They’ve witnessed more of Atlanta’s transformation than any human alive, they’ve taken a few hard-hit baseballs in stride. While the land around them has shifted and changed such that they’re now somewhat ingloriously rooted in a tiny knoll behind a T.J. Maxx, these majestic and historic trees are actually slowly spreading throughout the metropolitan area.
The site of today’s Midtown Place Shopping Center was once Ponce de Leon Ballpark, a minor league baseball field built in 1907. The wooden arena burned down in 1923 and was rebuilt by “chewing gum king of the south” Rell Jackson Spiller, who infused the rebuild with a quarter of a million dollars and renamed it after himself. Spiller’s spectacular expansion and recreation of the former ballpark included one conspicuous oddity: a pair of magnolia trees 462 feet from home plate in center field.
The rules at the time dictated that if a ball were hit into the tree (the two trunks are so closely positioned that they appear from a distance as one tree) and bounced back into the field, it was still a live ball, making it likely the only tree in baseball history considered “in-play.” When the New York Yankees visited to play an exhibition game at Spiller, Babe Ruth hit a homer straight into the magnolias.
Now squeezed into a grassy hill behind an expansive shopping center, the trees are best viewed either from the Atlanta BeltLine or by a quick stroll behind the T.J. Maxx. Yet thanks to the work of Trees Atlanta (a nonprofit working to conserve the city’s urban forest and increase its canopy), their legend will carry on even after they’ve gone: the organization harvested hundreds of clippings in order to plant new, young “Spiller Magnolias” all over the city. They even planted one outside the Atlanta Braves’ new stadium in Cobb County.
While published accounts vary, the trees are estimated to be between 125 and 160 years old. Like many quickly growing cities, Atlanta is evolving in ways that can sometimes be disorienting. The Spiller magnolias are a quiet reminder of the possibility of posterity, a familiar sight in chaotic times. Long may they hold court over Ponce de Leon Ave.