February 1st, 1889
She was not shy of being the center of attention. After all, she became the capital in the 60’s, the largest city in Georgia in the 80’s, and the new Georgia School of Technology had just opened to make Atlanta the center for higher education in the 90’s.
But none of that mattered to the Cooper family. The Cooper’s lived on a quiet street that had been peach groves between the Civil War and two months ago. Alexander Cooper moved to Atlanta from Virginia to work in the new Pemberton Medicine Company that attracted anyone with a pulse. He brought his wife, Barbara, and the only son left in the house, a twelve-year-old named Archie. The Cooper residence was filled with optimism, love, and disagreement.
Alexander Cooper was an aging 38-year-old with the American Dream emblazoned across his chest. He was hopes and aspirations personified. Barbara balanced his optimism with her harsh reminders of reality and risk-aversion. She hated the idea of moving to help work in a factory distributing a beverage. The two disagreed on almost everything, from how to spend their little money, to how to educate Archie, to if even they should have been married in the first place. But there was always one thing they agreed on: the disapproval of their eldest son’s actions… twice.
“Listen,” Nails spoke with a bellow that spawned from his bulging gut. “You sons of bitches are gon’ play for me now, ya hear?”
The boys nodded in mandatory agreement.
“I’m the manager ‘round here, and from the looks of it… this all ya got.” Nails turned to fire a missile of brown juice onto the dirt. “This ain’t your National League, here in Atlanta. This is Southern Ball. We run faster, and hit… well faster too.”
“Do you mean, harder, sir?” A young boy with parted brown hair was propped up on one knee with the look of unbridled joy on his face chimed in.
“I said what I said,” Nails stepped closer to the front row of the boys and their equipment, “And I always mean it.”
“This is Gregory Smith, and you boys can call him Nails,” A voice came from an approaching man in a nice blue business suit. “I apologize for my late arrival.”
Nails fired another missile onto the ground.
“From my understanding, you boys will be playing for us here in Atlanta’s new Southern Ball ballclub,” The man in the suit looked over the crowd of a newly-formed Atlanta baseball team that ranged from 15 to 30-year-olds. “Well, you will all have to hold off on being paid until we turn a revenue, but I’m sure you all can bring us an entertaining product, yes?”
The boys sat expressionless in the roofless dugout of a dirt field.
“What he means is that you boys won’t get paid unless you listen to me,” Nails broke in. “And you know how I know if you’re listenin’ to me?”
The boys waited for the answer.
“I know you’re listenin’… if we’re winnin’.” Nails let out a laugh that quickly turned into a miner’s cough.
“Yes, well I should be going,” The suit turned to leave, but remembered one last thing. He turned back around, “Mr. Smi—er, Nails, you shall be expecting one more gentleman soon. The name is Cooper. I hear good things.” He turned and left quickly to escape the sun.
“I’m sure,” Nails scoffed at the team that started to look a little sore from kneeling. “Alright, let’s get this show on the road. We got our first game tomorrow, and I ain’t even seen ya’ll throw a damn thing.”
“Sir?” A voice from the back of the dugout interrupted with a nervous crack. “What time is the game tomorrow? I’m gon’ have to try to leave work early.”
Nails turned his back to the team and looked out over the dirt field. He let out another spit.
The signs that appeared to erect overnight across Atlanta were colored and obnoxious. In a mix of cursive, bold, and eccentric fonts, the words “Traveling Show, Now in Town” smacked every passerby in the face and told them to look.
About four-hundred feet into the outfield of the all-dirt Atlanta baseball field, the travelling act featured a bright red wagon that seemed to explode into a number of tents that varied in sizes. Some had magicians, others had people to observe and ogle, and others had games for the children to play. Luckily, Hamilton Cooper assured everyone in the company that this was where they could park, since there was no fence in the outfield that dictated a safe zone away.
“There ain’t no Harry Stovey out here,” Hamilton told his fellow circus acts.
“Who? Harry what?” A woman who can bend in all shapes asked.
“Stovey led the league in Home Runs. They say he can hit it two miles on a hot day.” Hamilton spoke as if he were a bard telling stories of Greek gods.
“Ok, Ham. Help me with this tent.” A man holding two sticks motioned over with a shake of his head.
As the sun came up and shined a light over the city, the people started to arrive and split down the middle. The mothers and children flocked towards the outfield, while the men took seats behind Homeplate and along the side-fences.
Hamilton Cooper asked to perform as early as possible. He was a 20-year-old magician who played hidden coin tricks, card tricks, and specialized in any other sleight of hand that he could create or learn. He had the quickest hands that the traveling company had ever seen. Hamilton tried to tell them that he was even better at playing shortstop, but none of them knew what that meant.
After a few hours of entertaining the early-to-arrive families, he quickly escaped to behind the wagon and changed into his favorite black stockings from his glory days of playing in the league, and ran to sit in the empty dugout along the first-base line.
Hamilton watched the families continue to arrive when finally, he saw men in Levi Strauss jeans throwing a ball near the third-base dugout. A feeling of sheer joy and comfort came over him as he watched the ball go from person to person.
A deep, voice interrupted Hamilton’s meditation, “You, boy. You’re in the middle of our dugout.” Hamilton turned around and saw a round man with a striped baseball cap with a large block letter A in the middle.
The man stood over Hamilton, “You can watch from over there,” he pointed at the men who were starting to take seats behind home plate.
Hamilton stood up and removed his own old baseball cap that was black and empty of any design or logo. “I apologize, sir. I am Hamilton Cooper. I am to play for the Atlanta ballclub,” he reached out for a handshake from this large man.
“Ah,” Nails spit on the ground, almost making contact with Hamilton’s right shoe. “So you’re the boy that played in the league?”
Hamilton looked up at the tall man that had a white mustache and yellow teeth. “I did play in the league, yes. I hope to play again.”
“Well, I’m Nails. I run this ballclub. I’ll tell ya when to hit,” Nails stepped past Hamilton and onto the field where there was little-to-no foul ball area. “These damn travelling shows. Always gettin’ in the way.”
“I, uh,” Hamilton turned around, “I told them to park out there. Figured it would bring some more people to see the game.”
Nails didn’t turn to face Hamilton. He wiped his mustache and snorted, and looked out over the crowds of people that were arriving for the show. “You’ll bat second. Need you on base.”
Hamilton nodded three times before words came out from behind his blinding smile, “Yes, yes, sir.”
Nails quickly turned back toward the young ex-ballplayer, “And tell your freaks out there not to bump into my center fielder.”
Hamilton Cooper laughed and ran passed Nails to the outfield where his old company performed in front of dozens of women and children.
By the third inning, the Atlanta ballclub was down three men. Two had to start their shifts at work, and one decided that the day was being wasted not fishing.
Hamilton Cooper sat on the bench watching men flail at balls that were bouncing two feet in front of the plate. He couldn’t help but laugh. When the 8th batter came back to the dugout after another strikeout, Hamilton put his arms around the man named Jimmy. “Listen, don’t swing out of control. You have to see the ball the entire way.”
Jimmy’s frustration tried to pry him away from Hamilton’s embrace, “Yeah, yeah, whatever.”
“I’m serious. It’ll help you on defense too. Never look away from that beautiful little ball.” Hamilton let Jimmy go slouch on the end of the wooden bench.
Nails talked to himself under his breath as he watched strikeout after strikeout, error after error.
“Hey, skip?” Hamilton approached the right side of Nails and put his hand on the fence.
Nails snorted and kept his focus on the play in front of him.
“Put me in at shortstop. I know you don’t know me from the hole in your right shoe, but let me see if I can stop these guys.” Hamilton Cooper sat back on the bench next to his new Atlanta team and waited for the inning to end.
The ballclub from Charleston was not much better in terms of talent, but their lineup made sense. They had fielders where they should be, and hitters where they should be in the order. At least it was baseball, thought the majority of fans.
Nails noticed that Hamilton Cooper not only got on base every at-bat, but stole his way to second and third every time as well. When the fourth inning finally ended with a score of Charleston’s seven runs to Atlanta’s zero, Nails stopped Hamilton on his way to the bench. “Alright, I’ll move you and Dee around in the field. Stop these damn grounders.”
Hamilton nodded and reached up to pat Nails on the shoulder, “You got it.”
The game was stopped once in the seventh inning due to the crowds at the traveling show getting a little too close to the outfielders, but the outfielders adjusted and moved in a few ten feet to continue play.
Charleston stopped scoring once Cooper’s hands were at shortstop. His range was the widest, and his hands were the softest either manager had ever seen. Nails went so far to even admit that Cooper might be better than Ed Caskin, Arthur Irwin, and even maybe Jack Glasscock of the old league.
Hamilton continued to get on base his fourth time up, but was once again stranded at third with a big smile on his face.
Nails grabbed Hamilton by the spare fabric on his chest on his way to the bottom of the ninth, “Why the hell you always smilin’?”
Hamilton Cooper laughed, and pat his manager on the chest, “Because I’m playin’ baseball.”