Fort Bragg celebrates history in first Major League Baseball game in North Carolina

U.S. Army Sergeant Alex Burnett of the 82nd Airborne Division throws the ball with Atlanta Braves assistant bullpen coach Alan Butts, left, prior to a baseball game against the Miami Marlins in Fort Bragg, N.C., Sunday, July 3, 2016. The event marks the first regular season game of a professional sport ever played on an active military base, the first of it's kind in celebration of the nation's servicemen and servicewomen.
U.S. Army Sergeant Alex Burnett of the 82nd Airborne Division throws the ball with Atlanta Braves assistant bullpen coach Alan Butts, left, prior to a baseball game against the Miami Marlins in Fort Bragg, N.C., Sunday, July 3, 2016. The event marks the first regular season game of a professional sport ever played on an active military base, the first of it's kind in celebration of the nation's servicemen and servicewomen. AP

Hubert Edwards lived at Fort Bragg before he deployed in 1942 to serve in World War II in Europe, where his love for baseball grew while he listened to parts of games on grainy radio broadcasts that provided equal parts joy and fear.

The joy was easy enough to understand. Those broadcasts soothed American troops with familiar sounds of home during the war. Edwards, now 97, his voice still strong, described the fear here on Sunday.

“Your radios gave off a beam,” he said, back on the military base where he said he lived from 1939 to 1941. “And the enemy could pick up that beam and first thing you knew, they were shelling you. So we had to get permission (to listen).”

Those wartime broadcasts helped inspire within Edwards a lifelong love of baseball, and yet he’d been waiting his entire life to see a Major League game live and in person. That wait ended here on Sunday night, with the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins playing a historic game at Fort Bragg.

With what was simply called the “Fort Bragg Game,” Major League Baseball became America’s first major professional sports league to hold a regular season game on a military base. It was also the first regular-season Major League Baseball game to be played in North Carolina.

By the bottom of the ninth inning the Marlins’ 5-2 victory seemed a formality, even while the Braves scored two late runs. Yet most of the crowd remained.

Edwards, wearing a black hat with “Army Veteran” written in white, was here to see it – one of 12,500 spectators, most all of them either current or former military personnel, who packed tightly into a temporary stadium that Major League Baseball constructed in a little less than four months. Edwards is a big Atlanta Braves fan, has been for decades.

“He sits there in his armchair,” Edwards’ wife, Lynda Edwards, said before the game on Sunday. “And he tells them how to play and who to put in to pitch and who to take out.”

On Sunday, Hubert Edwards was planning to do the same thing from section 109, where he and Lynda had two seats – Nos. 17 and 18 – in the 22nd row. They were but two people in a crowd of more than 10,000, and they represented the crux of this night, and this gesture: to give back to people who risk their lives protecting the country.

Edwards arrived at Fort Bragg before noon on Sunday. He and his wife made their way into the one of the large dining halls, where members of the Braves’ organization – including Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox and Hall of Fame player Dale Murphy – were eating alongside the troops.

Edwards had always admired Cox. Word reached Cox that Edwards had hoped to meet him.

“He came over where I was at,” Edwards said, beaming. “And we had a good conversation.”

Edwards, in good health and still active, will turn 98 in October. He met Lynda nine years ago – at “a dance,” he said – and he survived World War II, where over a span of 37 months he served in six countries as a sergeant in the 17th Field Artillery Battalion.

And yet when asked what Sunday meant to him, what seeing his first Major League game represented, he didn’t hesitate.

“I would say (it’s) the highlight of my life,” he said.

And coming home alive from World War II? That was good, too, he said, and smiled.

Edwards, a lifelong North Carolina resident and native of Washington, in the eastern part of the state, served in World War II in England, Italy, France, Germany, Austria and in northern Africa. He doesn’t like to talk much about the war, he said, because “you had to be there to understand.”

They weren’t married then, but Lynda said it took her husband more than 10 years to say anything about the war after he came home. Even now, more than six decades later, he still has nightmares.

“Vivid nightmares,” said Lynda, who’s nearly 20 years younger. “Once a week.”

She’ll leave their bed and let it pass. They don’t talk much about it, she said.

And yet Edwards stays young. He and Lynda go to dances often, remain active. He described his secret to longevity like this: “I don’t smoke. I don’t do drugs, I don’t do alcohol. And I’ve got a young wife.”

Lynda, her husband said, “was the instigator of this” – his chance to see his first game. When the Fort Bragg Game was announced in March, Lynda called the Fayetteville Observer, asking the newspaper how her husband could go about finding tickets. Eventually she found the right people, and here they were on Sunday.

“You can’t imagine,” Lynda said at one point on Sunday, trying to find the words.

Edwards by then had already met Cox, the former Braves manager. Now Edwards was standing toe-to-toe with Freddie Freeman, the Braves’ first baseman, and Edwards’ favorite player.

Edwards told him war stories, about listening overseas to baseball games on the radio.

“That’s amazing,” Freeman said, seeming unable to find the right words.

Edwards couldn’t quite hear him. His hearing is the only thing, after all this time, that noticeably gives him trouble.

“She’s my ears,” he said of his wife.

Lynda told Freeman that this was her husband’s first game in person. She told Freeman that Edwards watches all of the games on TV now, but he still didn’t have any memorabilia – no pictures or baseballs or anything. Freeman signed a photo and wrapped his arm around Edwards, posing for pictures.

“Now you have memorabilia,” Freeman said, and he told Edwards it had been nice to meet him.

“It’s nice to be met,” Edwards said, and the dry humor wasn’t lost.

All around Freeman, Edwards and his wife, soldiers mingled with current players and others, like Cox and Murphy. Earlier in the day, Murphy toured the largest parachute packing facility on the base, which is also the largest parachute packing facility in the country.

One Fort Bragg family, knowing that the Braves would be at the dining hall around noon, had come about two hours early. They were there, like many others, to get a glimpse of Freeman, the Braves’ young star.

“I grew up a Braves fan,” said Cole Moughon, a Chief Warrant Officer 3 and an Apache helicopter pilot. “I was a kid for the worst to first season, back in ’91, so this is pretty cool. And to have my kids experience it, too.”

His two children – daughter Mallie, 7, and Beau, 3 – both held baseballs in their hands, waiting for Freeman. The entire family, Moughon and his wife, Melissa, and their two kids, were wearing Freeman jerseys. Finally Freeman arrived and Mallie was the first in a large crowd to approach him.

“Want me to sign your ball, too?” Freeman asked. “Want me to sign your jersey? OK, turn around, I’ll sign the back of it.”

Moughon took it all in. He remembered Sid Bream sliding home in a 1991 National Championship League Series victory against the Pittsburgh Pirates, sending the Braves to the World Series.

Now, in a few hours, he’d be at the controls of an Apache helicopter, one of the pilots in charge of the flyover before the game began. In addition to Moughon’s Apache there were two Blackhawk helicopters and one Chinook helicopter, all flying in a diamond formation.

“I was a pest,” Moughon said, explaining how he’d come to have one of the prime assignments of the night – the pregame flyover. “I said, ‘I want to do this, I want to do this.’ 

The pregame flyover was part of an elaborate pregame celebration, and a day of festivities at Fort Bragg. In the morning, some members of the Braves toured some of the Special Forces facilities on the base, while others learned about packing parachutes – ones for both people and heavy equipment, like Humvees.

There was the community lunch in the dining hall. Later in the afternoon Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, visited the Fisher House, which provides military families with housing when a loved one is hospitalized.

It rained earlier in the day, but the storms held off in the hour leading into the game. Finally it came time.

The bleachers filled and Major League Baseball and Fort Bragg officials formally dedicated the field – Fort Bragg Field, it’s named – which will be converted into a recreational space. After the dedication, soldiers unfurled and held an American flag that covered most of the outfield.

A Fort Bragg staff sergeant sang the national anthem. In the distance, the hum of the four helicopters grew louder, closer. They came in from the outfield, crossing over the center field fence and then low over home plate while people here stood and cheered a sight none of them had ever seen.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer