Category Archives: Biography

Nashville’s Larry Gilbert: Baseball Honors A Legend

Metro Archives Photo

On Sunday afternoon, July 27, 1941, Larry Gilbert was honored as Sporting News “1940 Minor League Manager of the Year” before his team’s double header against Chattanooga at Sulphur Dell in Nashville.

It was the second ceremony of the year honoring Gilbert, the first having been held May 7, recognizing him for his 25 years in the Southern Association[1]. He was given various gifts, including a gold lifetime pass by league president Trammell Scott, a silver set from Vols team owner Ted Murray and treasurer Jack Flanagan, and his players presented him with a silver service.[2]

Gilbert began his career in local sandlots of his hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana, but found his way to the majors as a member of the famous “Miracle Braves” of 1914, which had a 26-40 record in July but managed to win the National League pennant by winning 68 of its next 87 games[3]. Gilbert was a seldom-used outfielder and appeared in 72 games, hitting .268. His only appearance in the World Series was as a pinch hitter,  drawing a walk from  Philadelphia Athletics ace Bill James.

As a 23-year-old the next season, Larry was used very little and batted a paltry .151. His career would resume in Toronto (International League – Class AA) and Kansas City (American Association – Class AA) before he joined New Orleans (Southern Association – Class A). He would remain there for nine years, becoming manager of the club in 1923, leading the club to the league pennant that season, and remained there through 1938 (he moved to the front office in 1932, but returned to the dugout in 1933).

When Nashville owner Fay Murray was looking for a manager after the 1938 season, he convinced Larry to become part-owner, general manager, and manager of the Vols. He remained as field leader through 1948, moving to the front office until 1955, when he sold his shares in the club.

Larry Gilbert’s rise to fame as the best manager in the minor leagues culminated in 1940, when his Nashville ball club led the Southern Association from opening day until the end of the season. His team won 101 games with a combined batting average of .311, pitcher Boots Poffenberger won 26 games, and reliever Ace Adams struck out 122 rival batters.

In the league playoffs, the Vols eliminated Chattanooga, three games to none, and won the playoff championship against Atlanta by winning four games to two for the Crackers, sending Nashville to the Dixie Playoffs to face Texas League champion. They polished off the Houston Buffaloes in five games, ending a remarkable season. That club was selected as the 47th best minor league of all time in 2001 in celebration of Minor League baseball’s 100th anniversary[4].

His two-year record at Nashville was 186-115, and included a Southern Association regular-season pennant, two playoff championships, and one Dixie Series title. He had previously led New Orleans to four pennants, two playoff championships, and two Dixie Series crowns.

On September 8, 1948, in his final game as manager, Gilbert was honored once again, this time for 25 years as a manager in the Southern Association, beginning with his first entering the league in 1923.  6,509 Nashville fans, Baseball Commissioner A. B. Chandler, George M. Trautman, president of the National Association, and Southern Association president Charlie Hurth, were there to bestow recognition to Larry Gilbert, the most successful manager in the history of the Southern Association.

With eight league championships, including six consecutive titles with Nashville between 1939-1944, his final record as manager for the Vols and New Orleans was 2,128 – 1,627. It was an impressive record for an equally impressive manager.

From the honors bestowed upon him, it was easy to tell that Baseball loved Larry Gilbert.

To view Gilbert’s entire managerial record, click here: http://www.southernassociationbaseball.com/managers/larrygilbert.php

Sources 

Baseball-reference.com

Newspapers.com

Paper of Record 

Retrosheet.org

Sabr.org

Southernassociationbaseball.com

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

[1] Raymond Johnson. “Fourth Celebration Due,” One Man’s Opinion column, Nashville Tennessean, July 28, 1941, 8.

[2] Sporting News, May 15, 1941, 12.

[3] “1914 The Miracle Braves”, http://www.thisgreatgame.com/1914-baseball-history.html, accessed July 27, 2017.

[4] Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, “Top 100 Teams: 47. 1940 Nashville Vols,” http://www.milb.com/milb/history/top100.jsp?idx=47, July 27, 2017

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The Fortitude, Honesty, and Respect of Controversial Umpire Bill Brockwell


Baseball umpires have a seemingly thankless job, and Bill Brockwell often faced the un-forgiveness of Nashville managers and players for three seasons beginning in 1950. The Tulsa native had umpired in the inaugural Sooner State League (Class D) in 1947[1] and West Texas-New Mexico League (Class C) in 1948[2]. He umpired in Texas’ Big State League (Class B) in 1949, including a 16-inning game pre-season game won by San Antonio of the Texas League (Class AA) over Austin[3].

Elevated to the Southern Association (Class AA), there were no notable conflicts during his rookie season of 1950. “Nemesis” may be too strong a word to describe him when he called games in which the Vols were participating, but at least the disdain for him did not begin until his second season in the league.

In the seventh inning against Birmingham at Sulphur Dell on May 31, 1951, Vols shortstop Daryl Spencer offered a few choice words to Brockwell as a commentary on the plate umpire’s ability to call balls and strikes. The ump quickly sent Spencer to the showers, but that was not the last time.

One week later, on June 5 in Birmingham, Spencer got the “heave-ho” again from Brockwell, this time for arguing on a missed force play that Daryl thought should have been an out. Spencer had now been thrown out of three games, and his adversary had tossed him twice.

In Chattanooga on July 29, Vols catcher Bob Brady was chased for complaining too long on a called ball thrown by Nashville ace Pete Mallory. That seems to have set another confrontation off against the game’s decision-maker. It appeared Barons left fielder Don Grate was hit by a batted ball while running from first to second which should have been an out, but none of the three umps called it, and the entire Vols dugout erupted towards Brockwell.[4]

No further clashes seem to have occurred, and when Charlie Hurth named his pre-season selection of umpires for the 1952 season, William “Bill” Brockwell was listed as a returning arbiter.[5] Once the season began, Brockwell did not get off to a great start in the eyes of the Nashville players and manager.

There were no issues in the first game, as Little Rock invaded Sulphur Dell for a two-day, three-game set beginning with the home opener on April 12. Nashville lost, 9-6.

The next day was a double header, scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. But the ire of Nashville sports writer Raymond Johnson rained down on the umpire crew when Brockwell called both games at 2:12 p.m. due to rain and the condition of the field. According to Johnson, the umpires’ decision was flawed.

“The field was already in bad shape,” Brockwell told me (Johnson) in the dressing room after his decision, “and the groundskeeper said it would take more than an hour to get the field playable. It gets dark awfully early in this park. We didn’t want to keep the spectators waiting and then not play…”[6]

Johnson chimed in on that reasoning.

“Brockwell and (Paul) Roy who insisted that he do most of the talking although he was not the umpire-in-chief, apparently didn’t know that the field had been covered with large tarpaulins until about an hour before the game time…”

The rain stopped about the time of the decision to not play, and thirty minutes later, the field was dry.

Johnson continued. “Action like this causes a sour taste in the spectators’ mouths.”[7]

On June 3, one of the strangest calls in Sulphur Dell history transpired, and it involved Brockwell’s indecisiveness. In the fifth inning, Nashville’s third baseman Rance Pless (with a .364 batting average at the end of the year, the 1952 league batting title would belong to Pless) lofts a fly ball over the outfield screen and Blackwell signals the ball is a home run.

After a protest by Birmingham manager Al Vincent that lasted 10 minutes, the umpire reversed his decision and calls Pless’ stroke a foul ball. The Vols eventually lose to the Barons, 6-5; had the homer stood, Nashville would have won.

If Nashville fans in attendance at the game were expecting Raymond Johnson’s wrath in the next day’s newspaper, they didn’t receive it. Johnson quoted Brockwell’s explanation.

“The more I weighed the facts, the more I was convinced that I should reverse myself. I went over to (Nashville manager Hugh) Poland and said: ‘Hugh, I know you are going to blow your top but I’m going to have to change my decision. That was a foul ball. I cannot give you two runs and be honest with myself. Deep down I know I was wrong on that call. I know it’s a jolt to you and to your ball players.’ He accepted my decision in a much more gentlemanly way than I had expected.”

Johnson backed up the honesty.

“As a result of Brockwell’s intestinal fortitude on this occasion, Poland has much more respect for Brockwell…I do, too…It takes real guts to change a decision that takes away two runs from the home club before 3600 home fans…”[8]

At that point, the umpire may have gained the confidence of Poland and Johnson, but that did not mean he would not make arguable calls.

In the June 22 game between Nashville and Mobile in the Vols’ home park, Bama Ray swung at a pitch and missed, but the ball hit him in the back of his head. Brockwell called it a foul ball. The next game, working the bases at Sulphur Dell, he did not see the Bears’ George Freese drop the ball thrown to him as Rance Pless advanced, and Brockwell called Pless out at third.

On July 12, when he ruled Vols catcher Rube Novotney had interfered with Memphis’ Ed McGhee’s bat, awarding first base to the Chicks right fielder, it was business as usual when Poland took up for his catcher. Surprisingly, no one was tossed out of the game.

The next day in the second game of a double header, Johnson was on Brockwell’s bad side once again, as Nashville’s favorite son, Buster Boguskie, was tossed for arguing against a safe call at second base.

“Umpire Brockwell booted another in his usual fashion[9],” Johnson wrote.

Then, in the fifth inning of the game of July 18, Brockwell ejected four Nashville Vols in their 10-3 loss in Chattanooga. Boguskie was sent packing again for arguing a strike decision, manager Hugh Poland was sent to the showers after continuing the debate, Johnny Liptak was chased for a comment as he passed Brockwell on his way to coach first base, and Ziggy Jasinski, who had taken Boguskie’s place at bat, was banished after making another remark that Brockwell did not like.  Out of infielders, Rube Novotney had to play second base.

Then, Novotney was tossed four days later for protesting a called third strike in a 7-2 loss to Atlanta in Nashville.

It appears there were no further conflicts the rest of the year, and when Brockwell was named to the umpiring crew for the Mobile-Atlanta first-round playoffs, his umpiring career was soon to be over. Perhaps he had enough of umpiring, or the salary was not enough to support a new family. He returned to his home town of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to take a sales position.[10]

At the time of his death, he and his wife Mary, whom he married on October 31, 1951, had seven children and had been married 63 years before his passing. They had nine grandchildren, and twin great-grandchildren. Mary passed away on October 12, 2014.[11]

Note: An obituary for Bill Brockwell  could not be located; Mary’s obituary mentions the years of marriage.

[1] “Umpires Retained,” Miami (Oklahoma) Daily News-Record, September 15, 1947, p. 8.

[2] “WT-NM Umpires Named; Brockwell, Odom Open Here,” Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, April 18, 1948, p. 13.

[3] “Baseball Marathon (Box Score)”, Austin American, April 3, 1949, p. 19.

[4] “Bama Ray Slams Out 2 Homers,” Nashville Tennessean, July 30, 1951, p. 11.

[5] “Charlie Hurth Names Umps,” Nashville Tennessean, March 16, 1952, p. 16

[6] Raymond Johnson, “One Man’s Opinion,” Nashville Tennessean, April 14, 1952, p. 15.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Johnson. June 5, 1952, p. 22.

[9] Johnson, July 14, 1952, p. 12.

[10] “Umpire Changes of Southern Association Made,” Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi), February 25, 1953, p. 13.

[11] Obituary, Mary Harpole Brockwell, Santa Fe-New Mexican, November 2, 2014. http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/santafenewmexican/obituary.aspx?pid=173002024, accessed July 18, 2017.

Sources

Baseball-reference.com

Nashville Tennessean

Newspapers.com

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

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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“Rogue” Poffenberger Gains Split, Wins No. 15

On July 11 ,1940, Boots Poffenberger wins his 15th game as he holds Atlanta to three hits in the second game of a double header win 1-0 at Sulphur Dell, giving Nashville a split after the Vols loss to the Crackers 9-8 in the opener. Both games are seven inning affairs.

By the way of the win, Nashville (50-29) holds on to the Southern Association lead over Atlanta (51-34).

In the first game, Vols pitchers Leo Twardy, Russ Meers, and Johnny Sain are unable to hold Atlanta, allowing a total of 17 hits. Oris Hockett has two doubles and a homer, his eighth, and drives in five runs for Nashville as Johnny Mihalic adds two doubles. Bob Boken’s 20-game hitting streak is halted when he fails to get a hit in the first game.

In the second game, Mihalic hits two more doubles and scores the game’s lone run on a single down the right field line by Arnold Moser.

Known for his heavy drinking and poor training habits during two seasons with the Detroit Tigers (1937-38) and three games with Brooklyn in 1939, Nashville manager Larry Gilbert took a chance on the temperamental Poffenberger. After his splendid 1940 season (26-9), he would face manager Gilbert’s ire the next season.

Boots’ win total would be a league record that would never be matched, but he gained notoriety in 1941 by throwing at an umpire from the mound. Gilbert, declaring the right-hander would never appear in a Nashville uniform again, shipped Poffenberger to San Diego. He never regained his form and retired after spending 1947 in Hagerstown near his home of Williamsport, Maryland.

Sources

Anniston Star

baseball-reference.com

Baton Rouge Advocate

Nashville Tennessean

newspapers.com

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Jack Harshman Hits 26th Home Run of 1951 Season

July 2, 1951 – Jack Harshman hits his 26th home run of the season with a two-run drive in the tenth inning, his second round-tripper of the game, to break up a slug-fest at Sulphur Dell as Nashville wins over New Orleans 16-14.

Harshman will go on to hammer 47 home runs, and tying former Vols player Carl Sawatski’s record with five grand slams for a season. The strong-armed first baseman also pitches in five games that year, making his debut at Sulphur Dell on July 19th with two scoreless innings of relief against Chattanooga.

When the Southern Association relaxed a rule that kept non-pitchers off the mound, Nashville general manager Larry Gilbert suggested to Harshman that he might make it to the majors sooner by relying on his arm strength instead of his power.

Harshman spent the 1952 season with Minneapolis but returned to the Vols in 1953. Primarily a starter, in 40 games Harshman worked to a 24-7 record with a 3.27 ERA. He was sold to the Chicago White Sox for $25,000 in September, and went on to a 69-65 record in eight years in the major leagues.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Sources

baseball-reference.com

Nashville Tennessean

newspapers.com

sabr.org

The Sporting News

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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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