by Rebecca Rakoczy
Ask Dr. Ken Fenster about the French Revolution, and he can cite impressive details about the famous insurrection of the French working class and poor. After all, it was the topic of his doctoral dissertation and is covered in the world history courses he teaches at Georgia Perimeter College.
But ask him about baseball—specifically, baseball in the South—and Fenster just grins. It is a smile particular to those who are passionate about the game and its history, who know names that have long disappeared into the clay dust of Atlanta’s past.
Since 1998 Fenster has steeped himself in the lore of Atlanta’s and the South’s baseball history, from its early beginnings at Ponce de Leon Park where a Home Depot now sits, to the home of the Braves’ AAA team, now Coolray Field in Gwinnett County. He has written articles for national baseball publications and won awards for his research articles on early baseball.
Among his recognitions is the national McFarland-Society for Baseball Research Award for his article, “Earl Mann, Nat Peeples and the Failed Attempt of Integration of the Southern Association.” (Nat Peeples, an outfielder for the Atlanta Crackers, made history as he broke the color line in the venerable, tradition-rich, class-AA Southern Association.) Fenster recently co-edited a book, “The National Pastime: Baseball in the Peach State,” and is working on another book about the Atlanta Crackers.
“I always played baseball—I loved the game,” Fenster says. He also served as a Little League umpire for eight years, umping games that included the son of Atlanta Braves’ general manager John Schuerholz.
As a historian and professor of world and American history, Fenster’s interest in the past is clear. So delving into baseball’s history meshed his two passions. “I love research, and I love baseball, so I just combined the two,” he says.
An Atlanta native, Fenster was 11 years old when the Atlanta Braves came south from Milwaukee in 1966.
“I grew up in Atlanta, and I was here when the Atlanta Crackers were still here.
The Atlanta Crackers were a farm team of the Boston/Milwaukee Braves from 1950-1959; then the Los Angeles Dodgers, the St. Louis Cardinals, and finally the Minnesota Twins. When the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta for the 1966 season, the Crackers moved to Richmond. Then a few years ago, the Richmond team moved to Gwinnett. That team is the descendant of the old Crackers,” he says.
Over the years, Fenster interviewed the late Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell (the only broadcaster to be included in a baseball trade) and the family of Earl Mann, the owner who guided the Atlanta Crackers from 1935-1959. During Mann’s tenure, the team was known as “Yankees of the South” because of their winning record, says Fenster.
He also has persuaded other GPC faculty to write about their experiences in baseball. English professor Dr. Jeff Portnoy and history professor Dr. Paul Hudson wrote chapters for the book, “Baseball in the Peach State.”
Fenster, whose students give him high marks on the international website, “Rate My Professor,” has learned that not everyone shares his passion for the Great American Pastime. Once, he tried to bridge the topics of baseball and American history in his classroom on Georgia Perimeter College’s Clarkston Campus. The result was not what he had expected.
“A lot of my students are international students and have never heard of baseball—they didn’t grow up with it,” he says. Their passion is futbol—better known as soccer.”
Hudson and Portnoy say Fenster’s work in baseball is important, though.
“I don’t think that many colleagues at GPC realize that Ken is one of the finest baseball scholars in the country,” says Hudson. “When Ken asked us to contribute to “Baseball in the Peach State,” we were delighted because of the fine reputation of the Society for American Baseball Research, the gold standard in the field. His knowledge of baseball is immense.”
Portnoy says he has spent many hours over the past 20 years discussing baseball with Fenster. At first, he was hesitant about contributing to Fenster’s book, unsure that his contribution would be of much interest to readers of the publication. But he submitted an essay to “Baseball in the Peach State” about his memories of the ninth inning win of the Atlanta Braves over the Pittsburgh Pirates in game seven of the 1992 playoffs.
“I will have to confess that the essay I wrote is one of the pieces that I most enjoyed crafting and even occasionally rereading,” says Portnoy. “I was grateful that Ken as reader and editor appreciated the rhythm of (my) essay, which was mirroring that of a baseball game: great excitement and frenetic activity, followed by interludes of calm on the field that lend themselves to conversation, reflection and beer.”