Category Archives: Biography

Father’s Day, 2017: Remembering Dad and Harmon Killebrew

Our father, Virgil Nipper, was inducted into the Nashville Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008 at the 69th annual Old Timers banquet at the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel. It was a prestigious honor for dad, one that includes local greats W. A. Wright, Larry Cole, Joe Casey, and Bobby Reasonover, among many others.

Dad has always been friendly and jovial, but most certainly humbled by his award. His personality was at its best when talk turned to sports and baseball, and that night was one of the best. He had a way of reeling in others with his stories, but mostly from his honesty and humility.

The following year as president of Old Timers, I was able to greet our 2009 banquet speaker, Harmon Killebrew, at the airport. He and his wife Nita were congenial folks, very cordial, and they were looking forward to an extended visit with relatives in the area along with being available to our board members and guests at the banquet.

A prolific slugger who spent 22 years in the majors, Killebrew was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984. At the time of his retirement, he was second only to Babe Ruth in American League home runs. I was humbled by his on-field accomplishments, but his graciousness soon put my awe to rest.

I explained the format of our banquet, and when the time came for him to make his address, he did not disappoint. He was a stirring guest, free with his stories, and he held the audience spellbound. To everyone’s surprise, he remained in the banquet hallafterwards and signed just about any memorabilia item brought to him. While our banquets usually end around 9:30 p.m., he stayed on for over an hour and fifteen minutes.

Before he made his way to his hotel room, I asked if he would mind meeting our board of directors for breakfast the following morning. He agreed.

I took the opportunity to seat him at the head of a table of around 14 in the hotel restaurant. Dad sat to his right (yes, I did it on purpose), and they talked and talked. Dad was in his element, and afterwards told me it what a great opportunity it was.

Almost a year and a half later, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Rickwood Classic, a Birmingham Barons ‘turn-back-the-clock’ game played once a year at Rickwood Field. Harmon was the featured guest that year, and would be throwing out the first pitch at the game, to be held on June 2. I was invited to attend an informal gathering at the Barons home park, the Hoover Met, the night before.

As a guest of the Friends of Rickwood, I arrived at the press box and watched others greet the affable Killebrew. Once everyone had said hello, I ambled up to him and reached out my hand.

“Harmon, I don’t know if you remember me or not. I’m Skip Nipper; we were proud to have you at our Old Timers banquet in Nashville last year.”

“Of course, I do. How’s your dad?”

I was literally stunned that a Hall of Famer, no matter how humble, no matter how famous, no matter how time had separated our banquet and breakfast in Nashville, would ask about dad.

But then, I knew another Hall of Famer who would have said and done the same thing.

Rest in peace, dad. And say hello to Harmon for me.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Two Wins in One Day: George Heller’s Nashville Debut

Pitcher George Heller accomplished a remarkable feat for the Nashville Vols in 1952, one that has rarely taken place; he won two games in one day. It has been accomplished 10 times in the American League and 35 times in the National League and last occurred in the major leagues on August 28, 1926 by Cleveland pitcher Dutch Levsen.

Difficult to establish how many times it may have happened in the minors, Heller did it on June 1, 1952, his debut in a Nashville uniform.

His journey began in spring training. On March 17, after two hours of batting practice, manager Hugh Poland sent his Nashville charges up against Minneapolis as part of a long spring training session in Melbourne, Florida. Not expecting mid-season form out of his pitching corps, Clyde Stevens and Roy Pardue turned in impressive performances, shutting out the Millers and not allowing a single hit in the six-inning game.

Each one tossed three innings, Stevens exhibiting excellent control and a sneaky fastball that had helped him to a 12-9 record with Jacksonville the previous season, and Pardue’s fastball allowed only two balls to be hit out of the infield. He was a product of Nashville’s North High School, and it was his first performance as a pro.[1]

The Vols rapped out four hits, scored two runs, and won over the AAA American Association club, 2-0, and far outshadowed 24-year-old lefty George Heller who pitched the last two innings against Nashville.

Born in Honesdale, Pennsylvania on July 27, 1927, Heller had seven minor league seasons under his belt when he began spring training in 1952. To begin his professional career, George played three seasons in the lowest classifications of the minor leagues: Salisbury (North Carolina State League – Class D) in 1945, Hornell, New York (Pennsylvania-Ohio-New York League – Class D), and Carbondale, Pennsylvania (North Atlantic League – Class D).

In 1948 with Vandergrift, Pennsylvania (Middle Atlantic League – Class D) he had his best year: 20 wins against four losses, and a 2.75 ERA for the Pioneers, a Philadelphia Phillies farm club. Signed by the New York Giants after his productive season, he was sent to Jacksonville (South Atlantic League -Class A), where he was 6-6 and appeared in 46 games and earned another promotion.

Jersey City (International League – Class AAA) was one of two minor league affiliates at the highest level of classification (the other was Minneapolis), and George appeared 33 games for them in 1950, starting five games and completing two. His ERA was 3.36 for the season, but he had allowed only 60 hits in 67 innings and gave up less than one walk per inning with a total of 52.

When the parent Giants moved their affiliation to Ottawa (International League – Class AAA), George moved to the Canadian club. Hugh Poland, a former player and scout for the Giants, had managed Sioux City (Western League – Class A) in 1950, but had become the Ottawa manager for 1951. Heller was 4-7 with an inflated 4.45 ERA for Poland.

On May 29, 1952, George joined the Vols from Minneapolis, where he had not seen much action in the early season,[2] pitching in only eight games for a total of seven innings. Poland had become Nashville’s manager, and needed help in his pitching roster as the team was laboring in sixth place in Southern Association standings with a 23-25 record.

Heller immediately made an impact, earning a pair of victories on his first day in a Vols uniform. On June 1, scheduled to make his first start in the first game of a double header in Chattanooga, George pitched five innings, allowing eight hits and three runs while striking out one. He was lifted for pinch hitter John Kropf in the sixth inning with the bases loaded and down 3-2, and Kropf sailed one over the Engle Stadium wall for a grand-slam home run.

Awarded his first win, George was called on again by Poland in the second game. Sailing along with a Vols lead 8-3 in the fourth inning of the nightcap, reliever Pete Modica had been roughed up by Lookouts hitters by giving up seven hits and four runs in 2 2/3 innings after replacing starter Jim Atchley. John Uber gave up one hit in relief before Heller entered the game in the sixth inning with tying runs on base. He struck out sluggers Roy Hawes and Don Grate to quell the rally. In the seventh and final inning, Heller was lifted for a pinch runner and Dick Adair closed out the game.

Since Atchely had not gone five innings as starter, and Heller’s relief work was more effective than others, the score keeper gave Atchley the win.[3]

Two games, two wins, all on one day.

It is a remarkable feat that was more common in the early days of baseball. On September 9, 1876, Candy Cummings (who is credited with being the first to master the curveball), accomplished the feat for the National League’s Hartford Dark Blues against Cincinnati in the first scheduled double header in the history of the league.[4]

For Heller, it was his highlight of the year, as his season began to slide downhill. On June 11 in Mobile, Heller had to leave the game due to heat exhaustion. He lost his third game of the season on June 15 in the second game of a double header as the first five Atlanta Crackers he faced rapped out five hits and four runs.

Facing Mobile in Sulphur Dell on June 22, he walked six men in less than two innings and was replaced. In nine games with Nashville, he was 3-1 but had allowed 31 hits in 25 innings and given up 16 runs.[5] On June 25 he was knocked out of the box by Little Rock, but on June 28 he rebounded at Sulphur Dell with a complete game shutout of the Travelers, 7-0.

He lost his second game of the season in New Orleans on July 1, as his throwing error on Pelicans first baseman Dale Long’s ground ball began a rally for the opposing team. The Pels scored five unearned runs, six in all, and Heller was sent to the showers.

The Travelers were unmerciful to him on July 6 in Little Rock when he allowed four runs on four hits in the first inning. He was promptly pulled from the game. Over the course of the next few weeks he had a few spot starts and was ineffective in relief.

On July 31, Nashville general manager announced he had recalled pitcher Fred Sherkel from the Jacksonville, and Heller was sent to the Tars in exchange.[6] In 22 games George had pitched 64 innings, allowed 81 hits and 54 runs.

If there was any saving grace for him, it was because he and his wife had made their home in Jacksonville. He managed to recover his form by allowing only three earned runs in 41 innings, leading to a 4-1 record to close out the season before playing Winter Ball in Venezuela.[7]

George pitched for Sioux City in 1953 (4-8, 4.12 ERA) and was back with Jacksonville in 1954 (4-5, 2.64 ERA). In one final effort to remain a professional ballplayer, he pitched in 12 games and won one for Albany (Eastern League – Class A) before being released[8] and retiring. His lifetime record was 77-55 in 11 minor league seasons. His older brother James also pitched in the minor leagues, twice winning 20 games in his career.

He became an Industrial Engineer in his hometown, and in 1964 moved his family to Texas, then to Ardmore, Oklahoma. Heller passed away there on June 28, 2008 and is buried in Hillcrest Memorial Park in Ardmore.[9]

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Note: The image of George Heller is taken from his obituary at Find-a-grave.com and is attributed to Sharon Rhoades

 

Sources

Baseball-almanac.com

Baseball-reference.org

Find-a-grave.com

Newspapers.com

Retrosheet.org

Sabr.org

[1] Russ Melvin, “Pardue Shines in Vols-Miller Practice Game,” Nashville Tennessean, March 18, 1952: 18.

[2] Melvin, “Dick Adair Hurls 2-Hit Shutout, Vols Split,” Nashville Tennessean, May 28, 1952: 21.

[3] Melvin, “Heller Winner as Vols Climb 7-5, 8-7,” Nashville Tennessean, June 2, 1952: 14.

[4] David Fleitz. Candy Cummings, SABR Bio Project, (https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/99fabe5f) accessed June 1, 2017.

[5] “Vols—Day-by-Day,” Nashville Tennessean, June 25, 1952: 19.

[6] Melvin, “Ragged Vols Recall Sherkel From Tars,” Nashville Tennessean, August 1, 1952: 41.

[7] Raymond Johnson, “One Man’s Opinion,” Nashville Tennessean, December 18, 1952: 37.

[8] “Albany Club Acquires First Sacker,” The Timers Record (Troy, New York), June 9, 1955: 47.

[9] George Heller Obituary, http://www.thedeadballera.com/Obits/MinorLeaguers/Obits_H/Heller.George.Obit001.html, accessed June 1, 2017

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Jinxed Nashville Outfielder, Ed McBee

Edwin “Ed” McBee joined Larry Gilbert’s Nashville Vols on April 4, 1944 in Bowling Green, Kentucky, for spring training. Listed as an infielder, Gilbert’s immediate need was for more outfielders and he was pleased when McBee let it be known that he had roamed the outfield for Leaksville (North Carolina) in the Class-D Bi-State League during 1942[1].

It was McBee’s first season as a professional, but he hit for an anemic .243 average for the Triplets. The 6’1” right hander was only 19 years old in his rookie season, playing for a team which was named for three towns: Leaksville, Spray, and Draper (Eden, North Carolina, was formed in 1967 by consolidation of the existing towns.)

As a 16-year-old, the Gaffney, South Carolina native played semi-pro ball, and later for a local American Legion team. After his single season at Leaksville, he was classified 4-F due to an ear ailment in his call up to military duty in 1943 and was sent to Niagara Falls, New York. Unmarried, he worked in a defense plant.[2]

Soon after joining the Vols, the jury was still out on his abilities. Sports writer Raymond Johnson gave his opinion about the “gangling South Carolina flychaser”.

“He takes a good riffle at the ball and has got a good, free swing that is right down Gilbert’s alley. On his performance in these early sessions he will come in for a lot of consideration. Of course he yet must prove his ability, for he has not demonstrated his speed or how he handles a fly ball.”[3]

By mid-April, Ed was looking better at the plate and was nearly a cinch to make the regular-season roster. In the first exhibition game, played against Ft. Campbell on April 15, a screaming liner hit him on the foot while he was trying to make a play, resulting in an injury that hobbled him for the remainder of the game. The setback was not expected to keep him out of the lineup, however, and it appeared that he had continued making progress.

On opening night at Sulphur Dell against Chattanooga on Friday, April 28, Ed was in the starting lineup. He had solidified his position by hitting one over the fence during the Vols first batting practice after concluding their pre-season schedule.

Batting in the fifth position, he stuck out once in four plate appearances and had two putouts in centerfield, with no errors. 6,793 were on hand to view his Southern Association debut. On April 30 against the Lookouts, he had three hits including a double that drove in two runs in the first inning and a single that drove in another run in the fifth.

After five games, he was batting .305 on seven hits in 23 appearances, with 6 RBI. On May 7 in Chattanooga at Engle Stadium, he had another productive night. His three hits included his first home run and a double.

In a peculiar game on May 11 against Knoxville at Sulphur Dell, not only was the game delayed due to the late arrival of the Smokies train, the ballpark lights went out when a power transformer blew out during the third inning. Adding injury to insult, Ed was hit in the face from a foul tip off his own bat in the seventh inning and suffered a double fracture of his nose. Attempting to bunt when hit, he was carried from the field unconscious.

McBee’s batting average had dropped to .273, although he had scored 10 runs, had 11 RBI, and mastered centerfield defensively. Gilbert was hoping to have him back in the lineup in New Orleans by May 22, as the club left him behind to begin a road trip on May 15. Parker Garner, a 6’7”, 240-pound pitcher, as used by the Vols skipper to play centerfield in the absence of McBee.

Ed returned to the starting lineup in New Orleans, batting in his familiar fifth-spot, and promptly scoring two runs after a single and walk to help his club win 8-2. The next night he had two hits, and in a double header split with the Pelicans added three more.

In fourth place on May 26 and returning to Sulphur Dell to begin a series with Birmingham, Larry Gilbert shuffled his lineup and moved Ed to left field. The move was no problem for McBee, as he handled three chances flawlessly in the Vols’ win over the Barons, 5-0. With a single in the game, he increased his batting average to .300.

He slammed his second home run on June 1, his first at Sulphur Dell, with two men aboard and a 3-2 Vols lead over New Orleans in the sixth inning. Nashville went on to win 14-2 and moved into a tie with Memphis for second place in the standings.

But a few days later, it seemed Gilbert had lost confidence in McBee; but he was not alone.  Raymond Johnson laid out the problem in his June 5, 1944 “One Man’s Opinion” column.

“The failure of the outfielders – Ed McBee, Jimmy Reggio, Moses King and Bob Garner – to come through with base hits with ducks on the pond has been most distressing to the veteran Vol skipper. Time and again they have strolled to the plate with pals on the pillows and failed to produce a base hit. Quite often an easy grounder or a pop fly has been the extent of their efforts. And a few times double plays have resulted.”[4]

In that evening’s game against Atlanta, things turned from bad to worse. In the first inning, McBee let the Crackers’ Nig Lipscomb single get away from him which resulted in the first run for Atlanta. Nashville lost by a 6-5 score. On June 7 in Atlanta, Ed fumbled Ed Ivy’s single in the first game of a double header, allowing the runner to advance to second base and score on the next Crackers’ hit. The Vols lost, 5-0, and lost the night cap 3-2, giving Nashville their fifth and sixth losses in a row. McBee had three hits in the two games, including a double.

In the first game in Memphis on June 13, Ed could not hold a drive by the Chicks’ Pete Gray*, leading to an unearned run; Gilbert felt McBee had blown the game for his club[5]. The Vols ended up losing another double header, 2-1 and 3-0. Nashville dropped to sixth place in the standings with a 20-24 record, 7 ½ games behind Memphis.

Jimmy Reggio and Moses King would survive the season with Nashville, but Bob Garner and McBee would not. Ed was sold to the Portsmouth Cubs of the Class-B Piedmont League by Larry Gilbert on June 15. In 35 games for Nashville, Ed had 39 hits on 138 plate appearances for a .283 average. His hits included eight doubles and two home runs.

There is no report that McBee continued his career in Portsmouth. In the second year of a split-season, Nashville finished 32-36 in the first half, and 47-25 (79-61 combined), taking the second half crown on the last day of the season.

In the seventh game of the Southern Association playoffs, Nashville won over Memphis 11-10 for the championship.

Edwin Dupree McBee was born on July 12, 1923, in Fairmont Spa, South Carolina, to Thomas J. McBee, a cotton mill worker, and his wife Corrie. Ed passed away in New Port Richey, Florida, on February 12, 2005.

*Gray would be named Southern Association Most Valuable Player

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Sources

ancestry.com

baseball-reference.com

edennc.us

newspapers.com

southernassociationbaseball.com

Wright, Marshall D. (2002). The Southern Association in Baseball, 1885-1961. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co.

[1] F. M. Williams, “Gilbert Grinned Over Him,” Nashville Tennessean, April 5, 1944: 12.

[2] “Big Carolinian Ed McBee Looks Good for Vols,” Nashville Tennessean, April 8, 1944: 5.

[3] Raymond Johnson, “Ed McBee and Ernie Balser Draw Railbirds’ Attention in Workout,” Nashville Tennessean, April 7, 1944: 30.

[4] Johnson, “Vols Need Punch; 51 Left Stranded in Pel Series,” Nashville Tennessean, June 5, 1944: 8.

[5] Johnson, “Vols Get Lift, Too,” Nashville Tennessean, August 29, 1944: 9.

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Babe Ruth, Explained

This image of me with one of my idols takes a little explaining, but I need to set the timeline in order.

The oldest existing ballpark in America, Rickwood Field, is in Birmingham, Alabama. Recently closed for repairs and scheduled to re-open in 2018, it has been in use by colleges and amateur teams for ages. The Birmingham Black Barons hosted Negro League games at Rickwood for many years.

Built in 1910, the first game hosted by the Birmingham Barons was on August 18 of that year. The Barons have called two newer ballparks as home field since leaving Rickwood after the 1987 season: Hoover Met and Regions Field. But there has been one game each season that allows players and fans another chance to visit the grandest ballpark in the South in all her glory.

Every year since 1995 the Barons have hosted a Southern League rival in a “Turn Back the Clock” game known as the Rickwood Classic.

“The Friends of Rickwood saved Rickwood Field from the wrecking ball way back in 1992[1],” states Gerald Watkins, Chairman of the organization on the group’s website. Over $2 million has been raised by the group to maintain “America’s Oldest Baseball Park”; but often, funds fall short of their intent as the ballpark has aged to a cautious degree.

Due to structural repairs at Rickwood, the 2017 Classic will be relocated to the Barons home ballpark, Regions Field in downtown Birmingham.[2] The game will be played on May 31, against the Chattanooga Lookouts.

“Rickwood Field is a significant part of the history of Birmingham and of baseball. We are thankful that we found the problem areas and can work to get them repaired and restored for the next generation of baseball fans,” says Mayor William Bell.[3]

I have attended many Classics since 2002, having made friendships with many Birmingham baseball “brothers” through the annual Southern Association conference held each March. It is a treat to visit the ballpark, rekindle our love for the beloved league and share research, photos, and documents. Having the conference and the Classic at a venue such as Rickwood is an added treat.

In 2010, I rekindled a friendship with Hall of Fame member Harmon Killebrew at that year’s Classic. I had met him in 2009 at our Old Timers Baseball Association banquet. He was a delightful guest, dynamite speaker, and even made friends with my dad, Virgil Nipper, at breakfast the next morning.

I was not surprised, in fact, when he saw me at the Classic that hot summer June day, when the first thing he said after we exchanged pleasantries was, “How’s your dad?”

Another Hall of Famer in attendance that day was Babe Ruth. Not really “The Babe”, but a near stand-in double for him. His name is Steve Folven. I had to look twice, as the similarity is quite stunning, although this Babe is several inches shorter than the Sultan of Swat, who stood 6’2”. The snapshot that was taken of us shows the difference: I am 6’0”.

Steve has a website, http://www.ImBabeRuth.com, where he can be booked for events, and where he states that his long-term goal is to be the honored guest at Yankee Stadium. Ironically, he grew up within a few blocks of Boston’s Fenway Park, and was born six weeks before Babe Ruth passed away on August 16, 1948.

One of the first events he attended was in 2005, at a Las Vegas minor league game at Cashman Field, but he also threw out the first ball at a Red Sox vs. Yankees fan charity softball game in May, 2007. He has attended card shows, dinners, and galas, and was even the honored guest at a Bar Mitzvah. He has returned to Birmingham on various occasions.

My day with Steven was a memorable one, planted in my love for the Yankees and “The Babe” himself. I cherish the photograph, the memories, and the joy that baseball has brought to me through my Birmingham “baseball buddies” and Rickwood Field. Thanks, Steven.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

[1] “The Rickwood Classic,” http://rickwoodclassic.com/, retrieved May 10, 2017.

[2] “May 31 Game Against Chattanooga To Be Played At 7:05 p.m.,” https://www.milb.com/barons/news/may-31-details/c-227071942/t-196093346, retrieved May 10, 2017

[3] “The Rickwood Classic.”

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All-American Girls Baseball at Sulphur Dell

Penny Marshall’s delightful movie A League of Their Own, one of the all-time classic baseball films, tells the story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. As World War II is raging, and attendance at major league games declining, Chicago Cubs owner Phil Wrigley organizes the concept in 1943 to counter the loss of revenue of his club and bring attention to a new brand of the sport[1].

The league began in four cities: Kenosha Comets, Racine Belles, Rockford Peaches, and South Bend Blue Sox. Spring training was held at Wrigley Field, and after a 108-game season, Kenosha and Racine participated in a five-game championship series. Racine took the league crown. Attendance stood at 176,612 for the inaugural season.

Unexpected success of the ladies’ loop gave rise to more teams, as the Milwaukee Chicks club was added in 1944. After spring training was held in Peru, Illinois, the league was up and running for a second season. Milwaukee won the regular season and playoff championships in 1944, as attendance grew to 249,000. A new team was added, the Fort Wayne Daisies, in 1945. Rockford was the top team that season, and year-long attendance stood at 450,000.

In 1946, Pascagoula, Mississippi, was chosen as spring training home, and two cities more joined the league: the Muskegon Lassies and Peoria Red Wings. Racine captured the championship at the end of the season, as attendance climbed to over 750,000.

But as the teams had broken camp from Pascagoula in May to head north to begin the season, exhibition games were scheduled in various cities, just as the major-league clubs. One of those cities was Nashville, and Sulphur Dell was the venue. The game was sponsored by the Davidson County Parent-Teacher Association.

1946 Muskegon Lassies: AAGPBL.org image

On May 8, the Racine Belles and Muskegon Lassies played before a crowd estimated at between 1,500 – 1,800 spectators. Arriving from Memphis by team bus at 4 p.m., the Belles quickly checked into the Noel Hotel before making their way to Sulphur Dell to play against the Lassies. The game began at 8:15 p.m.[2]

Muskegon infielder Dorothy “Monty” Montgomery was from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her teammate Dorothy “Mickey” Chapman lost her first husband in overseas combat while she was playing for Grand Rapids in 1945, and Gladys “Terrie” Davis was the league’s first batting champion in 1943, hitting for a .332 average.

Doris “Sammye” Sams was from Knoxville, Tennessee, and was one of the league’s stars. In 1941, she played in the American Softball Association (ASA) Nationals in Detroit with her Tennessee team. A pitcher and outfielder, she would become league Player of the Year in 1947 and 1949, and an All-Star for six of her eight years in the league.

Racine’s Joan “Joanie” Winter was one of the original players chosen to participate in the league in 1943. At the end of her eight-year career, all with the Belles, she would be one of seven pitchers to have won 100 or more games, with 133. She would go on to become a member of the LPGA, and in 2005 would be inducted into the National Women’s Baseball Hall of Fame.

1946 Racine Belles: AAGPBL.org image

One of the rare female boxers of her day (then known as “Tuffy”), Irene Hickson was from Chattanooga. A catcher, Hickson played eight of her nine years in the AAGPBL with Racine. Edyth “Edie” Keating would play her entire eight-year career with the Belles during which she would steal 481 bases.

The Belles won the game 8-7; a Nashville Tennessean error reported the game as between “softball” teams[3]. In 1943, league president Max Carey had been quoted as to his take on where the “Girls” began and “Softball” ended: “Femininity is the keynote of our league; no pants-wearing, tough-talking female softballer will play on any of our four teams…”[4]

Muskegon manager, Ralph “Buzz” Boyle, would become a scout for the Cincinnati Reds and participate in spring training with the 1955 Nashville Vols.[5]

By 1948, attendance had reached nearly 1 million, and two Illinois teams were added: the Chicago Colleens and Springfield Sallies. But ultimately, teams shut down and attendance waned until the league closed shop in 1954.[6]

Although there is no review of the one recorded AAGPBL game played at Sulphur Dell, the fan-favorite movie always delivers the excitement and competitive spirit of the women of the “All American League”.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

[1] “All American Girls Professional Baseball League: League History,” https://www.aagpbl.org/index.cfm/pages/league/12/league-history, retrieved May 7, 2017.

[2] “Girls Baseball Teams to Play in Dell Tonight,” Nashville Tennessean, May 8, 1946: 21.

[3] “Racine Belles Edge Muskegon Lassies,” Nashville Tennessean, May 9, 1946: 21.

[4] Bill Francis, “League of Women Ballplayers, http://baseballhall.org/discover/league-of-women-ballplayers, retrieved May 9, 2017.

[5] F. M. Williams, “Vols Skipper Praises Left Handed Hitters,” Nashville Tennessean, March 13, 1955: 38.

[6] “The All American Girls Professional Baseball League,” http://www.seanlahman.com/baseball-archive/womens-baseball/, retrieved May 8, 2017.

Sources

Aagpbl.org
Baseballhall.org
Newspapers.com
Seanlahman.com

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Catch and Release: Bill Schwartz’s Gamble on a Pike

Bill Schwartz was handed the reins of the Nashville club soon after current manager, Bill Bernhard, announced on September 23, 1910 that he would not manage the team any longer. Schwartz joined the Vols earlier that year and played first base for 62 games, hitting at a .288 clip. He came from Akron, where he played for five years, managing the Champs to an 80-41 record and an Ohio-Pennsylvania League (Class C) pennant.

The 6’2”, 185-pound Schwartz had played 24 games for his hometown Cleveland Naps in 1904, his only major-league experience, on a team which included a future Vols teammate, outfielder Harry Bay. Future Hall of Fame members Addie Joss, Elmer Flick, and Nap Lajoie were on that Cleveland ball club. Those great players, along with Naps manager Bill Armour (in 1908, Cleveland announced that it would have two farm clubs: Toledo, managed by Armour, and Nashville, managed by Bill Bernhard) must have been an influence on Bill and his future managerial skills.

After two fourth-, two fifth-, and one seventh-place finish, Bill had a final shot at improving his ball club. Aging Otto Williams had been a steady second-sacker, but at the age of 36 and a weak .246 average in his only season with Nashville, Schwartz saw an opportunity to bring in new blood at the position.

nashville-tennessean-and-american-march-2-1915-pike-schwartzIn 1915, Bill thought he had caught his big fish to fill the slot. On March 2, the Nashville Tennessean and American parodied a news story that about the signing of W. P. (Bill) Pike, and compared the potential of the new player to that of Boston Braves second baseman and 1914 National League most valuable player, Johnny Evers.

Bill Pike was a no-show as pre-season practice began. On March 14, he was still a “no-show”[1], but not necessarily an unusual circumstance as only 12 players had reported at the time. Pike joined first baseman Gene Paulette, shortstop Dolly Stark, third baseman Johnny Dodge, outfielders Bert King, Tommy McCabe, and Jack Farmer, and pitchers Floyd Kroh and Heinie Berger.

Bill Ware, who would also vie for the second base position, had not shown up in Nashville as well, but the first exhibition game was not scheduled for another week when Vanderbilt would be the opponent on Saturday, March 20. The pro club won over the collegiate Commodores 6-2 in chilly Sulphur Dell, and Pike was hitless in to turns at bat. Hoping that Pike would hold down the position at second base, Schwartz inserted Ware as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning. After the strike out, he replaced Pike at second for the last two innings.nashville-tennessean-and-american-march-24-1915-pike-schwartz

When weather delayed the next game, the teams met at Dudley Field on Tuesday, March 23, and Pike was inserted as a pinch-hitter in the last inning as the Vols won, 11-4 in seven innings. Pike was hitless in two turns at bat. Ware played right field, and Howard Baker was at second.[2]

For whatever reason, by April 11, Pike was gone[3]. Bill Ware was not to be found, either. Second base was played by three players during season: Tom Sheehan, 67 games, George Kircher, 39 games, Howard Baker, 33 games, and Ben Diamond, 15 games.

Schwartz was not successful in Nashville, as his clubs never finished higher than fourth, and his Vols record in five campaigns was 350-360. In 1916 Schwartz became head coach of the Vanderbilt University baseball team, and retired with a Schwartz coaching record in 19 seasons.[4]

Ware disappears from baseball  history, and Pike is nowhere to be found. Did Schwartz’s big catch turn out to be a throwback?

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

[1] Nashville Tennessean and American, March 14, 1915, p. 36.

[2] Ibid., March 24, 1915, p. 12.

[3] Ibid., April 11, 1915, p. 36.

[4] Traughber, Bill. “Vandy’s Bill Schwartz remembered”, Commodore History Corner. http://www.vucommodores.com/sports/historycorner/spec-rel/042512aaa.html, accessed March 1, 2017.

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Chuck Coles, 1958 Nashville Vols Hero

Charles Edward “Chuck” Coles was born on June 27, 1931 to Dorothy and Charles “Chalky” Coles in Fredericktown, Pennsylvania. He excelled at football, basketball, and baseball at Jefferson High School. His father had been a sandlot pitching ace in Greene County[1] and was a semi-pro player in the Middle-Atlantic League and managed in the local Big Ten baseball league. “Chalky” was inducted into the Big Ten Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1954.[2] Chuck played American Legion ball for his father’s Jefferson team, and enrolled at Waynesburg College. He was signed by Rex Bowen of the Brooklyn Dodgers before the 1950 season.

At Newport News (Piedmont League – Class B) to begin his professional career, Chuck had seven hits in 39 plate appearances before being sent to Valdosta of the Georgia-Florida League (Class – B). It was there he began to show the promise of being a solid hitter. Joining the club nearly a month after the season began, he had 30-game hitting streak at one point.[3] Finishing with a .355 batting average to go along with 14 home runs and 161 hits, he was named Georgia-Florida League Co-Rookie of the Year.[4] Back to Newport News for the entire 1951 season, his average tailed off to .299, but he impressed the Dodgers during spring training in 1952 and was sent to Mobile (Southern Association, Class – AA).

1952 with Mobile, on May 11 the 5’9”, 180-lb. outfielder had his streak of seven consecutive games of two or more hits halted when he was held to a single.[5]  He was selected to the Southern Association All Star game, Bears outfielders Bill Antonello and Bama Rowell[6]. Coles led off and played right field in the game at New Orleans, but had no hits in three turns at bat. He was one of three rookies from Mobile to play in the game, along with Norm Larker and Don Zimmer.

Mobile finished third in league standings with an 80-73 record, but in the SA playoffs, Coles had a key home run in Mobile’s 8-2 win over Atlanta to take a 3-2 margin over the regular season champions. In the final game of the series, Mobile won 3-2 as Coles knocked in two runs with a double.[7] In December, Coles notified Mobile club president John Toomey that he had been inducted into the armed services the previous month and was stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia[8]. Coles served in the military in 1953 and 1954.

Back to baseball in 1955, he began the season with the Bears but in May was optioned by Mobile to Elmira.[9] Benched due to weak hitting on July 10, the next day he had a double and two triples, knocking in four runs in a 5-4 win over Johnstown.[10] He finished with a mediocre .278 batting average.

Sent to Pueblo of the Western League in 1956, he regained his hitting stroke and slammed 24 round-trippers during the season. He had two grand-slam home runs each against Sioux City and Des Moines. In 1957 he remained with Albuquerque for the entire year, and was selected to the Western League’s All Star team at the end of the season.[11] He hit .354 with 26 home runs and 120 RBI.

On March 10, 1958, Nashville purchased Coles’ contract outright from Albuquerque, and he reported to the Vols the next day at their spring training camp in Brooksville, Florida. Coles had been recommended to Vols general manager Bill McCarthy by Nick Cullop, who had managed him the for the first half of the previous season. Once Cincinnati farm director Bill McKechnie approved, the deal was made.

“Cullop told me that Coles would make an ideal Deller,” McCarthy said. “Apparently Cincinnati thinks he can help us, too.”[12]

Coles immediately made an impact. On April 23, 1958, he had two triples in successive innings in a 13-12 slugfest over Atlanta, [13] and by May20 had extended his hitting streak to 15.[14] The next day in the first game of a double header at Rickwood Field he extends it to 16 games, as he becomes only the second player in league history to hit three home runs (all three off Barons pitcher Ron Rozman) in a seven-inning game as the Vols beat Birmingham 8-3. In his last at-bat, Coles hits a single as he drives in seven of the eight Nashville tallies. In the nightcap, Barons pitcher Bob Bruce ended Coles 16-game hitting streak. But Coles had raised his batting average to .425.[15]

On June 6, Nashville’s fourth annual Knot Hole Night draws a crowd of 2,579 paid fans, with the club donating half of the proceeds to the Junior Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Knot Hole League baseball program.  But the evening is marred by an injury to Coles, who is hit in the head by a rock thrown from the stands. He was hitting .358 at the time, was not seriously hurt.

On July 1, he got Nashville’s only hit against Little Rock right-hander Bud Black as the Travelers beats. the Vols 3-0. A few weeks later his batting average had dropped to .333, but was selected to the 1958 Southern Association All Star Game.

In the annual event, he hits three-run home run off Atlanta’s Bob Giggie and later doubles to lead the All Stars win over Atlanta 4-0. Just six days prior, Coles had hit one off Giggie at Ponce de Leon ballpark, then had another off the same pitcher on Tuesday night. In total, Chuck hit four home runs off Crackers’ pitching, all but one off Giggie, then added the All Star homer to his feat. He had hit four-of-five home runs off the same pitcher.[16]

He ended with a .307 average with 107 RBI and 29 home runs, topping the league with 320 total bases. Called up by the Cincinnati, he made his big-league debut on September 19. Starting in left field against the Milwaukee Braves at Crosley Field, his first putout was on a fly ball by Vada Pinson for the third out in the second inning. In the Reds half of that inning, he struck out against right hander Carl Willey, who would be named National League Rookie of the Year for the season. In the fourth inning, the bespectacled Coles hit a double to drive in Smokey Burgess, collecting his first RBI in the majors.

Playing center field at Milwaukee’s County Stadium a week later, he gained his second (and last) major-league hit, a single in the fifth inning off Lew Burdette. Coles has the distinction of having played in five games for the Reds, all against the Braves; he wraps up his stint with a .82 batting average in 11 plate appearances.

Chuck played winter ball with Valencia, hitting two home runs in the game that clinched the pennant for his team. Beginning in 1959 with Havana (International League – Class AAA), in 30 games his batting average was a paltry .181 and he soon found himself back on the Nashville roster.

“We’re glad to have Chuck back,” general manager McCarthy said. “I talked with Dick (Nashville manager Dick Sisler) today and he was quite pleased. I don’t know where Dick will play him, but we can use a bat like Coles swings. We’re fortunate to get him. Havana has been getting a steady diet of left-handed pitching and wants to add some right-handed power.”[17] Coles never regained his batting ability. Used sparingly, he hitting .203 when on July 1, he was traded to Atlanta by Nashville for Ray Shearer. Coles was a visitor in the press box during the game that night against Memphis at Sulphur Dell.

“Maybe it’s all for the best,” he said. “I just couldn’t get going here. I have to play regularly. Maybe I’ll get to with Atlanta. I hate to leave Nashville, but it’s part of the game.”

It was an unusual trade. McCarthy’s negotiated deal with Atlanta owner Earl Mann meant both Coles and Shearer would return to the other club at season’s end, as both player’s contracts were owned by their parent organizations (Coles with Cincinnati, Shearer’s with Milwaukee).[18] It took some coaxing by Coles to Nashville’s new manager, Jim Turner. After a March 10 workout with the Vols, Turner was ready to give the former star a chance.

“I see no reason why he should not have five or six more good years left,” turner said. “It isn’t normal for a man of his age (29) to have two seasons like he did in 1957 and 1958 and then suddenly not be able to do a thing. I don’t believe he’s through.”[19]

coles-1960

Chuck Coles, Nashville manager Jim Turner, Cincinnati coach Jack Cassini at Spring Training in 1960

Chuck promptly led the Vols in spring training round-trippers with six. Once the season began, he joined Erv Joyner and Crawford Davidson in the outfield and he regained some of his hitting form. By September, he got on base 11 straight times on five hits and six bases-on-balls, then popped out to end the string, and at year’s end had hit 14 home runs, drove in 99 runs, and batted .290.

Surprisingly, he returned to Mobile to begin the 1961 season, but after 32 games and a .202 average, he was demoted to Charlotte (South Atlantic League, Class – A), a Minnesota Twins farm club. He hit .313 in 101 games, eight home runs and 47 RBI.

Remaining with the Hornets beginning in 1962, his manger was Spencer “Red” Robbins, who had managed Nashville the previous season. Used as an outfielder-first baseman at Charlotte, by late June he was leading the SALLY with a .369 batting average, and by June had increased his numbers to .376, six HR, and 22 RBI. But Robbins benched him when Ernie Oravetz reported from Syracuse (International League – Class A).

With 80 games under his belt, and a .305 average, on July 27 he was optioned to Wilson (Carolina League – Class B)[20]. The Tobs (short for Tobacconists) were in a pennant-chase and it was thought he would provide much-needed help at the plate. On August 1, Coles hit a home run with one on in the ninth inning to give Wilson a win over Winston-Salem, 3-1. The next day, he hit another homer against the Red Sox in a 6-0 win. here he finished the season by playing in 42 games. Wilson finished woefully 24 games out of first place, and as Coles’ average was only .243, it seemed he was near the end of his career.

1963 was last season, with Tidewater Tides in Carolina League. In 27 games hit .260, but his career had indeed ended. He finished after 12 minor league seasons with a .292 average, 176 home runs, and 357 RBI to go along with two RBI earned in his brief period with Cincinnati. Upon retirement, he became a millwright in Jefferson, Pennsylvania.

He passed away on January 25, 1996 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina at the age of 64, and was buried in Greene County Memorial Park in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. In 2009 was inducted posthumously into the Washington-Greene County Sports Hall of Fame[21].

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

[1] The Evening Standard (Uniontown, Pennsylvania), July 6, 1956
[2] Von Benko, George. “Chuck Coles was another Jefferson baseball star”. Greene County Messenger. http://www.heraldstandard.com/gcm/sports/chuck-coles-was-another-jefferson-baseball-star/article_be836705-bdb6-5729-b73d-cd26583d5b6e.html. Retrieved January 25, 2017.
[3] The Sporting News, August 9, 1950, p. 20.
[4] Ibid., August 16, 1950, p. 22.
[5] Ibid., May 21, 1952, p. 29.
[6] Ibid., July 9, 1952, p. 43.
[7] Ibid., October 1, 1952, p. 46.
[8] Nashville Tennessean, December 10, 1952, p. 28.
[9] The Sporting News, May 18, 1955, p. 34.
[10] Ibid., p. 41.
[11] The Sporting News, September 25, 1957, p. 41.
[12] Nashville Tennessean, March 11, 1958, p. 19.
[13] The Sporting News, May 7, 1958, p. 37.
[14] Ibid., May 28, 1958, p. 35.
[15] Ibid., June 4, 1958, p. 31.
[16] Nashville Tennessean, July 17, 1958, p. 27.
[17] Ibid., May 21, 1959, p. 30.
[18] Ibid., October 16, 1959, p. 43.
[19] Nashville Tennessean, March 11, 1960, p. 24.
[20] The Sporting News, August 11, 1960, p. 41.
[21] Washington-Greene County Chapter Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, http://www.wash-greenesportshall.org/2009/Coles.htm. Retrieved January 26, 2017.

Bibliography

Marazzi, Rich. Baseball Players of the 1950s: A Biographical Dictionary of All 1,560 Major Leaguers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2004.

Nipper, Skip. Images of Baseball: Baseball in Nashville. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

Wright, Marshall D. The Southern Association in Baseball, 1885-1961. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2002.

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