22 Aug 2014
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Baseball's Southern Boom Town: Norcross

With the Atlanta Braves training in Florida, Patch is inspired to share our town's rich baseball history. Too much to fit in one week, so ya'll to stand by for more in the coming month.

Gone… the sand lot.

Gone… the players.

Gone… the cheering crowds.

Decades before baseball players demanded multi-million dollar salaries, before boys and girls of all backgrounds played in organized Little Leagues, the game of baseball was in its infancy. 

And Norcross was right in the middle of baseball's early days, with its grassroots team at what is now Lillian Webb Park. During the 1920s more players per capita drafted to the major league from Norcross than from any other small town in America.

Town teams became increasingly popular around the country after the Civil War had ended.  Soldiers, standing for both the north and the south, learned the game from officers who had taken to it while attending West Point. ‘Rounders' sprung out of a need for troops to relax between skirmishes. Boys of the blue and the grey took up hickory limbs and rocks on would-be battlefields for a brief escape from the frightful fray.

Gaining popularity with the invention of a cork centered ball, the game became a crowd pleaser. Instead of dead balls rolling past slow moving infielders, the cork center allowed batters to sail a hit skyward.  Boys with big bats, strong arms or swift feet showed off their skills and entire towns closed their shops, left their tractors, and rolled up the sidewalks to enjoy an afternoon or evening of games.  

Norcross was especially keen on the game and teams of local boys thrilled folks who really had not much else entertainment to escape to. Jack Trimble, a slave descendant, was good enough to play the game on the same level, but before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Trimble wasn’t allowed on the little city field. 

Trimble, swift and good with fly balls,  rode a bus into Atlanta to team up with the Black Crackers while just a block from the Norcross depot there was an open lot with sandbags for bases, a hillside for bleachers, and  weedy patches of grass for an outfield.

Fans walked from miles away to root, root, root for the home team.  Old timers recall that baseball was the biggest thing around in those days and well into the 1960s, mostly because there wasn’t much else to do!

Longtime mayor of Norcross, Lillian Webb for whom the park is named, enjoyed the games as a young girl.  “I walked over, like most people did, on Wednesday nights and Saturdays,” she reminisces.  “From spring through summer, ‘baseball season,’ all the stores closed because everyone was over there at the field together.”

High school as well as town teams rallied to play against teams traveling in from around Gwinnett County and Georgia. The National Biscuit Company caught on to the games’ fan popularity and began rolling horse, and later motor, drawn wagons around from town to town offering up concessions of crackers and cakes. 

The company, later renamed "Nabisco," became the game’s first concessionaires and even the players would sometimes be paid with the baked goods off the back of the trucks.  During the Depression boys joined up with teams just to carry home a fruit cake or a loaf of bread.

Scouts followed the town teams looking for emerging talent, and Norcross did not disappoint. As radio was born, professional clubs began to entice young men by offering more than just a cake or box of crackers for payment. 

With the backing of local baseball fan and school coach, Edwin ‘Pop’ Dean, as well as some of the local businesses, several Norcross players left the little southern railway town seeking fame and fortune on the cool green grass of rapidly growing big city fields. The lucky ones signed modest contracts agreeing to play semi-pro ball for $100 a month.

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