Durable Growth

Changing views of cars over fifty years

Home ballpark of the Tennessee Smokies, of the same league as the contemporary Birmingham Barons

Home ballpark of the Tennessee Smokies, of the same league as the contemporary Birmingham Barons

With a pair of friends, I take an annual vacation organized around minor league baseball.  With big breakfasts in the mornings, brewpubs in the afternoons, and minor league ballparks in the evenings, and with a few urbanist sightseeing stops thrown in, it’s a great week.  So great that this year, for our seventh iteration, we’re extending ourselves to twelve days.

Baseball Odyssey 2015 will begin and end in Birmingham, Alabama, with stops including New Orleans, Memphis, and Nashville.  To get myself in the mindset for minor league ball in the South, I cracked open “Southern League” by Larry Colton.

Colton writes about the 1964 season of the Birmingham Barons.  In 1962, the Barons went on a hiatus because a local ordinance prohibited integrated sports.   With professional baseball insisting on full integration, a time-out was the only option.  But by 1964, the Barons’ owner, emboldened by the removal from office of strict segregationist Bull Connor and by the repeal of the ban on integrated sports, was ready to resume play.  However, the spectre of violence against African-Americans, almost casual in its cruelty, remained high.

Colton tells the story in a quiet, spare, and unadorned style.  He doesn’t need to add his outrage to the story.  The facts that he has assembled tell that story quite well on their own.  (Plus, any story that includes long-time Oakland A’s owner Charley Finley in a key role can’t be boring.)

Although I fully recommend the book, it doesn’t offer much of an urbanist connection.  However, there is one small set of details that impart an interesting urbanist insight.

To tell the story of the 1964 Barons, Colton focuses on four particular ballplayers, Blue Moon Odom, Tommie Reynolds, Hoss Bowlin, and Paul Lindblad.  It’s interesting to note what each did with a portion of their mostly small signing bonuses.

Odom, who was the most highly regarded as a prospect and who went on to become the most well-known of the four as a Major League ballplayer, spent $4,200 on a “brand-new, candy-apple red Ford Galaxy”.

Odom was so fixed on the car that Finley, the owner of the Kansas City A’s who were the parent club to Birmingham, helped facilitate the purchase, making sure that it was waiting for him, fresh from a Birmingham car dealer, when Odom arrived after signing his contract.  The delivery method later caused trouble for Odom when he couldn’t explain to the satisfaction of a white Birmingham police officer how a black man came to be driving a flashy new car.

Reynolds, who drove from his home in San Diego to spring training in Daytona Beach, used a portion of his bonus on a “’64 Chevy Malibu Super Sport, with its wire rims, aqua-green custom paint job, and front-seat console.”   Reynolds and the car had a difficult trip.  As a black man unable to stay at a motel in the Florida Panhandle, he tried to nap in a rest area, only to awake to find one front window shattered and the other painted with a bullseye next to his head.

Bowlin, who had grown up dirt poor in rural Arkansas, went more modest with his first acquisition, a “’56 Chevy with mud flaps and a brodie knob”.

Lindblad, already married with two children, chose a “’63 Chevy Impala”, also a more sedate selection, but still a new car and a big chunk of his bonus.

With those four examples in mind, let’s consider the 2014 example of Dodger outfielder Joc Pederson, starting leftfielder in last week’s All-Star Game, runner-up in the Homerun Derby, and Rookie-of-the-Year candidate.

Pederson completed his minor league apprenticeship with the 2014 Albuquerque Isotopes.  What wheels did Pederson, who received a $600,000 signing bonus, use to get around in Albuquerque?  A 1994 Buick Century that he bought for $1,000.

As described by the Isotopes after Pederson donated the car for a raffle, “The car, nicknamed “Little Chucky,” has only 166,000 miles on it and has at least one operable window, which is really all you need. …  Little Chucky will also come with two complimentary air fresheners and whatever else Pederson forgets to clean out.”

Quite a difference from the four Birmingham Barons of a half-century earlier and one that says much about the changing attitude toward cars.  And, as cars become less important, urbanism becomes more important.

One could argue that I cherry-picked these examples and they’d be half-right.  I wouldn’t have reported the anecdotes if they hadn’t supported my urbanist perspective.  But I didn’t go looking for these stories.  They floated across my desk for other reasons and I just happened to notice the information they imparted.

Also, I’m not suggesting that all professional athletes are driving 20-year-old beaters.  A quick look at the players’ parking lot at any Major League ballpark would quash that suggestion.  But Pederson does show that at least some players can be pretty casual about their rides.

The world is changing.

(Disclaimer: Through a mutual acquaintance, I came to know Colton back in the late 1990s, even playing a charity golf event or two.  We’ve long since lost touch, but I recall enjoying his company.  However, I’d recommend “Southern League” and his earlier books, particularly “Goat Brothers”, regardless of past golf outings.  He writes well on subjects about which I care.)

Next time, I have some good news from Napa.  It’s progress that I’ve long been advocating.

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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