NBA nickname change triggers baseball memories

July 8, 2013 

When the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets announced back in January that they were changing their name to the Pelicans for the 2013-14 season, it brought back boyhood memories.

It has nothing to do with basketball, but rather baseball. The New Orleans Pelicans was the original name of the Crescent’s City’s Southern Association team back in the 1950s, when baseball was king.

The Pelicans played in a league that was made up of the Little Rock Travelers, the Chattanooga Lookouts, the Birmingham Barons, the Memphis Chicks, the Nashville Vols, the Mobile Bears and -- my favorite team -- the Atlanta Crackers.

My Atlanta heroes were a pair of lifetime minor leaguers, outfielder Bob Montag and second baseman Frank DiPrima.

Montag, who hit 113 home runs in his career with Atlanta, was by far the team’s most popular player before retiring in 1959. He worked with TV Guide for years as an account executive following his retirement. He died in 2005.

The Crackers played their home games at majestic Ponce De Leon Park, located right across the street from Sears and Roebuck on Ponce De Leon Avenue. The park featured a huge magnolia tree in center field and railroad tracks nearby that saw trains come by on a regular basis.

Whatever happened to Ponce de Leon Park? The Counting Crows hit song describes it best: “Paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Ponce de Leon Park was the site of the first professional baseball game I ever saw. I remember Johnny Reid’s Mother and Dad taking us to an exhibition game in 1957, between the Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates. I recall seeing Detroit outfielder Al Kaline, shortstop Harvey Kuenn, first baseman Ray Boone, catcher Frank “Pig” House and pitcher Jim Bunning.

Bunning became the first pitcher to toss no-hitters in both leagues, one with Detroit and one with Philadelphia. He went on to serve in both the U.S. House and Senate from Kentucky.

The Pirates featured second baseman Bill Mazeroski, who broke my heart in 1960 by hitting a walk-off home run that beat my beloved New York Yankees in the seventh game of the World Series. The Bucs also had the great Dick Groat at shortstop and a young Roberto Clemente in the outfield. In addition to being a baseball standout, Groat also was a two-time All-America basketball player at Duke. He was NL MVP in 1960.

Pittsburgh won the exhibition game that day 3-2 on a 10th-inning home run by rookie Johnny Powers, who went on to spend parts of six seasons in the majors with just six career home runs and a batting average of .195.

Players were much more accommodating back in those days, and we were able to get autographs following the game. Wonder what ever happened to those autographs?

That trip to Atlanta for the exhibition was memorable in a couple of other ways. Prior to the game, I got my first exposure to Chinese food, as we ate at a restaurant there on Ponce de Leon Avenue. I ordered chow mein, and to this day I don’t think I have ever had better. Maybe it was the novelty of the cuisine, but it was incredibly good.

Following the game, I got my first taste of another culinary delicacy, Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I haven’t quit eating them since. I still look for the lit-up Krispy Kreme sign to let me know they have hot ones available. That store on Ponce de Leon is still located at the same spot today.

It’s funny I can remember details of that trip like they just happened but can’t remember what I did yesterday.

Bobby Pope is the executive director of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Email him at

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