By Guest Columnist BO HIERS, who has ‘semi-retired’ from a 35-year career in the reinsurance industry and now volunteers at the Atlanta History Center
It’s difficult to imagine Atlanta without a professional sports stadium, especially when you consider the Braves, Falcons, and Hawks are now proud owners of three of the newest and slickest stadiums and arenas anywhere. But that was the case in 1964. Cue Milwaukee Braves owner William Bartholomay and the National Football League (NFL). Attendance was sagging at County Stadium in Milwaukee, and the NFL was looking to expand its geographic footprint into Southern states. There were plenty of twists and turns along the way, but the Braves and Falcons were on the way.
A multi-purpose stadium was needed, and needed fast. Stadium construction began on April 15, 1964. Amazingly, Atlanta Stadium was built in just under a year at a cost of $18 million (the equivalent of $140 million in 2018 dollars). Atlanta Stadium was ready for prime time. Play ball!
Looking back, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen remarked the stadium was built “on land we didn’t own, with money we didn’t have and for teams we hadn’t signed.”
The Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta Braves were still a year away from making their debut seasons at the new stadium, in 1966. Meantime, the Atlanta Crackers, Atlanta’s long-time minor league baseball team (since 1903), had the honor of playing the first regular season baseball games at Atlanta Stadium. The Crackers played the entire 1965 season at Atlanta Stadium in a largely empty stadium. Average attendance per game was fewer than 3,000. Clearly, Atlanta fans were waiting for the real deal to arrive.
I personally remember going to several Braves games in the 1960s, including the National League Championship Series in 1969 between the Braves and the New York Mets. The Braves lost the game, but hey, I got to miss a day of school to attend! Thanks, Dad! I also remember my dad scraping his knee to grab a foul ball off the bat of Braves outfielder Mack Jones, and then giving the ball to a distant cousin of mine from Charleston. I’ve forgiven you, Dad.
Before we address the three landmark events at Atlanta Stadium (later know as Atlanta Fulton County Stadium) in the 1960s, there are fun facts to share. Atlanta Stadium was the only stadium ever where the last game played was a World Series game. Bleachers were added to the early Falcons game, which increased attendance by roughly 8,000. And finally, the stadium altitude of 1,057 feet was the highest in the majors until the Colorado Rockies inaugural season in 1993 at Mile High Stadium.
By my count, there were three landmark events at Atlanta Stadium in the 1960s, and one of them pre-dates the Braves and Falcons – and had nothing to do with sports. Since I was too young to drive, and Uber and Lyft were light years away, I missed out on all three. Any chance you were there?
August 18, 1965: Atlanta made the cut on the Beatles 1965 North American Tour, proving it was already a big league city before the Braves and Falcons even arrived (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!). The Beatles came sprinting out of the third base dugout at 9:37 p.m. to take the stage in front of 34,000 frenzied fans. It was a hot and muggy Wednesday evening. Field level seats would have set you back $5.50. (You would have saved a dollar by seating in the upper level, but the trade-off was being further away from John, Paul, George and Ringo.)
The Beatles played a total of 12 songs, including Twist and Shout, Ticket to Ride, Can’t Buy Me Love, I Wanna Be Your Man and Hard Day’s Night. Opening acts included Brenda Holloway, King Curtis and – get this! – Cannibal and the Headhunters. The event was emceed by Tony “The Tiger” Taylor and Paul Drew from WQXI AM (better known to locals as Quixie in Dixie).
Prior to the concert, Mayor Allen presented the Beatles with an honorary key to the city. The Beatles pre-concert meal included top sirloin, pork loin, leg of lamb, corn on the cob, pole beans and apple pie. The Beatles were offered hamburgers, but – No, No, No! – they subbed in corn on the cob instead.
My future brother-in-law was one of the lucky 34,000 in the new stadium, but not me. Don’t get me started! After the concert, the band was whisked away to the Atlanta airport for a flight to Houston. All told, the Beatles were in Atlanta a total of 10 hours.
April 12, 1966: Hooray! Major league baseball officially arrived in Atlanta. Braves vs. Pirates. First pitch came at 8:11 p.m. It was a Tuesday evening. Paid attendance was 50,671. Tony Cloninger was on the mound for the Braves; Bob Veale for the Pirates. Those who were lucky enough to have a seat for the historic event certainly got plenty of bang for their buck – the game lasted 13 innings. Unfortunately, the Pirates ruined the Atlanta Braves debut, winning 3-2, thanks to a two-run bomb from future Hall of Famer, Willie Stargell, in the top of the 13th inning.
Speaking of future Hall of Famers, Braves catcher Joe Torre hit two solo home runs in the game (Torre’s first homer represented the official first home run at Atlanta Stadium). Cloninger actually pitched the entire game, something that would never happen these days.
Those who weren’t lucky enough to be at Atlanta Stadium could have tuned in to WSB radio, where the legendary Larry Munson, Ernie Johnson, Sr. and Milo Hamilton painted the picture for Braves fans. And no, it wasn’t on television. ESPN was 13 years away, and there simply was no such thing as mid-week baseball on television in 1966.
After a shaky first half of the season, the Braves caught fire and went on to win 85 games in 1966, finishing in fifth place in the 10-team National League. The 1966 Braves roster was loaded with offensive firepower, with the likes of Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Torre, Felipe Alou and Rico Carty all proudly wearing the new Atlanta Braves uniform. For the record, Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, who wore number 44 on his new Braves jersey, smacked 44 homers in 1966.
September 11, 1966: Imagine the excitement when the Atlanta Falcons took the field for its first-ever regular season NFL game at Atlanta Stadium in front of 54,418 fans to play the Los Angeles Rams. Weather-wise, it was a comfortable 71 degrees at kickoff. The Falcons put up a fight, but ended up falling to the Rams, 19-14. The Falcons first-ever regular season touchdown occurred when Randy Johnson connected with Gary Barnes for a 53-yard touchdown pass.
As a brand new NFL franchise team, the Falcons were awarded the No. 1 pick in the 1966 NFL draft. In arguably the best Falcons’ draft pick ever (with apologies to Matt Ryan and Deion Sanders), the Falcons chose Tommy Nobis, a linebacker from the University of Texas. Nobis went on to win Rookie of the Year in 1966, and was the first player to represent the Falcons in the NFL Pro Bowl.
All things considered, 1966 was a fairly decent season for the freshly-minted Falcons, who were coached by Norb Hecker, a former assistant coach to the legendary Vince Lombardi. The Falcons emerged victorious three times in their debut season, including a first-ever win for the franchise against the New York Giants. Not too shabby for the newest entry to the NFL! Incidentally, there was so much excitement in the city over the Falcons arrival that 45,000 season tickets were sold in 60 days.
Not to put too much of a negative spin on the early Falcons, but it would be a long uphill climb until the Falcons experienced their first winning season in 1973, when they went 9-5 under head coach Norm Van Brocklin.
It’s true: Atlanta Fulton County Stadium was not easy on the eyes. But neither were other multi-purpose, cookie cutters stadiums of the 1960s era (such as Busch Stadium in St. Louis, RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. and Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh). At the time, stadium construction was all about function, looks be damned. But here’s where Atlanta Fulton County Stadium stands head and shoulders above Atlanta’s current, sleek modern day arenas – it delivered Atlanta its only world championship on October 28, 1995 when the Braves defeated the Cleveland Indians in Game Six of the 1995 World Series.
Come on, Atlanta, we can do better than one measly World Championship in 52 years! We deserve better!
Note to the glitzy SunTrust Park, State Farm Arena and Mercedes Benz Stadium: You’re on the clock.