This article was written by Roger A. Godin
This article was published in 2002 Baseball Research Journal
The cover of Tim Darnell’s book Southern Yankees describes the now virtually forgotten Atlanta Crackers as “one of minor league baseball’s most successful and storied franchises.” Over a 65-year period from 1895 through 1960, playing largely in the Southern Association, the Crackers won 17 pennants and six playoff titles.
The 1954 Crackers were particularly notable, finishing first at 94-60 and then eliminating Memphis and Birmingham in the playoffs. This allowed them to advance to the Dixie Series against Houston, where they came back to win the last two games and the series four games to three. Most of those who made the season possible were gone the following year, including future major leaguers Frank Torre and Chuck Tanner. Among those still around in 1955 were outfielder Bob Montag, who had hit .323 with 105 RBIs, catcher Jim Solt, and second baseman Frank DiPrima. The latter two had hit .321 and .316 respectively.
It was common in those halcyon days for major league teams to break from spring training and head north, playing exhibition games against minor and major league clubs. The New York Yankees, unlike the Crackers, were not defending champions when they broke from their Florida camp at St. Petersburg on March 31. Their first stop on a Southern Association tour was the next night in Atlanta. Former Yankee George McQuinn had succeeded Whit Wyatt as Atlanta manager, and he sent ex-Brooklyn Dodger Clyde King to the mound. Yankee manager Casey Stengel countered with Whitey Ford and his basic lineup of Rizzuto, Mantle, Berra, et.al.
The game was expected to be the first of a number of easy tune-ups, but it would prove to be something quite different. In the top of the second Hank Bauer walked, advanced on a wild pitch, and scored on Gil McDougald’s single. The Crackers countered with a 400-foot home run to the left-field scoreboard by Solt in their half of the inning. McQuinn brought in Dick Roberson in the fifth, and he gave up the go-ahead run on a walk to Andy Carey and Mickey Mantle’s double. The Yankees added a single run in the eighth on two walks and an error, and then got another in the ninth off Stu Alton when Hank Bauer walked with the bases loaded.
While the 4-1 lead was close by the standards of such games, there appeared to be little concern that Whitey Ford would not be the first Yankee pitcher to go nine innings that spring. Going into the bottom of the ninth he had scattered five hits and struck out nine. With one out, DiPalma got an infield single, Earl Hersh walked, and Solt got another infield single to load the bases. Jack Caro then followed with a hard smash off Andy Carey’s glove into left field, scoring DiPalma and Hersh.With Solt on third and Caro at second, Ford struck out pinch-hitter Bill Casey for the second out, but Johnny Turco walked to reload the bases. Stengel then waved in right-hander Don Larsen for his first appearance as a Yankee. He had been acquired the previous November from Baltimore along with Bob Turley and others.
Despite a 3-21 record in 1954, the Yankee manager was high on the Indiana native. He told the New York Times’ Louis Effrat: “Larsen knows how to pitch. I’ve been watching him throw to hitters in practice. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be a big winner with this club. He’s big and strong and can fire the ball. … Larsen reported with a sore arm, but it seems to be all right now. Twice I had him listed to work, but he was rained out of his turn each time.”
Larsen would be throwing to right-hand hitting outfielder Bob Thorpe, who had a brief 110-game major league career with the Boston-Milwaukee Braves over a three-year period, where he hit .251 with six home runs.He took an instant liking to Larsen’s first pitch and drove it to right center for a two-run double as Solt and Caro scored for the 5-4 win.
The 7,209 fans at Ponce de Leon Park were delighted, as was the Atlanta Constitution, which put the game story on the first page with the headline: “Crackers Topple Yanks 5-4, on Thorpe’s Blow.” The Yankees took out their frustrations on Birmingham and Memphis 11-1 and 13-1 respectively in their next two games.
Whitey Ford was charged with the loss, but he would go on to win 18 games and Larsen would chip in with nine as the Yankees won their 20th pennant, but lost the World Series to Brooklyn. Larsen’s memorable moment would, of course, come on October 8, 1956, with his 2-0 World Series perfect game triumph against the Dodgers.
Surprisingly enough, prior to the Crackers’ memorable win, the Atlanta team had dropped two consecutive games to Fort McPherson, Georgia. This was at a time when Army teams were composed of major and minor league players serving their military obligation. Frank Bolling and Norm Siebern were both in the soldiers’ lineup. The Crackers were slated to play the Detroit Tigers on Saturday night, but the game was rained out, and a doubleheader rescheduled for Sunday. Atlanta continued their major league domination by winning the nightcap, 8-0. Despite these high points it would not be a good season for the Crackers. They finished seventh at 70-84, as Clyde King took over from George McQuinn before the season was out.
ROGER GODIN lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is the team curator for the Minnesota Wild. He is the author of The 1922 St. Louis Browns: The Best of the American League’s Worst.
Darnell, Tim. Southern Yankees: The Story of the Atlanta Crackers, self-published, 1995.
Atlanta Constitution, April 1, 2, 4, 1955.
New York Times, April 2, 1955.