Remembering Oreon Mann

The next time you’re walking or driving along Hurt Street near the MARTA station, take note of these new trees planted on the east side of the street:

There is a nice story here.

Our new trees are southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora), but not just any southern magnolias.

These are scions of the locally famous Spiller Field magnolias.

Spiller Field, also known as Ponce de Leon Park, was the baseball venue once located at 650 Ponce de Leon Avenue, now the site of a shopping center across the street from Ponce City Market.

The field was constructed in 1907 where an amusement park had been operating for several years. (Before the amusement park, a lovely grove of beech trees had shaded the natural springs in that area.)

Ponce de Leon Park in 1907

“Poncey” was home to the minor league Atlanta Crackers until 1965 and also hosted the Black Crackers from 1919 to 1952. In the outfield of the original field were two southern magnolias. A ball hit into the branches of these trees — which didn’t happen often, as they were roughly 450 feet from home plate — was treated as still in play.

Photo of Ponce de Leon Park that must have been taken near the center-field magnolias
Aerial photo of Spiller Field in 1959, with the trees clearly visible beyond the outfield

Looking back, we can probably agree that the Spiller Field magnolias had their most historically significant moment when Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers came to town in 1949.

Jackie Robinson (circled) on deck at Spiller Field on April 10, 1949

The story is wonderfully told by historian Kenneth R. Fenster in “Earl Mann Beats the Klan: Jackie Robinson and the First Integrated Games in Atlanta.” It begins as follows:

At 1:30 p.m. on April 8, 1949, Earl Mann, the president of the Atlanta Crackers of the Class AA Southern Association, had his regular monthly meeting with Hughes Spalding, the chairman of the Crackers’ board of directors. Spalding did not record in his desk diary what he and Mann discussed, but surely a major topic of their conversation was the game scheduled for that evening at venerable Ponce de Leon Park. The game pitted the all-white Crackers against the integrated Brooklyn Dodgers, with their two black players, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. The Dodgers-Crackers contest would be the first mixed-race baseball game in Atlanta and the first in a major city of the Deep South.

In the end, the three-game series was played without major incident, but there had been rumors that the KKK would be waiting out by the magnolia trees just beyond center field. The final game, played on a Sunday afternoon, drew 25,221 fans, including 13,885 Black spectators, to a park that seated only 14,500.

Earl Mann, of course, was the father of our own Oreon Mann, who with his mother Myra scattered his father’s ashes at the base of one of the trees in 1990.

Earl Mann, father of Inman Park’s Oreon Mann

Through the good work of Trees Atlanta and Bold Springs Nursery, trees propagated from the Spiller Field magnolias have come to Oreon Mann’s beloved Inman Park. Genetically identical to the original trees, they celebrate a legacy that is important to the city and to our neighborhood.

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