Team nicknames are commonplace today, but in the early days of baseball it was not so. Cities claimed their teams by including the name of the leagues they played in, such as New York Americans, St. Louis Nationals, and so on.
Tongue-in-cheek references by sports writers often caught on. “Trolley Dodgers”, for one, stood for exactly what it sounds like. It was shortened to “Dodgers” for the Brooklyn team in the National League and was carried with them to Los Angeles.
Nashville’s baseball team had an early name, “Americans”, but the team did not play in any sort of league with that name. The local newspaper, The Daily American, claimed the team’s name as it gave the most thorough coverage of Nashville’s first professional team in the newly-formed Southern League.
The Southern League failed and re-organized throughout the remainder of the 19th Century and names for resurrected Nashville clubs included “Seraphs”, “Blues”, and “Tigers”.
When the Southern Association began play in 1901, nicknames were not widely used except when sports writers used references in a variety of manners. Newt Fisher became manager and local scribes would call the team the “Fishermen”. Under Johnny Dobbs tutelage the club was given the moniker the “Dobbers”. When service clubs were formed to boost local commerce, the team was often known as “Boosters” due to the support of those organizations.
One flippant remark to the quality of the team’s performance in 1907 was “Hustlers”. Apparently, there was lack of it.
As ball club ownership in other cities began to appease the fan base by adding an official team name, Nashville management did not seem to notice the importance. After all, some clubs used more than one.
If management would not approve it, at least writers and fans could settle in on one name that was unofficial. In 1908 the three local newspapers held a contest among fans to give the Nashville club an official name. Nashville’s three newspapers, American, Banner, and Tennessean, accepted mail-in votes from readers during the month of February, sent to Nashville manager Bill Bernhard, choosing from three agreed upon selections: Lime Rocks, Rocks, and Volunteers.
Grantland Rice was sports editor of the Tennessean at the time and his personal choice was “Volunteers”. The proximity of the State Capitol to the recently named ballpark, Sulphur Dell (Rice gave it that name in a January 14 column six weeks prior) and his premise that the name suggested courage, gave him reason to support the name.
On February 29, Rice announced in a Tennessean sports page headline, “Volunteers Wins Out in Fan Vote”. His column validated that 950 votes were cast for “Volunteers”, far-outdistancing the other choices.
He even states the name will stick, “…no matter who the manager or owner may be.”
The name did stick: Nashville remained a member of the Southern association from until it closed up shop after the 1961 season. For those 54 years the team was known as “Volunteers”, often shortened to “Vols”. Even the ownership group that had been formed in 1959 took on “Vols, Inc.” for the name of the new corporation. The club was revived for one additional season in 1963 as a member of the South Atlantic League.
When fans failed to support the team, the team folded; the Nashville Vols would be no more.
© 2016 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.
Author’s note: Much of the information included in this article comes from John A. Simpson’s excellent book, “The Greatest Game Ever Played in Dixie”: The Nashville Vols, Their 1908 Season, and the Championship Game. It is a wonderful account which provides as a resource for Nashville’s baseball history beginning in the 1800s up to an incredible season posted by the Volunteers. It is available from Amazon and other sources. You may read my review from an earlier post here: https://262downright.com/2015/04/10/from-my-bookshelf-the-greatest-game-ever-played-in-dixie/