Anniston's founders were proud of the town they'd planned, from the locations of its industries, down to the very neighborhoods that would be home to the workers who labored in those factories. Churches, shops and transportation all were accounted for.
That planning, as well as the pride of the new city's founders, is evident in the drawings produced in the late 1800s and early 1900s – in fact, angled-perspective maps – depicting its layout. Detailed renderings of Victorian-era buildings lining tree-shaded streets, all for the inspection of readers.
In the drawings, smoke wafts from stacks above the many mills and foundries that were the reason for the town's existence, surely meant to imply industriousness to future investors. Likewise, tidy rows of houses dot the side streets, sensible homes in which the factories' workers would rest. The commercial corridor centered on Noble Street looks sturdy and ready for the bustle of workers spending their wages for life's necessities and niceties.
The city's name is displayed, in large, stylized letters below each map, always in all capitals.
"ANNISTON, ALA.," the drawings seem to say, is someplace. And in this someplace, there's a lot of money to be made, whether you're investing for it or working for it.
Conspicuously absent from all the drawings however, is any depiction of the places where many Annistonians came to express pride in their city, spots where they gathered to prove that the Model City was the equal, if not the better, of any other town within a few days' ride.
In any modern map of a major American city, fields of play figure large on the landscape. They are surrounded by swells of seats, often covered by cathedral-like domes. Banners hang from rafters or wave from poles, and on game days thousands of people will fill their stands, clad in shirts, caps and the occasional coat of face paint emblazoned with sigils of their cities — not unlike the all-capitals logo beneath the drawings of Anniston's industrial streets.
The Anniston maps were drawn in a time before the civic arms race to construct these arenas had begun, and so it is perhaps not surprising that neither Zinn Park nor Johnston Field are represented there, no pennants billowing in the breeze that billows the factories' smoke. The Anniston Nobles, the Model City's first professional baseball club, were organized Feb. 28, 1904, a year after the production of the last of those maps, becoming members of the new Tennessee-Alabama League, pitting the finest players the city could marshal against squads from Chattanooga, Huntsville, Sheffield, Bessemer, Selma and Gadsden.
Cities and towns in that era, even smaller ones it would seem, were no different than the metropolises of the 21st century. Against their municipal rivals for residents, industry, investment and visitors, they sought to prove their worth not only in business deals and censuses, but on fields of play. If a collection of pros could be gathered to sport "Anniston" on their jerseys, if the city's name could appear in the league standings in places older, bigger, better known, then folks in those cities would know Anniston was here, could not deny the Model City was a force to be reckoned with. Through the years, Anniston has tried to make its mark on the diamond and on the gridiron, as underdog contenders, reigning champions and gracious hosts, even as the world of sport changed around it.
In trouble early
If the entry of the Nobles into the Tennessee-Alabama league doesn't serve as enough evidence to history that Anniston had arrived, perhaps the appearance of baseball royalty on the team's first roster does the trick. Ty Cobb began his professional career playing on the squad, which batted, fielded and pitched at Zinn Park. Unfortunately, they didn't do it long. The team folded in its first season.
Zinn, it should be noted, was just steps away from Anniston's main rail depot, the impressive Anniston Inn, and the Anniston Land Co. building. These structures, collectively known as the "Gateway to Anniston," were designed to impress arriving visitors. By 1911, baseball and the crowds it drew to Zinn were among the impressive sights to behold. Anniston's population had topped 12,000 in the previous year's Census, the beginning of a steady climb that would last for decades. Its mills were turning out iron and cotton products, providing jobs that were drawing those residents. And the fortunes of the Models, formed to play in the new Southeastern League, drew many of those residents to the park.
But the Models' success was short-lived, as the team folded the next year. They were replaced by the Moulders in 1913, who lasted five years, and a new incarnation of the Nobles in 1928, who now played at Johnston Field on the other side of town from old Zinn Park.
By 1930, the new Nobles were battling teams from Huntsville, and the nearby Georgia towns of Cedartown and Lindale. Anniston was the largest of these cities (Huntsville would not surpass it until the 1950s, booming when the space program landed in town), and residents of the Model City might have been looking elsewhere to find its peers. As the beginning of the Great Depression helped to make the economics of baseball nearly impossible here, 1930 was the last Annistonians would see of professional ball for seven years.
A team of their own
But Anniston was too proud to stay off the field for long. In 1937, local businessmen helped to organize the Rams, members of a new Southeastern League, an association that found Anniston in much more prestigious company, as cities are concerned.
Anniston could count itself, on the diamond at least, the rival of Alabama's capital, Montgomery, as well as Mobile and Jackson, Miss., cities with more than 60,000 residents. Meridian, Miss., and Pensacola, Fla., occupied a second tier, both with around 35,000 souls. Rounding out the league were Gadsden and Selma, which, like Anniston, were upstarts with populations around 20,000.
With the Rams' first game just over a month away, the city got a chance to prove how much it valued the opportunity to field a team. A fire burned Johnston Field's wooden grandstands, and the city government provided labor from the jail to build replacement seats.
As the Rams prepared to take the field for their first game in April 1938, against Gadsden, their growing city's sense of itself was apparent in The Anniston Star's coverage of the time. The weight happenings there carried throughout Calhoun County and beyond could be seen by the decisions of merchants in other towns to shut down for opening day so everyone could attend the game.
The day before the game, the papers lead editorial declared: "Never before has such ready cooperation been given by other Calhoun County communities in a local project.
"Oxford, Jacksonville, Piedmont, and Fort McClellan are observing a half holiday for the occasion. Each of these places can send hundreds of fans into Anniston for the inaugural. Hundreds of others will come from other communities in this trade territory—Heflin, Friendship, White Plains, Choccolocco, Lineville, Ashland and other communities.
A Page 1 story printed the morning of the game provides other clues to the importance placed on the event.
"Mayor Coleman is expected to toss the opening ball. There will be no great formality attached to the opening. Where other cities, including Gadsden have arranged parades and other furbelows, local officials have been of the opinion that the baseball fan wants to hear the crack of the bat and see the game."
Anniston was conscious of its moment in the spotlight, and sensitive to any criticism it wasn't putting on a big enough show.
The Anniston High School band provided music for the afternoon crowd, marching along the third-base line.
Unfortunately, rain ruined the scheduled show after just a half-inning, scattering a crowd estimated at 3,000. Two days later the Rams finally got a chance to impress the home crowd, beating Gadsden 5-3 in front of 1,178 fans.
Over the next 12 years, the Rams' on-field fortunes fell and rose, then fell again. They'd been middle-of-the-pack at best before the league was suspended for World War II in 1943. When play resumed in 1946 Anniston's team took the only league title it would ever win, beating Montgomery four games to two.
Sadly, it was then back to the basement for most of the rest of the team's time. By 1949, with expenses for travel and equipment rising and tickets not selling fast enough to cover them, the Rams had reached a crisis. Sensing the city's reputation was on the line, fans — who'd stepped in once before when things got rough in 1941 — organized a plan to sell shares in the enterprise, raising both money and the public's sense of commitment to its team.
It worked, at first.
Anniston was able to get a team together to start the 1950 season. The Southeastern League had changed a bit — Mobile, its biggest town in 1940, had since departed for the nearly big-time Southern League to play against the likes of Birmingham and Atlanta. The Port City, which had grown to a population of nearly 130,000, was replaced by Vicksburg, Miss., a town slightly smaller than Anniston's. And the Rams were struggling to keep up — on the field and in the ledger books — against teams from Gadsden and Selma.
As the summer heated up, it became clear that Anniston couldn't continue without major changes.
A June 27 story in The Star provided advance notice of a June 30 meeting of the Rams' stockholders at the city auditorium.
"The situation has become critical," the paper quoted team president Joe King III as saying, "and the directors feel that the right to a decision on the future of the Southeastern League franchise belongs to the stockholders."
The stock was in a group known officially as Anniston Baseball Fans Inc. A large ad on Page 13 of the paper that Friday, the day of the meeting, aimed to ensure no one missed the gathering. Those who couldn't attend were urged to obtain proxy voting forms in advance.
An editorial the same day urged action by the city government to help save the team.
It noted that "… this year's Ram aggregation was fielded as a civic project, and to give up at this point would be a reflection on this entire community."
The editorial proposed spending city money to support the team, or at least providing in-kind services in the form of no-cost police protection at games, or even perhaps a break on the city's amusement tax.
That The Star's editorial board urged city leaders to consider spending public money to prop up a minor league baseball team is a fact not to be taken lightly, given that it appears on the same page with another editorial assailing the "reckless spending" by the administration of Gov. Jim Folsom.
The editorial said city leaders "… would be justified in coming to the Rams' aid on this score, as well as for the less tangible benefits to be derived through the showing that Anniston can field a ball club in competition with others representing cities the size of Montgomery and Pensacola."
In the federal Census taken that summer, Montgomery had grown to 99,860 residents, and Pensacola claimed 43,509. Anniston weighed in at 31,066.
There, spelled out, was Anniston's desire to promote its legitimacy as a noteworthy city through athletic exploits.
The meeting was held, and "several hundred" stockholders were enthusiastic in their commitment to keeping the team alive for at least another two weeks through the sale of $10,000 worth of special "booster tickets." But only $370 of that goal materialized in the first night, according to Star sports columnist Harry Sherman. Writing in the Sunday's paper following the meeting, he noted that a Saturday game with Gadsden wasn't nearly as well attended at the stockholders' meeting.
"Although the series opener with Gadsden produced one of the best played games of the year, the small crowd consisted mostly of Gadsden patriots. The group of stockholders who were so enthusiastic at Friday's baseball rally here failed to turn out in a body," Sherman wrote.
Two weeks later, the Rams' reprieve was up, and the team's franchise reverted to the league, which operated them as an "orphan" squad, playing just two more game at Johnston Field a few days later before playing only on the road the remainder of the season.
They dropped both final home contests to Selma's Cloverleafs, 4-1 and 8-0.
In 1948, as the Rams were nearing their eventual end, Johnston Field's neighbor across 18th Street to the north, Memorial Stadium (not yet "Chink" Lott Stadium) became home to Anniston's next big sporting enterprise. Anniston might not claim a team of its own stars for much longer, but it would at least play host to someone else's.
The Anniston Quarterback Club was promoting a grid-iron contest between the freshman football teams of the University of Alabama and the University of Kentucky. It was hoped the game between future varsity stars for the Crimson Tide and the Wildcats would draw a big crowd of locals, and perhaps some visitors as well. The contest was planned for 2 o'clock on the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day, the week after the local high school football teams had concluded their seasons and presumably after local families had stuffed themselves at the holiday feast.
Again, The Star heralded the approach of a big game. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, a sports story noted, "Freshmen in the Southeastern Conference are allowed to play only three games each season (a special ruling allows Alabama to play four this year); therefore the highly interesting frosh tilts are especially hard to obtain." All proceeds from the game would benefit construction of a new YMCA headquarters for the city.
Again the Anniston High band was called on to enhance the occasion, representing Alabama's squad. The Oxford High School band was asked to play for the Wildcats. Both bands, the Tuesday story said, would present programs with "appropriate Thanksgiving themes" at halftime.
As it would with the Rams, The Star's editorial board weighed in on the "Turkey Day" game. After commending the Quarterback Club embers on their efforts, the editorial board held out hope that the impending game would be the first in an annual tradition.
"Other cities comparable in size to our own, by playing host annually to college football classics, and near-classics, reap rich dividends through the promotion locally of sportsmanship and interest in football, through the valuable publicity resulting from an outstanding sports program, and, finally, through he attraction of football crowds to their stores, restaurants, etc., each Fall."
A story in Thursday's paper, hyping the contest further, noted that "Some of the best prospects in the nation last season were brought into the Wildcat den through the well-known recruiting ability of Head Coach 'Bear' Bryant." He wouldn't coach the Crimson Tide for another 10 years, but his name was already worth mentioning in The Star's story.
The game would be carried live on local radio, according to listings, and businesses across town bought ads in a two-page spread Wednesday to promote the game. "Let's fill Memorial Stadium tomorrow," George H. Butler & Co. Insurance urged.
And indeed, what was described as a "near-capacity crowd" is shown filling the stands in the paper printed the Saturday after the game. The closest thing to Anniston had to a home team prevailed, with Alabama besting Kentucky's freshmen 16-6.
But, perhaps because the freshman games were indeed hard to come by, Anniston's first was also its last.
After a two-year hiatus, the Turkey Bowl, as it became known, became a county high school championship bowl game of sorts. For the first few years, Anniston was the permanent host team, squaring off against the Calhoun County with the best record other than its own. Of six Turkey Bowl games it played in, Anniston's Bulldogs were unbeaten. The Model City had finally found a workable formula to draw a big crowd to a marquee game on a downtown field — if only for one afternoon a year.
Eventually, Anniston gave up its guaranteed slot in the game, but Memorial Stadium played host to the county's two best teams annually until the introduction of a statewide classification and playoff system took some of the polish off the ball.
Now, the Bulldogs are still the only team to wear "Anniston" on their chests, and "Chink" Lott Stadium still fills with their supporters a few Fridays each year, with the roar of Turkey Bowl crowds fading into the past, and the Rams, Moulders and Nobles distant, dim memories.
Anniston's population peaked at 33,320 in 1960, a decade after the Rams left Johnston Field for good and while the Turkey Bowl was rumbling toward its demise. The factories in those Victorian drawings are mostly gone now, with no more smoke wafting from stacks scattered over the western side of town. Anniston may maintain some of the old pride that led early leaders to print they city's name in bold capitals wherever they could. But today's leaders are wondering how to deal with population totals that drift lower each decade instead of marching steadily up.
Meanwhile, the city's name may no longer appear in datelines and league standings tables on the sports pages of newspapers in the South's modest metropolises. But Anniston seems content to have traded in its upward mobility in the world of sports for heated tilts against teams from the towns next door.
And if it is no longer importing paid professionals or scholarshipped collegians to play for the fans' amusement, the athletes it cheers on are mostly its own children. That, perhaps, may be the sort of pride Anniston can maintain for generations to come.