Photo by Don Rhodes
It will be fall again in a few weeks and thousands of area citizens again will head for the Exchange Club of Augusta’s fairgrounds as they have been doing for decades.
Most, however, do not know that this hallowed ground more than 100 years ago was Ty Cobb’s Field of Dreams. It was where the Georgia teen-ager played his last game as a member of the Augusta Tourists minor league team on Aug. 25, 1905, and five days later played his first professional game for the Detroit Tigers.
The fairgrounds then was known as Warren Park and named after former Confederate captain William Henry Warren.
He was a leader in promoting athletics in Augusta, an elder in Augusta's First Presbyterian Church and president of the Y.M.C.A. He also was a leader in agricultural experimentation and one of his best friends was Prosper J. Berckmans, whose nursery (Fruitland) would become the grounds for the Augusta National Golf Club.
Mr. Warren’s grave is a ball’s throw away over the brick wall of Magnolia Cemetery just across Third Street.
If you’re facing the Hale Street gate as shown in the photo on this blog posting, Warren Park basically was from the “FAIR” gate heading left or east to Third Street.
The main grandstand was located about right in front of where the “FAIR” sign now exists, and the Augusta Tourists’ locker room basically was on the corner of Hale and Third Streets where concrete block restrooms now exists. Side bleachers and the covered grandstand provided about 2,500 seats.
Base Ball, as known then, had been played in Augusta since the late 1800s. It wasn’t Abner Doubleday who came up with the game as we know it today but rather a New York bank teller named Alexander Cartwright.
In 1904, the South Atlantic League (Sally League) was formed with teams from Augusta, Savannah, Macon, Charleston, Columbia and Jacksonville.
It just so happened that a teen-ager in Royston, Ga., named Tyrus Raymond Cobb learned about the formation of the Sally League as he was graduating from high school. He most likely read about it in his father’s newspaper The Royston Record.
According to legend and Mr. Cobb’s first highly-erroneous biography published after his death, Mr. Cobb wrote all six Sally League teams seeking a try-out.
Supposedly only Con Strouthers, manager and owner of the Augusta Tourists, gave him that chance but told him that he would have to pay his own way to Augusta. Mr. Cobb wasn’t even in The Chronicle’s printed line-up for the first day of Sally League play on Memorial Day of 1905.
Catcher Andy Roth was going through some contract problems, and Mr. Cobb was substituted as the next day’s published account testifies. He only got to play two games for the Tourists, however, before Mr. Strouthers released him on call-back status to a small team in Anniston, Ala., apparently over a manager-player difference.
Mr. Strouthers lasted only a few months with the Tourists and eventually was succeeded by an owner named Harlan W. (Harry) Wingard who immediately ordered Mr. Cobb to report back to August at once.
Most baseball fans have never heard of Mr. Wingard, and yet he was the one who set Mr. Cobb back on the right track to baseball immortality.
The Augusta Tourists and their Sally League opponents were not the only teams to play at the Warren Park baseball grounds. So did the Philadelphia Athletics under legendary manager Connie Mack, the Detroit Tigers under Bill Armour who hired Mr. Cobb, the University of Georgia’s baseball team, the Brooklyn Superbas (later Dodgers) with player Casey Stengel and also minor league teams from Toronto, Canada, and Rochester, N.Y.
Although Cobb’s last game as a member of the Tourists was Aug. 25, 1905, he often returned to join them for spring training including when as player-manager he brought the Detroit Tigers back to Warren Park to play exhibition games against the Augusta Tourists.
Mr. Cobb, of course, would marry a prominent Augusta woman, own a tire store at Broad and Seventh streets, own a lot of property in the area, play golf at the Augusta Country Club, father five kids (four of which would be born in Augusta) and be a respectable Augusta resident for 25 years.
There is no statue of Ty Cobb in Augusta like of singer James Brown. There is no street named after him or baseball field. Augusta leaders have chosen to continue ignoring his world-famous accomplishments; contending he was a racist and a hated individual.
They ignore the facts that he beat up as many white guys as he did black, that his closest friends included the cream of Augusta leaders as well as Coca-Cola industrialist Robert Woodruff and golfer Bobby Jones, and that most white people in the South were racist when Mr. Cobb was in his heyday.
That’s O.K. Let Augusta leaders continue to think small and ignore one of their most world-famous individuals.
Other cities haven’t.
The city of Anniston, Ala., recently erected a historic marker about Mr. Cobb playing briefly for the Anniston Steelers. It was placed near where the then-18-year-old player resided for a couple of months in a boarding house in 1904.
It’s not the first time, of course, that Augusta has let other cities steal its glory. The town of Royston for decades has had a welcoming billboard proclaiming itself as the “home of Ty Cobb,” and yet the truth is Mr. Cobb lived in Augusta twice as long as he lived in Royston.
Mr. Cobb was not a native of Royston as so many people think. He was born on a farm outside Cornelia, 20 miles east of Royston. His funeral, in fact, was held in Cornelia, not Royston.
Maybe one day decades down the road, some smart Augusta leader with some clout might just think, “Hey, you know, we might could lure some big bucks tourism business here if we capitalized on our amazing connections to the first player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
But then again, they probably won’t.