It was October 1987, and Furman Bisher and I sat in a booth at the OK Cafe talking baseball and getting busy on a platter of fried green tomatoes, fried okra, and a couple of side dishes of mac and cheese.
The Braves had won the Western Division title a handful of years before under the managerial leadership of Joe Torre, an MVP season by Dale Murphy, and the 17-4 record of Phil Niekro. In 1982, they went 89–73 and won the NL West for the first time since 1969.
Bisher swallowed a bite of fried green tomato and asked, “When did you become a Braves fan?”
That answer wasn’t long in coming. Memories of my dad and I huddled around the radio, listening to Game two of the 1957 World Series, danced inside my head. Six weeks shy of my seventh birthday then, the crackle of Mel Allen’s voice broadcasting from New York still reverberates.
Bisher smiled with crinkled eyes. “I joined the Atlanta Constitution and Journal when I was thirty-nine years old in February 1957 and would cover over fifty World Series for the newspaper. They flew me up to cover the ‘57 ‘Fall Classic.”
“It was one of the most remarkable and exciting series ever played, with Lou Burdette pitching three complete games in the fall event. His performance was reminiscent of the formidable Christy Mathewson’s three-complete game performance in the 1905 World Series. Eight of the players that participated in the 1957 Series would end up in Baseball's Hall of Fame.”
Bisher’s eyes sparkled with enthusiasm as he asked, “You’ve got me interested. Tell me, what did it mean being with your dad and listening to the games?”
“Dad loved baseball, and he loved to cook. I remember sitting with him at the hundred-year-old kitchen table with a large wooden cutting board and a large bowl filled with fresh corn, baby lima beans, and a couple of yellow onions. Another bowl held a piece of smoked pork and chicken legs and thighs.” My father beamed at me and said, “Today, my son, I have a special treat in store for you. We’re going to cook up a batch of my famous nine-inning Brunswick stew while we listen to the game and talk baseball.”
“Why the name? Nine-inning Brunswick stew, I repeated.
My father laughed. “The average baseball game lasts about two hours and thirty minutes. That’s how long it will take us to prepare the vegetables and shred the meat and slow cook the stew.” He held up a jar of Carolina Barbeque sauce and flashed his confident smile, “ This is the hero of the Brunswick stew. I’ll add a cup and half into the mix while it’s cooking.”
We shucked the corn, cut the kernels off the cob, removed the lima beans from the pods, and Hank Aaron led off the second inning with a blast over Yankee center fielder, Mickey Mantle, that went for a triple. “Dad howled. That kid’s got the greatest wrists in baseball. Joe Adcock followed Aaron's three-bagger with a single off of Yankees hurler Bobby Shantz, and the visitors took the early
As we listened to the game, my father shared some childhood memories of growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts. “The Miracle Braves won the pennant in 1914. In July, the team was dead last and went on a tear to win the pennant by ten and a half games. My dad had two tickets to game three of the 1914 World Series. The Giants, managed by John McGraw, were heavy favorites to win the whole thing, but nobody told the Braves about it. They won the game and the series in only four games.
I can’t ever forget that moment. My father tapped a finger on the table and stared at me with a big smile on his face. “Son, that was a day that changed my life. I hope today will do the same for you. No sooner had dad finished, Johnny Logan, the feisty shortstop for Milwaukee, hit a solo home run to put them up 2-1. Milwaukee and Burdette went on to win 4-2.
Bisher gave me another turn to share my memories of the Braves. There was so much more I wanted to say about my love and support for my team. Mr. Bisher, there wasn’t a big Braves game during those years that I didn’t try my best to attend.
Attending the first-ever game played as the Atlanta Braves, catching a lead-off home run barehanded hit by Felipe Alou, and screaming our heads off when Garber shut down Pete Rose’s forty-four-game hitting streak—
By 1983, we had our own booster club for the Braves, buying seventy-five field-level tickets for three years in a row, renting two Marta buses to take friends and me from my home to the stadium, and serving hamburgers, hot dogs, and chili from the Varsity before and after the game. After opening night we attended most of the games in the thirteen in a row streak to start the season.
“Mr. Bisher, one of the twenty-five reasons my lovely wife divorced me was because I made her stay for the entire nineteen-inning game between the Braves and Mets on July 4th, 1982. She begged me to leave in the eleventh inning, and I wouldn't budge.
“Sir, I’ll tell you something I never told my parents. When I saw my first professional game, I was nine, and I didn’t see it with my dad. I told my father and mother Saturday night that I was going to meet a few teammates at our Little League field, Bagley Park, to play some ball after church. The rule during those days was to be home before dark. Life in Atlanta was a lot different in the ’50s.
“Days before, I had made a pact with our team’s pitcher, Joey Cronon, to catch a bus on Peachtree Street, transfer to one on Piedmont Road, and jump off two blocks from Ponce de Leon Park, home of the Atlanta Crackers. Joey was what we called back in the day “a hood” and sported a ducktail which he combed incessantly and told me he once smoked one of his mother’s cigarettes.
The Crackers won a doubleheader that day, and two kids, who had each eaten a couple of hot dogs and had a cup of Mathis ice cream, headed home on the bus, arriving before dark.
“Probably the greatest joy of following the Braves was witnessing Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record.” At that point, I complimented Mr. Bisher on his book on Henry Aaron.
“Thank you, I remember the article I wrote for the Atlanta Constitution the next day describing one of the greatest moments in sports history.” Bisher grinned and slapped his palm on the lunch table. “Writing the book about Aaron's life and getting to spend as much time as I did with him was one of the greatest honors ever given to me.”
“I’d like to write a book about the Braves someday,” I offered.
Bisher gave me his steely-eyed look, “Son, if you want to tell the story of the Braves, you need to do your research on the rich history of the franchise dating back to 1871 in Boston.”
“Tell about their founders, Harry and George Wright, and the team’s colorful players: four-home run Bobby Lowe, King Kelly, five-time thirty game winner John Clarkson and the fantastic story of Rabbit Maranville and the 1914 Miracle Braves in their first twenty-five years of Major League baseball.
Bisher spoke with great excitement when he described the thirteen seasons in Milwaukee without a losing record and the fans’ love affair with their team.
“Brad, you need to take the baseball fans to a time at the turn of the twentieth century that they seldom travel. Back to when the horse and buggy and streetcar era when oil and tobacco ruled the business world and baseball was the national pastime. When the rules of the game were being created, and until 1920, the “Deadball” era had its day. It wasn’t uncommon for a pitcher to win thirty games in a season.
The editor was a talking encyclopedia. He pointed out that over thirty-five players in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown wore a Braves uniform and that Babe Ruth ended his career as a Boston Brave, actually hitting three home runs in one game a few weeks before his retirement.
Bisher had sparked my interest. I listened as he rattled on from one notable player to the next, including perennial thirty-game winner Kid Nichols, Spahn, Sain, and one of the Braves’ all-time fan favorites Tommy Holmes.
He talked about Sam Jethroe, who had won Rookie of the Year in 1951. They nicknamed him the jet and larceny legs. He led the league in stolen bases. Bisher slapped the table and stopped. I glanced around the room to see if people were looking our way.
He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Sam Jethro was the first Black to play for the Braves and the fifth overall to make it to the Major Leagues. His story is just as important as that of Eddie Mathews or any other great Brave ballplayers. I got to experience firsthand the bravery of the first black players in their harshly prejudiced journey to be allowed to play in the big leagues when I was writing the book ‘Aaron.”’
Bisher looked into my eyes and said, “You sure love baseball, don’t you?”
I smiled. “Yes, sir. More than this pecan pie and vanilla ice cream we’re eating and probably more than anything in this world besides my kids.”
“Good for you,” he chuckled. “In your research of the Braves, you will see that loyal fans are one of the most critical aspects of the game. I could talk all day about America’s longest continuously running franchise, but it’s time for me to hit the road. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.”
I watched the fabled sportswriter pay his tab and take a step toward the exit. He turned and pointed at me and, in an authoritative voice, said, “write that book.” He turned and left.
As I stood to leave, I thought to myself, someday I will write a complete story of the Braves franchise from Boston to Milwaukee and ending in Atlanta. Little did I know I wouldn’t put pen to paper until four decades later, and so many chapters would unfold for me to write about.