(Rain) Check, Please

Abner Powell, along with Nashville’s Newt Fisher and Memphis’ Charlie Frank, organized the Southern Association that began play in 1901. Powell had played and managed New Orleans beginning in 1888 and played for Nashville’s Southern League team for eighteen games in 1894.

He managed New Orleans in 1901 and 1902 and Atlanta’s entry in the new league in 1903 and 1904, and in 1905 sold his interest in his team and purchased a share of the Nashville club. In those days, loyalty to a particular team, especially when a player, was often trumped by investment power.

Powell is credited for introducing knothole gangs and ladies’ days to boost attendance at baseball games during his early years in New Orleans. And he invented one key item that became known as the “rain check”, the detachable stub on printed tickets.[1]

RaincheckRain outs have been the bane of team owners, players, and fans across the nation. Long before concessions and attendance added to the bottom line, paid attendance paid the bills.

Sulphur Springs Bottom was Nashville’s area for recreation and games were played at Athletic Park, later known as Sulphur Dell. It was a low-lying area just north of the city center, prone to flooding especially during spring rains. There have been many rain outs in Nashville, and the phrase “Rain, rain, go away” has been sounded for years, especially during baseball season.

Teams organized in the 19th Century and were at the mercy of the skies. On July 6, 1875 as W. T. Lincks and Morgans played to a 2-2 tie at Sulphur Springs Bottom before being rained out and the May 4, 1879 game between the Memphis club and a team from Nashville is rained out and postponed indefinitely.

Suspended games, postponements, and cancellations were the result. On June 26, 1895 Nashville played an unusual number of games in one day, three games against Little Rock due to the previous day’s double header being rained out. The first game is scheduled for 10 AM when only two opposing players show up and umpire Cline calls a forfeit in favor of Nashville as manager Dick Gorman explains that his team refuses to play three games in one day. The afternoon games are won by Nashville 17-7 and 8-5, and the Seraphs and manager George Stallings are credited with three Southern League wins.

More than 2,500 fans stood in line for nearly an hour on May 1, 1945 before Nashville’s home opener was called due to rain, and the next year on April 8 the exhibition game between the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers was cancelled due to morning rains and a downpour which came 45 minutes before the scheduled start. The outlook for the game had called for 7,500 fans to turn out, as all reserved seats were sold out and 4,000 fans were turned away.

Rain checks came in handy without rain on April 23, 1956 in a 12-8 loss to New Orleans when only 438 Nashville fans show up in 46-degree weather. Each was rewarded by general manager Bill McCarthy who announced the club would honor their rain checks for any future Vols game during the season. There was no rain, but the detachable ticket gave loyal rooters a way to attend another game free of charge.

Abner Powell was a visionary who gave many things to baseball that continue today: the rain check, ladies’ day, and knothole gangs. But his greatest invention may have been one that today’s players and fans take for granted: He innovated the covering of the playing field with a tarpaulin to keep the surface dry.

Team owners probably do not take that one for granted.

[1] Taggart, Caroline. Right as Rain: The Meaning and Origins of Popular Expressions. Great Britain: Michael O’Mara, 2013

© Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Filed under Biography, History, Research

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