear every day in the sports sections of other cities’ newspapers.
Schear thought it would make an interesting project to learn about and record Atlanta’s baseball history. “I knew that my friends would much rather read about baseball than about real estate leasing,” he wrote recently in what he says may be among his last articles.
Over two decades, he interviewed about 80 local community and baseball leaders. He shared his Q-and-A’s with friends and law partners and self-published a book containing about 30 pieces called “I Remember When: A Collection of Memories from Baseball’s Biggest Fans.” Some articles are posted on law firm webpage at agg.com/professionals/abe-schear. His subjects ranged from Atlanta business and political leaders such as Jimmy Carter, John Lewis, Judge Griffin Bell and Herman Russell, to great ballplayers such as Phil Niekro and Tom Glavine.
“The story of baseball in Atlanta is told by so many people. You come up with so many answers,” Schear said. “I’ll never forget that when I asked President Carter what was the best thing about going to see the Crackers, he said the best thing was going to Sears after the game to buy something. In Plains, you could only get stuff in the mail.”
Big-league baseball is set to return April 1. Last season, of course, we fans were stuck at home because of the pandemic and watched and listened from our couches as our major league teams took us to faraway cities. And we bought stuff online that was delivered to our doorsteps. Perhaps, unlike Atlanta, some things really haven’t changed all that much.