ATLANTA - In the beginning, it was simply Atlanta Stadium.
Now, with the Braves scheduled to move into Olympic Stadium across the street next year, it's time to look back on a stadium that introduced major league sports to the South in 1966. Tonight's game with Houston begins a seven-game homestand, the last regular-season games in the facility.
During the last three decades, the stadium that became known as "The Launching Pad" has witnessed some of the best and worst times in baseball.
| Stadium firsts
The worst times were laughably bad. There were ostrich races and tightrope walkers and "Wedlock and Headlock Night," featuring couples married at home plate before the game and a pro wrestling match afterward.
There were dancing girls on the dugout roofs, Chief Noc-a-Homa dancing in left field and mascots dancing on the field.
But when the good times rolled, there were special moments. Perhaps the stadium's crowning moment came April 8, 1974, when Hank Aaron sent an Al Downing pitch over the left-field fence to break Babe Ruth's home run record.
Through the years, there have been other highlights, including the end of Pete Rose's 44-game hitting streak in 1978, Bob Horner's four homers in a single game in 1986 and the magical ride through the 1991 season, when the Braves went from worst to first and played in their first World Series.
"She's been really good to us," said manager Bobby Cox, speaking of the stadium as a ship's captain speaks of his vessel. "It's gone from a very unexciting stadium to the most exciting stadium in baseball."
The story of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium begins in the early 1960s when an Atlanta businessman named Ivan Allen Jr. promised to build a modern sports stadium in the city if he was elected mayor. When he won, he set to work to fulfill his campaign promise. Allen wooed Charlie Finley and the Kansas City Athletics for a time, then persuaded a group of Chicago businessmen who owned the Milwaukee Braves to move south.
With the announcement in 1964 that an "unidentified" major league team was interested in moving to Atlanta, the stadium was quickly approved and went up in record time. However, because of a threat of legal action, the Braves were forced to complete their lease at Milwaukee's County Stadium in 1965, delaying their arrival in Atlanta until the start of the 1966 season.
The new park was named Atlanta Stadium and it quickly gained a reputation as a place for home run hitters to add to their legend. Perhaps being 1,057 feet above sea level played a role. More likely, the efforts of feeble pitching staffs through the years enhanced the stadium's fame.
For whatever reason, baseballs fly great distances in Atlanta. Aaron hit his 500th, 600th and 700th home runs in Atlanta, Willie McCovey hit his 500th there and a record was established in 1973 when the threesome of Aaron, Darrell Evans and Davey Johnson became the first teammates to hit 40 home runs in the same season.
Cox's memories of the stadium are on the desk and walls of his office. There's an enormous montage of last year's world championship season, featured in newspaper clippings and photos, hanging on a wall. There's his nameplate from an All-Star game, signed by his coaches. And, until his wife, Pam, spirited it away, a replica of the World Series trophy rested on his desk.
Cox loves coming to his office. It serves as his home and refuge and he can often be found stretched out on a leather couch during the season, puffing contentedly on a cigar and watching an afternoon baseball game on television.
It wasn't always this good. During the late '70s, Cox presided over teams that finished sixth twice and improved only enough to finish fourth before he was fired. When he returned as general manager he laid the foundation for the team's future success, but he missed his clubhouse office and dugout seat so much he eventually gave up the suit and tie and slipped back into uniform.
His fondest memories of a stadium slated for the wrecking ball have come in the last five years. That's understandable considering all that's happened since the club went from worst to first in 1991, then continued the success through the decade.
One of Cox's favorite memories comes from the end of the magical '91 season. A memorable pennant race between the Braves and Dodgers had wound down to the last weekend of the season. On the next-to-last day of the season, the Braves beat the Astros at the stadium, while the Dodgers played the Giants at Candlestick Park.
As the Braves closed out a 5-2 victory, the Giants built a 4-0 lead over the Dodgers. With their game over, Cox and the players stood on the infield, watching the ninth inning of the game from Candlestick Park on the center-field screen.
"You have to remember the atmosphere in '91," Cox said. "There wasn't anywhere else to be in Atlanta except this place. The way our fans turned out and the city turned on was very special. I've been in baseball for 35 years and I've never seen anything like the electricity in the stadium. Standing and waiting for the Giants-Dodgers game to be finished, I think that was one of the most exciting times ever. That year was very special because it was our first big-time win here."
With the last out by the Dodgers, the stadium erupted and the Braves began a joyous celebration that didn't end until the World Series.
"It was the most energized ballpark I've ever been in," Cox remembered.
The closest the Braves have come to matching the excitement and energy of the '91 season filled one magical game last October. It was Game 6 of the World Series at the stadium and Tom Glavine was working on a masterpiece. David Justice's home run gave the Braves a 1-0 lead, Glavine departed after eight innings with a one-hitter and minutes later the Braves were dancing on the field, celebrating their first world championship.
"Tom Glavine's effort in Game 6 was the best feeling in the world," Cox said. "The memory of his game is just as great as any memory I have."
Soon the montage will be taken down, the plaques and trophies boxed up and hauled across the street. The memories will linger for Cox, but that will be all that remains of a stadium he's called home for the better part of two decades.
"I'm going to miss this place," he said.
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