On April 1, the 2021 MLB season began. On April 2, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred pulled the All-Star game from Atlanta. The broader story dates back to 1963.
Atlanta, Coca-Cola and Henry Aaron (1963-2021): In July of 1963, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen did something that almost no Southern politician would do. He testified before Congress in support of civil rights legislation. “We cannot dodge this issue. We cannot…turn the clock back to the 1860s.”
That same summer, Henry Aaron was in his 10th season with the Milwaukee Braves. He finished the season with 44 homers (his uniform number). He liked living and raising a family in Milwaukee, a friendly, integrated city. He had no way of knowing that the progressive mayor of Atlanta would soon play a major role in changing his life.
During his campaign for mayor, Ivan Allen promised to build a sports facility to attract a major league baseball team. As former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young recounts the story: “People always talk about the marches and protests, but what they don’t talk about is how big a part sports played in the economic part of the movement…We had no professional sports teams, and the mayor, Ivan Allen, believed attracting pro sports and big pro events would be critical to proving to business leaders that we did believe in a ‘new South.’…It was the business leaders, Coca-Cola especially, that decided it would have been to our political and economic disadvantage to fight civil rights with fire hoses and dogs and more segregation, the way they did in Birmingham.”
Allen had the backing of Coca-Cola legend Robert Woodruff, probably the most influential businessman in town, as well as other corporate leaders who knew that racial turmoil was bad for business. Allen and the business leaders adopted the slogan “The City Too Busy To Hate” to distinguish Atlanta from other cities in the Deep South.
In the spring of 1963, Kansas City A’s owner Charlie Finley went to Atlanta and said he would move the A’s if the city would build a new stadium. Mayor Allen said yes, but Finley withdrew when he determined that the AL would not likely approve. But the newly formed Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority, led by Arthur Montgomery (president of Coca-Cola Bottling Co.), took the risk of proceeding without a team in place – “If you build it, they will come.” And they did. The owners of the Milwaukee Braves came calling in 1964.
The Braves had a big issue. When their star Hank Aaron heard about the potential relocation, he let it be known that he might not want to make the move. He had played in the Deep South in the minors and suffered the indignities of Jim Crow. He did not want to subject his family to such a life. It did not help that people were getting killed in some parts of the Deep South as a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement led by Atlanta’s Martin Luther King.
Atlanta went all out. Most of the business community supported Mayor Allen’s efforts, including dismantling Jim Crow. Mayor Allen and Robert Woodruff met with Braves co-owner John McHale to assure him that the new stadium would be fully integrated. As it would turn out, it would be at a sporting event that many people of Atlanta, black and white, first shared public restrooms, sat in the same sections and drank from the same water fountains.
Black leaders in Atlanta sent letters to Aaron assuring him that Jim Crow was disappearing from Atlanta. They wanted Aaron to come and use his celebrity to help complete the job. As the Urban League’s Whitney Young wrote of the Black leaders, “It is their hope that Aaron’s big bat and superstar popularity will help knock Jim Crow out of town.”
Atlanta’s dream worked. Milwaukee stalled the move for a year with litigation, but the Braves were in Atlanta for the 1966 season. The Falcons, an NFL expansion team, also arrived in 1966. The NBA’s St. Louis Hawks relocated to Atlanta in 1968.
And Hank Aaron did indeed help knock Jim Crow out of town. Below, Aaron and Mayor Allen in 1969.
Life was not perfect. Not all vestiges of racism disappeared, and segregationist Lester Maddox was elected governor in 1967. But Maddox would be followed by the progressive Jimmy Carter who appreciated what pro sports had done for the state. Carter: “Having sports teams legitimized us. It gave us the opportunity to be known for something that was not going to be a national embarrassment. Henry Aaron was a big part of that because he integrated pro sports in the Deep South, which was no small thing. He was the first Black man that white fans in the South cheered for.”
When Aaron got closer to breaking Babe Ruth’s record in 1974, racist hate mail and death threats came in. But for most of Atlanta, it was a jubilant time and they cheered their baseball hero when he hit #715 (video here).
Like most Black athletes in those days, Aaron did not have any significant endorsements. This upset Clarence Avanti, a powerful music executive (the “Black Godfather”) who, according to legend, stormed into the executive offices of Coca–Cola to demand that they make Aaron a wealthy man. In his biography, Aaron says there may have also been a nudge from Jesse Jackson. In any event, Coca-Cola signed Aaron to a multi-year contract, and Aaron funneled most of the money back to his Chasing a Dream Foundation.
In 2016, the Braves and Coca-Cola celebrated one of the longest partnerships in baseball. From the time the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, and for the next 50 years, Coca-Cola has been a major sponsor. The relationship continues as Coca-Cola is the exclusive non-alcoholic beverage partner in the Braves’ new stadium (Truist Park, opened in 2017). Each fan sitting in the Coca-Cola section receives a complimentary Coca-Cola beverage with their ticket.
In a 2019 interview, Henry Aaron spoke of a unique personal Coca-Cola memory. In the broadcast booth during a game, Aaron displayed one of his bats. He explained that during his playing days he followed the practice of players like Ted Williams who “boned” their bats. This was the process a rubbing a new bat with the femur bone of a cow, a process that compresses the grain and keeps the barrel more durable. Aaron boned his bat using a Coke bottle. Click here for the interview (1:03).
Henry Aaron died on January 22, 2021. He will be celebrated at the All-Star Game on July 13. Coincidentally, the game was scheduled for his adopted city, Atlanta.
2021 MLB All-Star Game: As spring training was coming to a close, major league clubs were filled with the hope of a 162-game season and eventually unrestricted attendance by fans. Atlanta was set for a big year. The Braves have been picked by many pundits to win the NL East. And the city was to host the All-Star Game which would include a celebration of Henry Aaron. But then…
On March 25, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed the ironically titled “Election Integrity Act,” a bill designed to restrict voter access to the polls. To announce his action, Kemp tweeted this photo of himself, six white male legislative leaders, two flags and one painting of a slave plantation. To Kemp’s credit, it was an accurate visual interpretation of the bill.
On April 2, Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that MLB was moving the All Star Game from Atlanta.
The stated reason: “Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all American and opposes restrictions to the ballot box.”
On April 5, the new location was announced: Coors Field in Denver.
The “Big Lie”: The roots of Manfred’s decision date back to November of 2020 when Joe Biden won the presidential election. Donald Trump claimed that he had won by millions of votes rather than losing by millions. He said the difference was caused by massive voter fraud. Trump’s problem was that no one could find any fraud, even after Trump and his allies filed (and lost) over 60 lawsuits. That’s why Trump’s position on the matter is often called the “Big Lie.”
The Big Lie was believed by many of Trump’s followers and led to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Failing to “Stop the Steal” at the U.S. Capitol, attention turned to the state legislatures where Republicans across the country began filing what are euphemistically called “integrity” bills. The bills assume that fraud existed in the presidential election, and somehow their passage will lend credibility to the Big Lie.
In Georgia, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (a Republican) disputed the Big Lie: “This is really the fallout from the 10 weeks of misinformation that flew in from former President Donald Trump. [It gained] momentum in the legislature…when Rudy Giuliani showed up in a couple of committee rooms and spent hours spreading misinformation and sowing doubts across…hours of testimony.”
Nevertheless, Georgia was one of the first states to pass such a bill. But why? Georgia was the poster child showing fraud had not occurred. The state had three recounts. By Republican officials. Always the same result. Governor Kemp refused to cave when Trump tried to get Georgia to reverse its results. Kemp gave all appearances of accepting that Biden’s win in Georgia was fraud-free. What’s the new angle?
On the other side of the equation is Commissioner Manfred who is being pummeled by Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mitch McConnell, etc. who claim that baseball should stay out of politics. The “shut up and dribble” philosophy.
I think both Kemp and Manfred are in the position of Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972). As you may recall, Michael rebukes his brother Sonny about an impending action the family is about to take to avenge the shooting of their father (video here):
I don’t doubt that Manfred is sincere in his opposition to the new Georgia law. Nor do I doubt Kemp’s sincerity in his support for voter suppression. But there are other agendas, or to paraphrase Michael Corleone…
“It’s not just voting rights, Sonny. It’s also about business.”
Brian Kemp’s Business: Brian Kemp is in the business of being re-elected in 2022. The new Georgia voter-suppression rules are designed to help him and other Republicans in the general election. But that’s just a secondary benefit to Kemp.
Kemp’s first order of business is to win the Republican primary. As the incumbent, he would normally be favored. But he has a problem. After Donald Trump lost Georgia in 2020, he was furious at Kemp for not finding a way to overturn the results in the state. Trump has threatened to back a Kemp opponent in the primary.
One of the proven ways for Kemp to get back into the Trump camp is the obsequious model (see Senators Rubio, Cruz and Graham). So Kemp is now all over the airwaves touting his “integrity” bill – the legislative “proof” that the Big Lie is true. But he is really speaking to an audience of one. Donald Trump. Will Trump think Kemp has reversed himself enough to make up for Kemp telling the truth last November?
Trump’s endorsement of Kemp in the 2018 primary was crucial (photo below), and if Kemp gets its again, he will likely win the 2022 primary – his first order of business. To him, losing the All-Star Game is just collateral damage.
Rob Manfred’s Business: Manfred’s first order of business for the All-Star Game is to deliver the best players for the game. It’s meant to be a showcase, from the home run derby to the actual game. Any defections threaten the very reason for the event. If Manfred had not moved the event, the next three months would likely be filled with stories about whether or not certain players might skip the game or maybe kneel during the National Anthem in protest of the revival of Jim Crow. And on and on.
Before Manfred made his announcement, Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts had already indicated he might boycott the game – he is slated to be the NL manager because the Dodgers won the NL pennant last year. What if Dodgers’ superstar Mookie Betts also took a pass. We don’t have to go far back for an example. Last August, after Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by police, Betts and Roberts said they would sit out the next game in protest. With strong support from Clayton Kershaw, the whole team joined in and the game was postponed.
Manfred had to pick his poison. Stay in Atlanta and maybe not have many of the best players. Move the game and take some backlash for a while. Manfred’s quick action provides cover for the players, the owners and…the sponsors (we are talking business, right?). Manfred will have his best players for the game – his first order of business. The heat he receives from Trump, Rubio, Cruz, etc. is just collateral damage.
[Manfred Kansas City Trivia: Above, Commissioner Manfred in Kansas City in February of 2020 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues. Left to right: Royals owner John Sherman, Manfred, NLBM President Bob Kendrick, Mayor Quinton Lucas and County Executive Frank White.]
Boycott Baseball and Coke!: Trump and his allies have called for a boycott of baseball. In addition, they are extending the boycott to companies that publically oppose the wave of voter suppression laws. At the top of the company boycott list is Atlanta-based Coca-Cola.
As noted earlier, Coca-Cola magnate Robert Woodruff was instrumental in the fight against Jim Crow in Atlanta in the 1960s. After the passage of the recent Georgia legislation, the legacy of Woodruff was echoed by current Coca-Cola Chairman James Quincy: “Our focus is now on supporting federal legislation that protects voting access and addresses voter suppression across the country. We all have a duty to protect everyone’s right to vote, and we will continue to stand up for what is right in Georgia and across the US.”
Coca-Cola and some of the other companies championing voter rights were captured in this Fox News’ screenshot that a tweeter captioned “They’re going to need a bigger board.”
The casting of Coca-Cola as a villain is not just wrong. It ignores history. In the 1960s, when Mayor Ivan Allen set the tone for what turned out to be explosive growth for Atlanta, Coca-Cola was first in line to participate. The city was ahead of the curve on civil rights and it paid off. When Henry Aaron balked at moving to Atlanta, he was assured that Jim Crow was on the way out.
Today, Governor Kemp and the Georgia legislature are going in the other direction. The new law disproportionately restricts minority voting rights, and in a power grab, the legislature has seized control over the mechanics of the election process. All in the service of the Big Lie.
The battle is joined. Trump/Kemp v. Coca-Cola. My vote:
Mayor Ivan Allen was a visionary and Atlanta prospered. If someone like Brian Kemp had been Atlanta’s mayor in the 1960s, the city’s growth rate would have been, shall we say, suppressed.
And Henry Aaron would have hit home run #715 in Milwaukee.
NCAA Unbeaten Seasons: Gonzaga entered this year’s NCAA final as an unbeaten team. The last time an unbeaten team won the NCAA final was in 1976 (Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers). But Gonzaga was blown out by Baylor. So Gonzaga will need to be satisfied with the fact that their buzzer-beater in the semifinal with UCLA will forever be part of tournament highlight videos (click here).
There have been only seven unbeaten teams that finished their season by winning the NCAA title: Indiana in 1976; UCLA under Coach John Wooden did it four times (1964, 1965, 1972 and 1973); North Carolina in 1957; and the University of San Francisco in 1956, led by Bill Russell.
Let’s talk about that 1957 game. I was 15 years old. It was Saturday night. I could go to Teen Town or watch the NCAA final on TV. I was a big sports fan, but the girls were at Teen Town. When I got home that night, I was surprised that my parents were still up watching the game. It was in overtime. And then a second overtime. And a third.
I actually remember how the game ended because it was an unusual play. North Carolina was leading Kansas by a point (54-53). Kansas inbounded the ball with a few seconds to go, but a pass to Wilt Chamberlain was tipped and a North Carolina player got it, eluded a defender and then ran out the clock (this is the part I remember) by throwing the ball straight up toward the ceiling of Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium. There is a good clip of the ending at the 5:00 minute mark of this video.
Even though he played for the losing team, KU’s Wilt Chamberlain was the MVP of the 1957 tournament. Which leads me of a Chamberlain story.
In the summer of 1954, just before Wilt’s senior year in high school, he worked as a bellhop at Kutsher’s Country Club in the Catskills. The resort (as legend has it) inspired the movie Dirty Dancing. Wilt made $2 an hour plus good tips. He was also a ringer for the resort’s basketball team coached by the Celtics’ Red Auerbach. Irv Blond sent me a great archival video that chronicles Wilt’s summer – “Borscht Belt Bellhop” – click here (8:41).
Happy Birthday Bert!: Lawyer/raconteur Bert Bates turns 95 this Wednesday. Happy Birthday Bert!
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: Rita and I took our vaccinated selves to the Nelson. We had not been inside the museum for over a year and wanted to catch the Gordon Parks exhibit before it closed (terrific photos of Muhammad Ali). We also did the 10-minute cycle in the new immersive exhibit, Monet Water Lilies: From Dawn to Dusk.
We visited Radcliffe Bailey’s Mound Magician, which was featured in the last Hot Stove – the title is a reference to Satchel Paige, and the design of this piece has been incorporated into the 6th hole of the Nelson’s mini-golf course.
Although not intentional, Rita had a nice matching outfit for the photo. Just above her head, slightly to the right, is the part that led to the title of the piece. It is a fragment of a poster advertising a Negro Leagues’ game. The featured player in the lower half is Leroy Satchel Paige, and the lettering above his name is “THE MOUND MAGICIAN.”
Lonnie’s Jukebox (1) – Atlanta Mayor Edition: In July of 1963, the same month that Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen was asking Congress for a civil rights bill, R&B singer Major Lance crossed over to the pop charts for the first of four straight Top-20 hits.
Trivia 1: Lance was also popular in the U.K. and toured there in the 1960s backed by Bluesology, a band including pianist Reggie Dwight, later known as Elton John.]
Trivia 2: When the Beatles retuned to the U.K. in 1964, Paul McCartney deplaned with a Major Lance album cradled in his arm.
Trivia 3. The coolest of all. Major Lance is the father of Keisha Lance Bottoms, the current mayor of Atlanta.
Jukebox selections: Two of the songs from the album Paul McCartney is holding:
“Monkey Time” (1963; peaked at #8)
“Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” (1964; peaked at #5)
Lonnie’s Jukebox (2) – Wilt Chamberlain Edition: As noted above, Wilt worked at the resort said to have inspired the movie Dirty Dancing. So I must play the iconic dance scene from the movie.
“(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes (1987). The song was initially intended for Donna Summer and Joe Esposito, but Summer turned it down because she didn’t like the title of the film.
The other songs in this Wilt Chamberlain Edition are ones I danced to at Teen Town in 1957, the year Wilt was MVP of the Final Four.
“Party Doll” by Buddy Knox. This hit #1 the same month Wilt played in the Final Four in Kansas City.
“That’ll Be the Day” by Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Buddy’s first big hit.
“Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers. Their first big hit.
“You Send Me” by Sam Cooke. His first big hit.
“Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley. One of four #1 songs for Elvis in 1957.
It was definitely a golden year for rock ‘n’ roll.