Baseball, God’s sport, has lived in Anniston, Alabama, since, well, forever. You’d never know it today since Alabamians are brainwashed by the superiority of college football at the expense of everything else, the religion of Bear and Shug and the Football Capital of the South, that old, gray lady on Graymont in Birmingham. Bless their souls. If only they knew the truth.
Baseball was here first, in fact. (Take that, college football.) Alabamians played baseball in several corners of Calhoun County (nee Benton) after The War Between The States, as the misguided still call it. They may not have played it well, or as frequent as they would later, but it increasingly became a prominent part of life for this postbellum industrial city and its neighbors.
In 1872, up in Jacksonville — then the county seat and the largest city in these parts — they played baseball. The Jacksonville Republican covered (with a box score!) a game between the Jacksonville Merry Nine and the Nine of Oxford, a small railroad stop on the southern end of the county that those damned Yankees (not the ones from the Bronx) burned nearly to the ground a few years before.
The Merry Nines won, 68-40. I’d love to know more about Francis, the right fielder, who scored 10 times. In one game. Has to be a record.
Anniston wasn’t even a town at that point, just an embryonic idea in the minds of Gen. Daniel Tyler of Connecticut and Samuel Noble, a Georgia iron magnate whose family hailed from the mother country. Scalawag, carpetbagger. By the middle of the next decade after the Alabama Legislature incorporated Anniston and the city was opened to all comers, baseball thrived as it was elsewhere. Other than drinking and carousing, options were slim once the workday ended.
On July 12, 1884, an Oxford correspondent wrote in The (Anniston) Hot Blast:
“The walking craze has not struck this berg yet, but Oxford is fully up with the times on croquet and baseball.”
On May 30, 1885, the Anniston Reds played the Jacksonville Sly Coons at a park in Anniston. “The game was a very interesting one, and was witnessed by a large crowd of eager spectators,” the Hot Blast wrote.
The Sly Coons sported an awful name but won, 10-7.
It wasn’t until 1904 with Anniston’s seminal moment — Ty Cobb’s celebrated but nonetheless over-hyped arrival — that the county fully embraced the beginnings of professional baseball’s minor leagues. But baseball was ubiquitous, an endless collection of ragtag teams from schools, colleges, mills, foundries and neighborhoods. There were white teams and there were black teams (segregated, of course). And the local papers (yes, Anniston was a multi-paper city back then) commonly reported on efforts to organize teams and leagues. Anniston and the surrounding places in this part of east Alabama exemplified baseball’s rapid growth in America before the turn of the century. This baseball marriage didn’t end, officially, at least, until 1950 when the city’s last minor-league team, the Rams, died a slow death that summer.
There’s so much more to be said about Anniston and baseball, and I’ll do that when there’s time. But I’ll leave you with this:
Back in 1997, I spent the summer chronicling this baseball marriage. Best I could tell, no one at The Anniston Star had ever done so. Oh, the paper had covered the Rams and their predecessors as if they were in the National League, but there were only occasional mentions of the Rams and Cobb in the decades that followed. Even Johnston Field, where the Rams played, fell into disrepair and its wooden fence, advertisements and grandstands were torn down. Today, it’s a chain-link baseball field for Anniston High. And Zinn Park, where Cobb played more than a century ago, exists as a city pavilion and splash pad. Only history nerds and baseball adherents know the dusty truth.