Episode 0 Pt 2 Transcript

Sandy McAfee: The Great Depression hit Atlanta hard, and it wasn’t until the New Deal drafted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the city got back on its feet.

Andy Ambrose: The thing that kind of turned it around for Atlanta was FDR and the New Deal programs. And once they went into effect, they helped meet this gap, and they pumped millions of dollars into the city’s economy. And just as importantly, they employed thousands of residents, and they enabled the city to do things they couldn’t have afforded otherwise in terms of infrastructure. For example, it was during this period that Atlanta develops a lot of its water sewer systems, many of them still in place today. There were other projects, they repaired schools, hospitals, the air runways at Cameron Field, therefore making it even more of a destination for flights, and some of the funding was even contributed to a new Symphony Orchestra. By the 1930s, all of this was starting to, the severity of the Depression was starting to wane, and private businesses picked up and the number of residents working on those lessened. But if it hadn’t been for New Deal, I’m sure it might have been a whole different story for Atlanta going forward.

SM: So, when Atlanta reached the 1950s, the city was on an upswing.

AA: Well, during this time period, the city actually tripled in size, and this was part of a plan of improvement that called for the annexation of a lot of areas surrounding Atlanta. They weren’t part of the city at that time, about 82 square miles and added 100,000 new residents. So, definitely, this contributed to the city becoming more of a force and more of a kind of organized within the city limits.

SM: Atlanta holds true to its identity as a transportation hub. Now, the attention turns to cars, interstates and roads.

AA: Also, Atlanta, when we talk about being at the forefront of transportation, starts construction of new highways and freeways almost a decade before the interstate highway systems came into effect. They built a kind of highway system that ran between Atlanta and Savannah. It developed almost a super-highway, they called it at that time, that went north to Marietta. So, they were very well-positioned when the interstate system started to not get just one interstate, but three that passed through Atlanta.

Jason Longshore: One thing that I really haven’t been able to answer in terms of Atlanta’s soccer history and its growth or lack thereof is what happened after the Atlanta League fizzled out in the late 20s. And you had the Great Depression followed up by World War II that were obvious factors in why that would happen, but it’s really unclear as to what happened next for the game, and there’s not even that many mentions in the Atlanta newspapers at that time. I don’t know if it just wasn't happening, and you didn’t have soccer in school teams for example. You’d get one-offs like in 1945 before World War II was over. There was an article that said Druid Hills captures two soccer crowns. It was a sponsored greater Atlanta high school athletic tournament, but it kind of feels like a field day sort of deal rather than organized teams. And that is really the only reference to soccer that you can find for decades. So, the local colleges, you had some others in the southeast that started full varsity programs prior to 1958, but the first official varsity program in the state of Georgia was at Emory University in 1958, and they played schools like North Carolina. They played other schools in the region. They were ahead of their time. They were the first. Oglethorpe came a few years later in 1961. That was their first. You also had Emory at Oxford, which had a program as well at this time, so you had some schools that could play one another. They didn’t always have to go to the Carolinas to play teams. Davidson was a frequent opponent at this time. Berry College fielded their first team in 1962. So, you started to have that growth.

SM: in 1966, Georgia Tech hosts the first ever Atlanta Invitational. Four teams participate, including Georgia Tech, Auburn, LSU and Tennessee. Writes one reporter, “All four teams will lean heavily on foreign students. Tech’s team, which is loaded with Latin American stars, has been generally recognized as the best in the south for the past two years.”

JL: You did have the game happening at Georgia Tech at this time, but they never fielded a true varsity team that played a NCAA schedule. Other schools like Tennessee did as well, and Auburn was still playing at this time. You had schools that had teams, but they would probably be under the club sports banner that you would think of now, as opposed to a varsity team. And at this time, just because of the number of opponents that you had, you would have crossover and Emory would play Georgia Tech. There was, I think, a series of Letters to the Editors at the Atlanta Constitution or the Atlanta Journal with one school claiming that they had the best program in the state, and then the other school said ‘No, we’re better, let’s play,’ and you had that kind of stuff happening, so the line between what a varsity program was and what a club program was, was very fuzzy in the 50s and 60s.

SM: A high school soccer powerhouse emerges in the 1950s. Westminster School. In 1962, Westminster has one of their best seasons in history. They’re led by Lief Aurell, a Swedish player, who scores 30 goals.

JL: So, Westminster became the first high school to really push soccer in the state of Georgia in more modern times, and I mentioned in ‘57 they played Georgia Military Academy in what was called a varsity soccer match.

SM: (6) Westminster was led by a man named Bob Sims, who begins coaching there in 1959. He’ll end up staying at Westminster for 34 years. Westminster has won the most titles in state history. But just as importantly, Bob Sims and Westminster prove to be an effective way to introduce young people to the sport. In February of 1962, Charlie Roberts writes an article entitled “Westminster ‘Missionaries’ Win Converts.’” Those converts turn out to be places like Chamblee, Sandy Springs and Pace Academy, which launch teams in 1962. Headland fields their first soccer team in 1961. So, the mission of Bob Sims pays off.

JL: They were the ones who led the push to the Georgia High School Association to actually sanction soccer as an official sport. And it took about 10 years of work from Westminster and a small handful of other schools that were playing the game at that time to get it sanctioned right before the professional team was coming into Atlanta for the 1967 season. 1966 is the first official high school state championship year in Georgia high school history, and it’s fitting that it was Westminster who won that first title. Without them pushing it, you weren’t going to get other Atlanta area schools to take it up, and some did before it was officially sanctioned by GHSA, and you weren't going to get some of those other private schools and academies around the region to take the sport up either, so Westminster’s a really important area. And when you have somebody like Bob Sims coaching at that school for 34 years, you have a figure who is going to impact not just one generation of players, but multiple generations of players.

SM: Sports has always been part of American DNA. Basketball was born when Jim Naismith posted a peach basket to a wall. American football, arguably the most successful of all the current national professional sports leagues, kicked off in 1920 in Canton, Ohio. Baseball, the national pastime, was founded and developed in the 1800s. In fact, baseball was the first professional sport to arrive to Atlanta. And baseball arrived to the city long before the Atlanta Braves. In the 19th century, to be exact.

AA: Baseball, as far as we know, made its first appearance, the first game played in 1866. But come 1900, Atlanta joins this new professional baseball league with a number of other southern cities, and Atlanta’s team is the Atlanta Crackers.

SM: The Atlanta Crackers played in a variety of leagues during its time. Most notably it played in the Southern Association league, a minor league that featured other teams such as the Birmingham Barons, the Chattanooga Lookouts and the Memphis Chicks. The Crackers remained Atlanta’s home baseball team until 1965.

AA: And the Atlanta Crackers are around for almost 50 years after that. They played in a very kind of iconic park called Ponce, as we say in Atlanta, Ponce de Leon Park or Poncey Park, which featured, by the way, a large magnolia tree in the outfield.

SM: Ponce de Leon Park also served as the venue for another baseball team in town, Atlanta’s team that was part of the Negro league.

AA: It also became the venue when the Atlanta Crackers were out of town for the Black baseball team. They were also known as the Black Crackers. So, they played there. They played at some of the other Black Colleges and University fields, etcetera, other places, but they were both taking off at that same time.

SM: Baseball shared some crossover with soccer, as we’ll see later with the Atlanta Chiefs. Sometimes, soccer games at Piedmont Park during the days of the Atlanta Soccer Football Club were played on baseball diamonds. (Which is a situation our friends today over at New York City FC know quite well.) Sometimes players overlapped, too. In 1938, the Atlanta Crackers signed a former pro soccer player Al Rubeling who played for the Baltimore Soccer Club. The 1960s brought professional sports to Atlanta in a big, bold way.

JL: Atlanta, to become the city that I think its leaders and I think maybe it’s, you know, just ambition that was always there for the city, to get there you had to get professional sports.

SM: Atlanta was one of the first cities in the Southeast to feature major sports teams. Cities like Savannah and Charleston didn’t have major sports.

AA: None of these big cities had these teams, so Atlanta becomes that one city in the south that has these connections with all of these different sports, in terms of major league sports, so it does create a lot of enthusiasm. It does create a lot of attention on the city. It did kind of feed into the city’s sense of itself as one of the major players in the U.S. So, it really does bring a lot of recognition throughout the nation of a city that some may not have been that aware of in the past.

SM: But in order to attract professional teams, Atlanta first had to make room for them. They had to give them a real place to play. A stadium. A venue. A place that would draw large crowds to watch big games. And as we know, even today, stadiums require a lot of money and leadership. So, enter Ivan Allen Jr. Allen was the mayor of Atlanta from 1962-1970. He served the office at a critical point in Atlanta’s history – and did so peacefully. He was known for brokering peaceful solutions at a time when race relations in the south were sometimes violent, especially in nearby cities like Selma and Memphis. Allen once testified for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was the only prominent white Southern leader to do so.

AA: One of the interesting things about Mayor Ivan Allen Jr.’s relaunch of the Forward Atlanta campaign is that the first Forward Atlanta campaign back in the 1920s had been launched by his father Ivan Allen Sr., and both of them had become president of the Chamber of Commerce. So, going into his first term as mayor, he had already worked on a number of these things, and these were the things he wanted to happen to the city, and one of those was bringing in the big league sports, but so was the relaunch of that Forward Atlanta campaign, and it was equally as successful as the first one. A lot of international and national corporations made their headquarters not just their regional headquarters, but their headquarters in Atlanta. And then, Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. had always been a big believer in the importance of bringing big league sports to Atlanta, and so, he got involved that very early, and one of his first efforts into office was to reintroduce the Forward Atlanta campaign that had happened in the 20s and brought all of these businesses there. But then, his next one was to look at bringing new big league teams to Atlanta. I love one of the quotes that was attributed to him many times that he said as he was pursuing this, he and his allies managed to build a stadium on land they didn’t own with money they didn't have and for teams they hadn’t signed up for, or in one case, didn’t even yet exist.

SM: To build the first major stadium in Atlanta was an incredible feat. Allen acquired money from the state, the city and Atlanta businesses to fund the build. That stadium was given a simple, straightforward name: Atlanta Stadium. It would later become Atlanta Fulton-County.

AA: And not one, but two new major league teams began their seasons at that new stadium in 1966.

SM: One of those two teams was the Atlanta Falcons, which was founded in 1965 and joined the National Football League a year later. The Falcons played their first game ever at Atlanta Stadium on August 1, 1966 in a preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles. The other team to open its season at Atlanta Stadium was the Braves, which had just moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee. The move brought one of the most iconic players in baseball, the Home Run King, otherwise known as Hank Aaron. One of the owners of the Braves was named William Bartholomay. He bought the Braves in 1962, as part of a Chicago-based group. Immediately they began shopping the Braves to a larger television market. The fan support for the Braves in Milwaukee was lacking and ticket sales were disappointing, so the Braves ownership wanted to find the team a new home and put their product in front of a more enthusiastic audience. Wisconsin put up a fight, but eventually lost. And the prospect of a new stadium being built in a fast-growing city was an opportunity fit for a king, the Home Run King. Bartholomay would be a key figure in Atlanta sports not only in baseball. He’d prove to play a pivotal role for another major club in Atlanta. One he saw value in. Once he looked at the rich soil of Atlanta and saw what could possibly grow.

Next up on the History of Soccer in Atlanta... Chapter 1: The Atlanta Chiefs.

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