Savannah's Unique Sports History
By: Travis Jaudon
Many things make the sporting scene in Savannah unique. Savannah has an undeniable connection to sports, from its most famous athletes to its annual sporting events to the venues which host them. Here’s a look at some of the more interesting connections.
1. Historic Grayson Stadium
Now home to the world-famous Savannah Bananas, this Savannah staple was built in 1926 as “Municipal Stadium.” Baseball legends such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson played at Grayson Stadium at one time or another. The Braves minor league affiliate played at Grayson from 1971 to 1983, and before the Bananas, the Savannah Sand Gnats played games at Grayson Stadium as an affiliate for several major league clubs.
2. Savannah Boxing
Mills B. Lane – After serving and boxing in the U.S. Marines, the Savannah native Lane won the NCAA welterweight title for the University of Nevada in 1960. He was 60-4 as an amateur boxer before turning pro in 1961 and ended his professional career with a 14-1 record. After retiring as a pro boxer, Lane became perhaps most well known as a professional and amateur referee. He refereed fighters like Muhammad Ali and Oscar Bonavena. He was inside the ring calling the infamous 1997 Mike Tyson “Bite Fight” against Evander Holyfield. In his 34-year-career, Lane refereed more than 100 world championships. Before each of those fights came his signature command: “Let’s get it on!”
Al Seeger – Nicknamed “The Quiet Storm,” Seeger was 28-4-1 as a professional boxer. He held several title belts in the super bantamweight division after coming out of Savannah’s Jarrell’s Boxing Gym, where he began boxing at age 11.
Gordon Lott – A 1959 graduate of Savannah High School, Lott rose through the amateur ranks while winning the Georgia Golden Gloves tournament and the Southern Championship before losing to the legendary Joe Wilson. He finished his amateur career with a record of 24-3-3. As a pro beginning in 1984, he rose to as high as eighth in the World Boxing Association’s middleweight division before retiring with a 31-6 professional record.
3. The 1996 Olympic Games
On July 20, 1996, Savannah became the first city outside the host city (Atlanta) to host its own Opening Ceremonies. It was highlighted by the lighting of the Savannah Olympic Cauldron, still located on River Street. Between July 21 and July 29, Savannah hosted the Olympic Yachting events for the 100th anniversary of the Modern Olympic Games. The yachting competitions were held just off Savannah’s coast, in Wassaw Sound.
4. Savannah’s Famous Harlem Globetrotters
Russell Ellington – Perhaps the most well-known basketball coach in the history of Savannah hoops, Ellington toured with the Globetrotters from 1984 to 1993. In 2007, he was elected to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Coach Ellington guided Beach High School to a Georgia High School state championship in 1967. It was the first year of racially integrated state playoffs in Georgia. His team’s accomplishment was featured in Sports Illustrated. As a college coach at Savannah Tech, Savannah State and Morris Brown, Ellington compiled a record of 892-212. He died in September of 2007.
Matthew Jackson – Nicknamed “Showbiz” and known for his behind-the-back half-court shots, Jackson graduated from Beach High School and Savannah State University before touring with the Globetrotters for more than 20 seasons.
Larry Rivers – “Gator” Rivers played at Beach High School in the late 1960s and played for the Globetrotters from 1973 to 1985. He was later elected as a Chatham County Commissioner for District Two.
5. Savannah Grand Prix
Savannah is the birthplace of Grand Prix auto racing in America. A circuit course was erected in the 1990s on Hutchinson Island in Savannah, but long before that, Grand Prix events took place in the city’s residential streets. In 1908, Savannah hosted the ‘American Grand Prize’ race. It held the race again in 1910 and twice more in 1911, once for the Grand Prix and another for The Vanderbilt Cup (the most prestigious prize in American racing at the time).