Famous Atlanta Falcons football players will leave their cleat marks tonight on the sacred sod of Gainesville City Park, a place where memories — athletic and otherwise — have been made for more than a century.
When the space was first leveled for a football field early in the 1900s, there were no stands and little if any grass; fans would line the sidelines or perch on the hillsides of the natural bowl-like stadium. It wasn’t until the 1930s when President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps erected permanent stone stands that remain a part of seating that now accommodates thousands of spectators.
The park itself long had been a center of activities for Hall Countians. Picnics, barbecues, festivals, political rallies, band competitions and other gatherings were frequent over the years. It had become a tradition in May of every year for residents to welcome spring and the end of the school with picnics in the park.
In 1919, some citizens wanted the new Gainesville High School built there, but a site just off the Gainesville square on Washington Street prevailed. Before they had practice fields, football players for many years would walk or hitchhike to City Park to scrimmage. Former players remember as part of their drills having to run up the steep hill on the south end of the park.
For many years Gainesville would play its traditional rival Athens on Thanksgiving Day. In the 1938 game, players had to deal with 6 inches of snow and battled to a 0-0 tie.
City Park also once provided a baseball field. The late Coach A.D. Watson got his players in 1947 to dig a diamond out of rough ground on the Civic Center side of the park with part of the football field serving as the outfield.
Players had to maintain the field, cutting grass with push mowers, Lewis Spain recalled.
The Atlanta Crackers played the first exhibition game there with local Industrial League All-Stars.
Phil Jackson, former Times sports editor and longtime radio play-by-play announcer of football games at City Park, remembers only a year after the field was built, Gainesville High School won the school’s first state Class B baseball championship, eliminating Albany, Canton and Fulton along the way.
The field also accommodated American Legion and Industrial League games. A Gainesville Eagles team featured Dude Mack, a flamboyant pitcher whose wild delivery befuddled batters.
While the full-size baseball field is long gone, there remain diamonds for youth leagues adjacent to what is now called Bobby Gruhn Field.
Much excitement was evident when the first football game was played under the lights at City Park. That was Sept. 23, 1938, as Gainesville beat Eastanollee 39-13 with Dub Evans scoring three touchdowns.
Gainesville High School won its first official state football championship last year in the Georgia Dome. But Red Elephant teams in the 1920s were considered by some as unofficial state champions because of their dominance among other teams in North Georgia.
However, there were some other official state football champions crowned in City Park, Jackson said. The Fair Street Tigers beat Evans County 27-0 in 1956 and Thomasville 13-7 in 1957 in state playoffs. Fair Street was the all-black high school that preceded E.E. Butler High School, and before school desegregation in the 1960s.
The Red Elephants had come frustratingly close several times, Jackson remembers. It wasn’t close in 1960 when Gainesville lost to Waycross 49-0 in Class AA finals in City Park. St. Pius edged Gainesville for the title 6-0 in 1968, and the Elephants lost the AA crown to Southwest DeKalb 16-12 in 1972.
Many Gainesville fans remember sitting in a downpour of rain most of the night in 1982 when Gainesville lost the AA championship to Bainbridge 7-6.
George Groover, 77, has seen most of them except during his three years of military service. Groover, who attended Gainesville High School, has been on the sidelines 66 years, helping the coaches and players any way he can. He was batboy for that 1949 GHS baseball championship team. On Friday nights now, he’s in charge of the phones the coaches on the sidelines and in the press box use.
Groover lived across the street from City Park growing up. He never paid to get into games, crawling through a hole in the fence. He’d get caught, but soon would be back in again until ticket takers gave up and just let him into the park free.
Groover remembers annual carnivals in the park as well as military war games. He’s popped popcorn at GHS basketball games and worked concessions at baseball games. One of his most thrilling moments at City Park was when future professionals Billy Martin and Billy Lothridge starred as the Red Elephants beat Avondale in a playoff game. Martin had just had an appendectomy, but was inserted late in the game to fire up his teammates and caught a crucial pass from Lothridge that won the game.
There actually was an officially sanctioned small college football bowl game played at City Park. A couple of Hall County promoters, Billy and Bobby Smallwood, put together the first Poultry Bowl in 1973. It featured Stephen F. Austin University Lumberjacks defeating Gardner-Webb’s Bulldogs 31-10. Only about 1,000 people attended because of a cold rain that started about two hours before kickoff, Jackson said.
A second Poultry Bowl was played elsewhere the next year, but apparently was the last one.
Nowadays, the multipurpose park with its fine field house and press facilities is host not only to football and youth baseball games, but soccer and even lacrosse, relatively new sports in this area.
Numerous great players have graced the grass of City Park, too many to mention. Some found fame in college and in the professional ranks. Others’ careers ended on Bobby Gruhn Field, but nevertheless provided fans even more memories than will the Falcons Friday night under the lights at City Park.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His regular column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.