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Batter Up! Baseball History in Gwinnett

The Bona Allen Shoemakers stepped off the Train returning from the Semi-Pro Tournament in 1938 carrying a world-series trophy that today rests in the Museum of Buford. It was a minor-league trophy in a day where industrial baseball leagues provided hometowns with entertainment and pride when there wasn’t much else to do.

 In 1938, the depression was still grinding along, but the Bona Allen business dynasty had a passion for baseball and thus, they had a team.  The Allen family had become great fans of the game and thus had supported a team out of the wealth from their leather company.  The team was called the shoemakers as an ode to one of the Allen company’s main products.  A little advertising went a long way.  At one point they even had a car made like a giant show to assist in promoting the brand.  The thing about depression era baseball is that it offered a community gathering place, a unifying culture…at least in Gwinnett.  Since Buford was on the Southern Railway mainline, opposing Teams and fans could easily travel to the town and the caliber of player was kept at a level that made the team highly competitive in most years.  As the Shoemakers grew more and more popular the field had to be made more adequate to handle the spectators.  Games needed to be played when people could engage with them, but the sun has its own schedule.  The Allen’s didn’t think that was a reason to stop and so they acted.  As a result of their investment, Buford had one of the first lighted ballparks in the Southeast.  The giant steel towers were taller than the factories where the Allens’ built their empire.  And so, with the addition of lighting, the game went on.

Buford today is covered by progress.  The repurposed buildings are now a gathering place for shoppers, diners, and photographers.  Years ago, this was a working community and as you travel East from downtown along the railroad tracks you pass the show factory and eventually past Bona Allen’s house and move toward the end of town.  One of the new buildings on that end of town is the Buford Gymnasium.  When building a structure this large in the hilly town of Buford a thorough amount of grading is required to create a flat building pad.  But not on this spot.  This spot was nice and flat.  Before the work could begin on the site debris had to be removed.  Long gone were the stands that could seat 2,500 people.  The concession building had long rotted away and the loudspeaker system had been removed in the 1940s.  The items left to be demolished were several rusting steel towers.  And so the crews began.  80 years after the lights went up on the Buford ballpark, they came down.  This time there wasn’t any fanfare, just a permit.   And so now, when a young local teenager goes to the Buford Gymnasium and works out to train for baseball season, they are doing it on the same spot where the mighty Shoemakers once carried the passion of a county.

All across Gwinnett County, baseball was played as a common game or pastime.  At Stone Mountain in the 1920s a young boy was learning and perfecting his game at the same time the Shoemakers were becoming a dynasty.  James Elbert Greene was born on October 17, 1911.  His skills and strength were developed helping his family work on the farm.  He was a good ball player and although an excellent catcher, he was not picked up by any area Universities or Colleges.  His talents were noticed in the baseball community and so he soon donned the uniform of the Atlanta Black Crackers.  Baseball had become a victim of the Jim Crow rules and so being fast, 5’11” and 190 pounds Greene plied his trade in the legendary Negro leagues.  After a brief stint with a team in Chicago, Greene, who was going by the name of “Joe”, found a home with the Atlanta Black Crackers.   Toward the end of his Career, Green finished out catching in Kansas City for the legendary Satchel Paige.  Joe Married the lovely Emma and they settled in the same house with his brother in Stone Mountain.  Joe’s Brother ran a restaurant and Emma worked as a maid.  On the 1940 census Joe was one of the few that listed his occupation as “Professional Baseball Player.”  World War two brought Joe’s playing career to its conclusion.  When the draft board was reviewing his drafting information, I wonder if any of them knew who Joe’s employer was. Although living in Stone Mountain, Joe Greene listed his Employer as J.L. Wilkinson of Kansas City.  J.L. Wilkinson was the owner of the Kansas City Monarchs.  Joe was drafted in the 92nd  Division of the US Army and while serving in Italy his company was detailed to remove the body of Bento Mussolini.   Before playing for the Monarchs, It was a fairly short trip for Greene who travelled along Ponce de Leon Avenue from his home into the city of Atlanta to play for the Black Crackers.  Across from the Sears and Roebuck store (which is now known as Ponce City Market) was Ponce de Leon Ball Field.  The Black Crackers used the field as their home when the Atlanta Crackers were not playing there.  Joe Greene probably looked into the stands with some amazement.  The Negro league games turned the tables on Jim Crow when the Black Crackers were playing.  During Black Cracker games, the stands became integrated defacto.  Fans were allowed to sit anywhere they could afford to sit.  Being so close to the Old 4th Ward or “Sweet Auburn” the African-American Middle class was able to see players from the comfort of covered seating.  One of the features of Ponce de Leon Park was in deep center field.  A hold over from baseball’s earlier time of loose field sizes made Ponce de Leon Special, deep center field included a Magnolia Tree that was in play.  Long drives into the tree often robbed the hitter of a homerun and allowed the center fielder to hold the runner to a single or double.  The tree is still there, in the Home Depot parking lot.

Those early times of baseball were scattered and unique.  The origin of the game has its roots in the English game of rounders, but the solidification of the spot and rules is definitely American.  A scattering of styles covered the Northern US in the early 1800s and then gained wide distribution as soldiers exchanged ideas during the war in the 1860s.  In 1884 the Gwinnett Journal compared baseball to just another gimmick craze like walking and bicycle races. However, the sport went from craze establishing itself as America’s pastime by 1900.  The craze took off in Gwinnett in that same time frame.  Although still an agricultural economy, local churches and communities would field a team and then complete against other teams.  The systems and alliances were still developing so the organization wasn’t as smooth as the leagues are today.  Until Branch Rickey developed a farm system in the 1930s there really was not such a thing as the minor leagues.  As a team got a really good player, they could sell his contract to a big city team and use the cash to continue operation on the local level.  Baseball was a community experience.  Teams played, families came and groups gathered to cheer and have conversation.  By the 1890s, most Gwinnett cities had a small club or team.  The Conyers Weekly paper printed an article in May of 1897 where Lawrenceville resident Luter Cain had been bragging about how the Lawrenceville Team would easily beat the boys from Conyers.  Some community groups fought against the sport seeing it as a bad influence on society, but they failed.  By 1911, the Winder News said “Europe would be more peaceful if they had two Baseball Pennants to worry about.”  Items and tidbits of local teams populated the newspapers, the 1896 Gwinnett Herald featured the fact that the Buford Baseball club defeated a team in Gainesville twice in a double header 29 to 12 and 23 to 14.  

Teams and leagues began to solidify and baseball became a bit of a business.  Players that were excellent would start playing with a local team and eventually find their way to a major market up north.  Fair players would end up playing in mid-level teams like the Atlanta Crackers.  The players for the Bona Allen Shoemakers were usually given an easy job in the factory, then expected to play on the field in the industrial, semi-pro leagues.  With the invention of the farm system, smaller teams like Atlanta were set up to be training grounds for the big cities and thus lost their local flavor as players traveled up and down through the farm system.  Semi-pro and industrial teams held on until World War two when they were shuttered for the war effort.  Like the Shoemakers, most of those teams never came back.  The lights went out on the Ball Park in Buford.  70 Years after the lights went out, they came back on again, this time just a little ways down the road.  IN 2009, on Buford Drive, the lights came on again as the Gwinnett Braves took the field.  What is now Coolray field is built on old farmland that once grew the crops that fueled the county.  It’s like one big cycle, a field sponsored by a hometown business, a small club with connections to the big city teams, and local fans.  When the games first were played, some of the fans that came in the gates could remember watching the Bona Allen Shoemakers play at the park in Buford.  One small item that times it all together was that in deep center field, just outside the fence, the 2009 Gwinnett season opened with a magnolia tree keeping watch over the action.