WHENEVER I read of the continuing issue in Maryland over the 30 or so schools in the state whose sports teams have names that Native Americans regard as derogatory, I recall fondly the first professional baseball team I ever saw in action, and in memory's ear I hear a voice that was for a few years the best known voice in Baltimore.
In the summer of 1940, my family moved from a small town in Georgia to Atlanta. My father took me out to the ball game, to root for the home team. That was the Atlanta Crackers.
Talk about derogatory!
"Cracker," as H.L. Mencken wrote in the second supplement to his classic The American Language, had been "a designation for a low-down Southern white man" in America since 1767.
The origin of the term as epithet is a matter of dispute. Mencken wrote, "One school holds that many of the early crackers were teamsters and got their name by their loud and incessant cracking of their whips. Another believes that it came from their eating of cracked corn. Yet another teaches that it derives from their manner of speaking, which sounded like a mere crackling to strangers."
There are other theories. The monumental and meticulous Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), which was not available in Mencken's time, says cracker probably originated in Britain as a synonym for braggart. So also says the Oxford English Dictionary, which dates the first usage of the word to 1509.
The usage must have been rare, or at least not universally familiar in Britain. DARE, which defined cracker as "a backwoodsman, rustic, countrified person; a poor white person," noted a 1776 letter from a writer in America to an English nobleman: "I should explain to your lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia."
Georgia was called "the Cracker State" for a while in the 19th and 20th centuries. Though, as Mencken noted, "Crackers, of course, were and are by no means confined to Georgia; they are to be found in all the states south of the Potomac and Ohio." Notice he let Maryland off the hook.
The word cracker is loaded with more odium than being descriptive of someone who is a poor and/or lowdown white Southerner. DARE says that among blacks cracker means "a white racist." And that's not just in Dixie.
A recent study of slurs (Unkind Words: Ethnic Labeling from Redskin to Wasp by Irving Lewis Allen) says American blacks use the word to apply to "any white, Southerner or Northerner, who is thought to be a racist."
Slur or not, regionalism or not, insensitive or not, Crackers was the name given to the baseball team when the Selma Christians moved from Alabama to Atlanta in 1901. It wore it proudly until the minor league team expired in the 1960s, done in by the arrival of a major league transplant with another problem name, the Braves.
I stayed a Crackers fan into young manhood. I attended games alone, with buddies, with dates. But much more often I listened to the play-by-play radio broadcasts.
The voice that fed my imagination was Ernie Harwell's for most of those years. He was considered by many then to be the best minor league announcer. And soon he was in the big leagues. He left Atlanta to become the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Then the New York Giants. When the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Orioles, Harwell became their announcer.
Mencken noted that being called the Cracker State had come to be accepted by some Georgians as something other than derogatory by the 1930s. He based this on the fact that the Washington correspondent for the Atlanta Journal was writing then a regular column about Georgians in the national capital called "Crackerland in Washington."
I believe that the baseball team, which was successful on the field, contributed to cracker taking on a positive resonance. (In fact, a black professional team in Atlanta at the time was called the Atlanta Black Crackers.) My recollection of the 1940s and 1950s is that cracker was used in negative and positive senses, depending on speaker, object and context.
Probably because of the baseball team more than anything else, I - like many other Atlantans - felt comfortable using the word affectionately or teasingly when directed at other people. I hear that cracker is considered more negative than positive today in Georgia, as it is in the rest of America, even among whites. That might be related to the demise of the team.
Or it might be related to the migration to Georgia of so many people from, as Mencken put it, "above the Potomac," many of whom feel themselves less racist than their native neighbors.
Cracker was a deserved slur in Mencken's mind in the 1940s. In 1948, he wrote his final column for The Sunpapers. It dealt with Baltimore outlawing integrated tennis in city parks. He wrote that he was dismayed at finding "the spirit of the Georgia cracker surviving in the Maryland Free State."
Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired editorial writer and columnist for The Sun.