On April 8, 1949, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella broke the color barrier in Atlanta baseball when the Brooklyn Dodgers played the Atlanta Crackers in an exhibition game. 

The story of how the city’s first integrated sporting event took place, despite threats from the Ku Klux Klan to disrupt the game, has been told in several books and articles. Earl Mann, the Crackers’ team president, stood firm alongside Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, insisting that the three-game series go on as planned.

Not only were the games some of the highest-attended sporting events the city had seen, but the crowd welcome and huge cheers the Georgia-born Robinson received from the 18,000 plus black and white fans prompted him to declare, “I would not change shoes with any man in the world.”

What you may not know is that Mann was able to confidently stand up to the pressure to cancel the game because the team owners – Robert Woodruff and The Coca-Cola Company – gave him their unconditional support and wanted to see the series played. 

Atlanta Crackers sign

The Atlanta Baseball Corporation was formed with
financial backing from Coca-Cola.

So, who were the Crackers and how did a soft drink company come to own a minor league baseball team? It’s an interesting story that begins at the turn of the 20th century.

A team by the name of the Atlanta Crackers began operating in Atlanta as early as 1884, but the squad most associated with the name was part of the Southern Association – an AA minor league comprised of eight ball clubs in cities throughout the South. The league, which operated from 1901 to 1961, was comprised of the New Orleans Pelicans, the Mobile Bears, the Chattanooga Lookouts, the Memphis Chicks, the Little Rock Travelers, the Birmingham Barons, the Nashville Volunteers and the Atlanta Crackers. 

The Crackers won more pennants than any team in the league, earning the nickname of the “Yankees of the South.”

They played at Ponce de Leon Park, and after a fire destroyed the ballpark in 1923, Spiller Field was constructed on the Ponce de Leon grounds. “Poncy” was unusual in that it had a large magnolia tree in play in deep center field and train tracks that ran along the top of the right field wall. At one point, Spiller Field even had a swimming pool beyond right field!

When the Great Depression began, the economic slowdown hit baseball hard. The Atlanta Crackers were floundering in a sea of debt and bad management. By the end of the 1929 season, the team was sold to several local businesses, including the Atlanta Coca-Cola Bottling Company and The Coca-Cola Company. Famed golfer (and lawyer) Bobby Jones acting as vice president. 

The 1932 business records noted, “General business conditions have affected attendance over the entire country, and receipts, except in rare cases, diminished to less than 50 percent of normal.” Revenues fell to the point that the directors had to advance player salaries.

When the condition continued to worsen, Robert Woodruff, president of The Coca-Cola Company, stepped forward to buy the Crackers to keep the team in Atlanta. 

The Atlanta Baseball Corporation was formed with the financial backing of Coca-Cola. The board included Jones and his father, R.P. Jones, Woodruff and Hughes Spalding, an attorney with Spalding, Sibley and Troutman, which handled the bulk of Coca-Cola’s legal work.

Earl Mann, president and GM of the Atlanta Crackers

Earl Mann, president and GM of the Atlanta Crackers.

Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

While the team may have been on better footing financially, they had a big hole to dig out of. Our records show that the team lost a considerable amount of money the next few years and only began to break even by 1935. One of the reasons for the team’s success was bringing in Mann as the team president and general manager. 

Mann grew up in Atlanta, attending Atlanta Technical High School and Oglethorpe University. His love affair with baseball began at an early age; he was selling seat cushions and Coca-Cola at Ponce de Leon at age 12. 

He remained with the team in roles of increasing responsibility, rising to the position of team secretary. In 1929, he left for greener pastures, becoming a general manager in the farm systems for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees for the next four years. His teams won the pennant in their respective league every year.

When Mann became general manager of the Crackers in 1934, at the age of 29, his baseball acumen, oversight from Hughes Spalding and financial backing of The Coca-Cola Company combined to create a fantastic baseball franchise. During this time period, most minor league teams were independent and made money by identifying talented players and selling their contracts to major league teams. Mann was a master at locating good players, and he was a great baseball salesman.

Atlanta Crackers scorecard

A souvenir scorecard for the Atlanta Crackers.

In addition to some of the talented players who came through the Crackers teams, Mann spotted a young Ernie Harwell, the future Hall of Fame broadcaster who called Crackers games on the radio beginning in 1943. After a stint in the Army during WWII, Harwell was back calling the Crackers games in 1948 for the princely sum of $3,700 for the season.

In 1949, Harwell became the only announcer ever traded for a player, when Rickey of the Dodgers sent catcher Cliff Dapper to the Crackers so Harwell could fill in for the ill Red Barber.

The Rickey-Mann relationship would prove to be beneficial when the Brooklyn Dodgers scheduled the three exhibition games during the spring of 1949. As the Dodgers traveled north from spring training and the game approached, the Klan threatened a boycott of the Crackers for the season, threatening to have 10,000 signatures from people who would never attend a Crackers game. 

Rickey and Mann stood their ground, however, and the series went on without incident. Attendance held firm, too.

Later that year, Mann requested the opportunity to purchase the team and the ballpark. While The Coca-Cola Company had considered selling the team as early as 1945, they had never moved forward with any of the plans.

In a letter dated April 5, 1949, just three days before the first integrated game, Spalding wrote to Woodruff: “If you haven’t already done so, I wish you would go out and take a look at the ball park and at the team. Our park is a source of pride to the whole community and to the surrounding territory. We try to keep it and maintain it in a way that is worthy of the owner.”

Three days later, when the color barrier fell for the first time when Robinson came to the plate, the team was indeed a source of pride to the community. 

Coca-Cola sold the team to Mann (at a reduced rate) later that season and left the baseball business to get back to making and marketing the world’s greatest beverage.

Ted Ryan is director of Heritage Communications for The Coca-Cola Company.