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Sapakoff: Not even Hank Aaron had Tebow’s Sally League attendance impact

May 7, 2017 GMT

The Tim Tebow impact on South Atlantic League attendance has been as dazzling as some of his Heisman Trophy-winning performances as a University of Florida quarterback, and as surprising as his stretch of six straight wins as a Denver Broncos starter.

It wasn’t like this when Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter or Bryce Harper came through.

Josh Hamilton was very popular at Charleston Riverdogs home games in 2000, but he didn’t sell many tickets on the road.

Basketball icon Michael Jordan’s 1994 foray into baseball with the Birmingham Barons set double-A Southern League records that still stand, and Tebow’s fan-friendly project is turning turnstiles at an unprecedented rate in the SAL – or any other Class A league.

The only comparable season is 1953, when home run king Hank Aaron and four other black players broke the league’s color line.

The Columbia Fireflies with a certain 6-3, 255-pound New York Mets prospect regularly playing left field lead the SAL in home attendance (5,027 fans per game). More impressive: eight of the Fireflies’ 11 road games this season have been sellouts, and Tebow was hitting a decent .244 through Friday.

“There certainly is a lot of interest in Tim personally and in his baseball career,” said Hickory Crawdads General Manager Mark Seaman, whose team had four straight sellouts against Columbia. “This is a great opportunity for all of us in the South Atlantic League to expose new fans to the minor league baseball experience.”

Exactly.

However, you feel about a 29-year-old former quarterback giving baseball a try for the first time since high school and struggling much of the time, it’s impossible not to notice the contagious happiness in the ballpark as Tebow walks purposely from the on-deck circle to home plate.

Tim Tebow jersey T-shirts are popular items in the Fireflies team store. (David Caraviello/Staff)

SAL home attendance averages for 2017 compared to 2016 for the three teams that have hosted the Fireflies:

• Augusta – 3,190 from 2,606

• Rome – 3,150 from 2,405

• Hickory – 2,783 from 2,176

That’s a lot of nacho sales.

It’s a credit to Charleston fans and RiverDogs management that home attendance is off to a 4,216-per-game start – fifth in the 14-team SAL. Those are non-Tebow numbers (Columbia doesn’t play at The Joe until June 16-18).

“We set an attendance record last year (293,161) and we’re on pace to equal or beat that as of now,” RiverDogs General Manager Dave Echols said. “It shows the strength of the Charleston market.”

Aaron and 1953

The only other steady player-driven attendance bonanza in SAL happened in 1953. But while team accountants were just as happy as this season, the reception wasn’t as welcoming for Aaron, Jacksonville Braves teammates Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner and Savannah Indians players Buddy “Junior” Reedy and Al Isreal.

As the first black players in the eight-team SAL frequently dealt with racist barbs and threats, Jacksonville drew 142,721 fans – more than double its 1952 attendance. A 1953 opening day crowd of more than 5,000 fans showed up in Savannah, approximately half of them black, the Savannah Morning News reported.

But when the 19-year-old Aaron played against the Charleston Rebels at College Park on June 24, 1953, the crowd count was 1,592. The News and Courier called him the “ace second baseman.” Aaron hit clean-up that night but made a two-out error that cost Jacksonville a run in a 7-2 loss.

He hit .362 with 22 home runs for the first-place Braves.

Bigger crowds turned out in the 1950s for exhibition games, including a Jackie Robinson’s All-Stars tour stop (including Larry Doby, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe) and a clash of National and American League All-Stars (featuring Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Al Rosen and Early Wynn), both at College Park in 1950.

That April, over 10,000 people watched Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers play the Philadelphia Phillies in Savannah.

Columbia Firefly’s Tim Tebow watches his home run in his first at bat on the opening day during a Class A baseball game against the Augusta GreenJackets on April 6 in Columbia. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

Aiming for 755

Tebow is no one-night stand.

SAL general managers can only hope he isn’t promoted to the St. Lucie Mets of the high-level Class A Florida State League or the Binghamton (N.Y.) Rumble Ponies of the double-A Eastern League too soon.

The Augusta GreenJackets last month enjoyed three straight Tebow sellouts and the biggest four-game attendance series in franchise history.

“It’s not very often you get to see a known talent like Tebow come through at the Class A level, albeit in baseball as opposed to his football prowess,” GreenJackets General Manager Tom Denlinger said. “It was quite a weekend to be a part of.”

Hank Aaron, by the way, ended up as a good outfielder who hit 755 big league home runs.

The Atlanta Braves’ home address at SunTrust Park is 755 Battery Avenue Southeast.

Imagine the attendance impact Tim Tebow would make there.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff