Category Archives: Current

Waiting for the New Season

As the cold winds blow outside from this winter’s blast, we tend to seek asylum between our blankets, in front of our fireplaces, or under layers of warm clothing with thought of spring’s early sunrises and warm glows. That helps to while away the time, but there is nothing like rejoicing in the Pastime that it brings.

Since baseball’s creation, revelers in the gentle sport have waited patiently for the new season to bring the cracking sound of bat on ball and thump of ball in mitt.

For years and years in towns and cities across the country during winter’s cruel and harsh term, there has been enthusiasm for new grass on dry fields and fetching of equipment from trunks and bags to expose them to warmth of sunlight.

On January 2, 1909, a piece was published by sports writer Billy W. Burke in the Nashville Tennessean under the column heading “Sportoscraps”, which brought assurance to baseball fans that spring was right around the corner.

It was a cue like the one most often credited to Rogers Hornsby, a Hall of Famer who reportedly once said, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Since staring out the window will only bring one a cold nose, dreams of America’s favorite sport will bring out good thoughts of energy, youth, and sunshine. Hold onto those happy clues, as it’s all just around the corner: major league pitchers and catchers report six weeks from today, and the home opener for our Nashville Sounds is only 99 days away from today.

Stay warm and certainly stay away from the window, but stay on course for a new spring and a new season. It will be unmasked soon; then let the revelry begin!

Note: I have suspicion that Billy W. Blanke is a pseudonym for Grantland Rice. A few of Blanke’s articles appear in the theater section of the Nashville Tennessean, a task which Rice also had. I have nothing that gives proof to my doubt, other than columns attributed to him are between 1908 and 1910. Rice left Nashville for an opportunity with the New York World in late 1910, a time when Blanke disappears from the local newspaper. I can find no “Billy W. Blanke” in other publications or geneolgy sites. In the least, Blanke must have been an apprentice to Rice; I am open to any proof that Billy was a real person, and will be happy to correct my questioning of his existence. 

© 2018 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Nashville Football, Hockey, now Soccer: Could Baseball be next?

Wednesday’s announcement of Nashville being awarded a Major League Soccer franchise brings new excitement to Music City’s sports scene. Everyone seems to have jumped on board, from Mayor Megan Barry, to the Metro Council, and soccer fans across the mid-state. Even the Tennessee Titans, Nashville Predators, and Nashville Sounds are okay with it, according to Tennessean sports writer Mike Organ who has written about their approval:  Titans, Sounds react to city landing MLS franchise[1]

The pro football and pro soccer seasons will not overlap very much, so there’s no surprise the Titans welcomed the new entry. The MLS stadium to be built at the Fairgrounds will only hold 27,000, and there is no fear that soccer would ever outdraw football.

Soccer is no match for the professional hockey experience in Nashville.

Nashville Sounds approval goes hand in hand with the announcement, as the ball club will be hosting a United States League soccer franchise that may fill the desire of fans before the MLS team begins play. The Nashville Soccer Club will play 18 home games at the Sounds home ballpark in a schedule that will run March through October.

There was a day when a new sports franchise would not have been welcomed the same way.

Larry Schmittou

Thirty-eight years ago, when Nashville was mentioned as a potential city in the fledgling World League of American Football, there was one team owner who was clearly against the idea: Nashville Sounds owner Larry Schmittou. The WLAF was an NFL-backed venture, envisioned as a developmental league for professional football; in fact, the league did commence play in 1991 with six teams in the United States, three in Europe, and one in Canada.

Nashville Sounds baseball was the only game in town. Schmittou’s disdain for any notion of Nashville becoming a team in the new league was clearly exhibited in a June 30, 1989 article by Tennessean sports writer Tom Wood: Schmittou hopes WLAF steers clear of city.[2]

At a recent Golden Bison event at Lipscomb University, Tom related a story about his 1989 happenstance meeting of Schmittou in the Greer Stadium elevator, how he and the team owner discussed the WLAF. Yesterday I asked Tom if he would refresh me with what he said at Lipscomb.

“I asked Larry just off-handedly what he thought about the WLAF coming to Nashville, and he forcefully said he would do everything in his power to prevent it from happening, that it was competition he didn’t need, etc.,” said Tom. “Recognizing it would be a great story, I asked him if he’d say that on the record and he said “yes”. I got out my tape recorder and we repeated the conversation. He could’ve declined but he clearly wanted the story out there. I don’t think he realized the negative reaction it would generate; I sure didn’t.”[3]

The Sounds president tied his dislike of any pro sport coming to the city on the hope he had for major league baseball to come to Nashville, but made it clear that his opinions were not personal, strictly business in the Tennessean article.

“I don’t have any control over it but I definitely think it would hurt the chances of major league baseball coming to this city.

“Baseball is the No. 1 priority to our investors and myself,” Schmittou said. “We have spent $10 million on our stadium over the last decade at no taxpayers’ expense. I don’t believe anybody else should get a break we’re not getting.

“Or how about in April when they’re playing a home game and we’re opening our season. My guess is we’ll be the ones to suffer.”

Clearly, Nashville in 1989 was a far different city than the one in the second decade of the 21st Century. It stands to reason that investors of a sports team nearly 40 years ago would protect their capital outlay and cost of running the team, but the economic climate today is bright for the future of soccer in a diverse Nashville.

Money will be being spent on a stadium location that will create additional havoc to a weak transportation system with no short-term solution, but with a fan base with dollars already being spent to attend music venues, honky tonks, and conventions.

“But there are only so many dollars to spend on all these sporting events,” Larry told me today, “and the first ones to be hurt by soccer are the Sounds. When I told Tom Wood what I did about the WLAF, it was more about setting the tone in defense of what we had going; but, we could not have kept it out. Especially if someone was going to put money behind it and if the city wanted it to happen.”[4]

I have said before that we won’t see MLB in Nashville anytime soon.[5] Larry agrees.

“I’m not sure even our grandchildren will see it,” he said.[6]

One day, Nashville is going to be on Major League Baseball’s radar, if it isn’t already. Perhaps it’s a little closer all the time, and the soccer franchise announcement may have helped. We know Nashville’s vibrant opportunities were used in presentations before MLS powers.

But soon the Titans are going to ask for a new stadium to rival Atlanta, Santa Clara, and Los Angeles, just watch. When they do, it will be given it to them. They have been good for the growth of the city, and I doubt anyone wants to see them move someplace like Oakland when the Raiders move to Las Vegas.

The only saving grace for baseball would be for a new football stadium to be built on the East Bank site where the metal recycling business is, then conform Nissan Stadium into a ballpark. It’s been done before; remember the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta which became Turner Field?

I will hold out for us becoming MLB-worthy if-and-when someone, or some group with lots of money, makes a presentation to MLB for a baseball franchise here. If Major League Soccer can come to Nashville, why not Major League Baseball?

I just know my grandchildren would love it.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

 

[1] Mike Organ, “Titans, Predators, Sounds react to city landing MLS franchise,” Tennessean, December 20, 2017, http://www.tennessean.com/story/sports/nashvillesc/2017/12/20/titans-sounds-react-city-landing-mls-franchise/969717001/ retrieved December 20, 2017

[2] Tom Wood, “Schmittou hopes WLAF steers clear of Nashville,” Nashville Tennessean, June 30, 1989, 23.

[3] Facebook message with Tom Wood, December 20, 2017

[4] Telephone conversation with Larry Schmittou, December 21, 2017

[5]MLB in Nashville? Nope,” https://262downright.com/2017/07/12/mlb-in-nashville-nope/, retrieved December 20, 2017.

[6] Schmittou.

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Psst: It’s Not About the Lunch

My boyhood friend Ralph writes wonderful stories about life that I relate to and wish I could call my own, even if just nearly so. He is especially expressive about his projects during our monthly “Lunch of the Exiles”, four guys from high school who enjoy communing together on a regular basis. Buddies Eddie and Ken round out this lunch bunch, and sometimes Ricci and others, all having known one another through our elementary-junior high-high school connections.

We connect one to another in our own way. Because I admire Ralph’s writing style, his published works allow me a perspective to my youth, days of marriage and raising kids, and even growing into the age I am presently in. So in that way, I often connect to Him. His words are so much of a parallel to those experiences of adolescent and teenage experimentation we share.

But it’s not just him. We have great fun, our small group, in remembering those vintage days of a close-knit neighborhood when life seemed to have been much simpler. We each have new, not-so-simple tales to tell about marriage and divorce, kids and grandkids, good health and sometimes bad news about operations, procedures, and ill health.

And we share much more, too. After our recent September daytime seance my wife invited the boys and their wives to meet us for a surprise birthday supper at a local Mexican restaurant (complete with one free dessert and eight forks for sharing and a spoonful of whipped cream in the face of the sombreroed guest of honor).

Eddie (who previously bought my lunch as a gift) gave me a birthday card, Ralph gave me a copy of a book of baseball stories (“Nobody writes like this anymore…”), and to my great surprise Ken presented me with my very own eighth grade Advanced Math textbook, the real one, complete with underlined sentences, penciled calculations in the margins, and jokes, sayings, and pictures of subjects that were obviously impacting my lame, non- algebraic mind at the time.

Can you see that one of our connections is the written word? I do. Even a card, simple words of caring and love in it’s own way, is a book. Thanks Eddie, Ken, and Ralph.

But Ralph writes, and I read, and in his pages I sense my own past, present, and future, assisted by Eddie and Ken’s tales of boyhood, too. But more than basketball scores, teachers names, and cafeteria food fights, Ralph remembers how he felt about basketball and his dream of becoming a star in his own right, the impact teachers had on his future penmanship and the authoring of novels and short stories, how gorgeous certain girls were and the beauty he captured in his mind. His hidden whims, secrets, and more, are expressed beautifully in his published works.

As an aside to this love-fest of words, and since I usually write baseball stories, I am glad to say that this morning I finished the book that was Ralph’s gift, “Baseball: Four decades of Sports Illustrated’s finest writing on America’s favorite pastime” (1993, Time, Inc.).

Ralph is right, nobody writes like this anymore.

But as I encourage folks to read it, I also encourage others to experience Ralph’s works (www.ralphbland.com); he writes in a delightful style he can call his own.

And while you are at it, round up three great friends like mine and have lunch.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Pure Base Ball: Tennessee’s Vintage Game

The 2017 Tennessee Association of Vintage Baseball season recently concluded. Twelve teams from the four corners of middle and east Tennessee competed brilliantly during the regular season, then gathered at Franklin’s Carnton Plantation to compete for the season’s championship playoffs.

The Mountain City Club of Chattanooga suffered no losses in capturing the league’s pennant, but the Stewarts Creek Scouts won out in the two-day tournament to take the cherished prize, the Sulphur Dell Cup.

Playing according to the rules of 1864[1], the “bound rule” is in effect, calling for a batter (striker) to be called out when a fielder catches a ball on the first hop. Of course, catching the ball on the fly also terminates the striker, but no gloves are worn. “No Spittin’, No Swearin’, No Gloves!” is often the expressed slogan.

The organization was established in 2012 “to entertain and educate our communities by recreating the civility of 19th century base ball.”[2] Two teams began the inaugural season, but soon the “Gentleman’s Game” was transformed with the addition of female players to become a “Lady and Gentleman’s Game”, and additional clubs were soon added.

But don’t believe these ballists are putting on a show. These folks play to win; even though civility stands tall, players do their best to compete. There are plenty of wrenched knees, jammed fingers, and bruises to prove it.

And I can attest to it, too.

A spectator of this league for five years, this season I was proud to have been accepted as an umpire, an arbiter. Disputed plays on the field are first settled by the players involved, and if no mutual conclusion can be reached, the captains of the two clubs are called on for a decision. If they cannot agree, the umpire renders a decision based on what he saw, and often what spectators, or “cranks”, may have seen.

In all my years of baseball, whether as a player, and observer, a fan, or a curious bystander, this was by far my most enjoyable. Sure, I rendered some unpopular decisions. I tell the captains before each game that if indecision goes from the players, to them, and then to me, someone is not going to be happy with my judgment.

But these ladies and gentlemen are just that: ladies and gentlemen, and it is refreshing, it is invigorating, and it is exhilarating. I cannot express it much beyond that; to be around strangers who have become friends in the common good of base ball places us all in a better time and place. No wonder they play it – they love it so much.

A two-day event this past weekend at The Hermitage’s Harvest Festival included six games that included two visiting ball clubs, the Bluegrass Barons from Kentucky and the Indianapolis Blues. The Stewarts Creek Scouts joined the Rag-tags and the Hog & Hominy Nine, made up of players chosen from the local league’s teams, and challenged these visiting clubs to worthy matches.

I expected good manners and courteous play, and both were exemplified in common spirit. The Blues and Barons were quality opponents, but I was truly touched by the visiting players as much as the hosting teams, how they held fast to the very soul of competitive play. It is truly a common bond among all.

It is this awareness of the purity of The Game that calls them out to compete, yet to hold on to their values.

Before each game I try to remind them how much base ball gives them by reciting a blessing: “May the way you play this glorious game, be the life you also choose to claim”.

From what I have learned about them, I believe they already knew that.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

[1] Rules and Regulations Adopted by the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF BASE-BALL PLAYERS Held in New York December 9, 1863. Amended February 7, 2016 by the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball for the 2016 season of play. From the leagues’ website. See footnote below.

[2] http://tennesseevintagebaseball.com/about-us/, retrieved October 3, 2017.

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Can You Help Tell Nashville’s Baseball Story?

For over two years, Joshua Maxwell and I have collaborated on a film project to tell Nashville’s baseball history (you can read my previous post here). We continue to work on production of our documentary, and we are seeking your help.

We are interested in acquiring any film footage, photographs, mementos, or memorabilia that you might be willing to share.

Anything Nashville baseball-related is of interest: Nashville Vols and Sulphur Dell; Negro League history, including the Nashville Elite Giants, Black Vols, and Stars, and Tom Wilson Park; City League, Tri-State, Larry Gilbert, and other amateur Leagues; high school and colleges; and of course, professional players born or living in the area. It is a daunting task, we know, but there are gems out there that would greatly add to our project. Hidden treasures are often found in attics, trunks, and photograph albums; but we especially need rare film footage!

Besides interviews already conducted, we have heard from someone who was the contractor in tearing down Sulphur Dell in 1969, a player on the 1955 Nabrico (Nashville Bridge Company) City League team (who owns a baseball signed by players on the league’s all-star team), an umpire with great stories of local baseball, and a part-time assistant at WKDA who worked with Nashville Vols announcer Larry Gilbert.

These are the stories we need to hear. But there is so much more.

Full credit will be given to anyone who provides information produced in our documentary, and we will be extremely grateful. Please contact me at 262downright@gmail.com if you have anything you feel may be of interest or are willing to allow us to use in the documentary.

If you feel  you can help, have questions, or need more information, you may also give me a call at 615-483-0380. Thanks!

Note: We are grateful to local sports writer Mike Organ who included our call for assistance in his Sunday, September 17, 2017 column of The Tennessean ( read Mike’s column here).

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Nashville Attendance and the Ebb, Flow of Minor League Baseball

On September 8, 1963, only 971 fans attended a double header between Nashville and Lynchburg at Sulphur Dell. It would be the final professional games played at the historic ballpark.

The end had been foretold by attendance numbers for several years. The Vols’ best year at the turnstiles had been in 1948, when 269,893 watched Nashville play, but the numbers never came close again until the death of the club. In 1954, the last of a three-year affiliation with the New York Giants, the total was 89,470. That was the year when Nashville slugger Bob Lennon hammered 64 home runs, but even that achievement was not enough to drive fans to the ballpark.

Nashville was not alone.

Fan support dwindled across the entire country during the decline of minor league baseball in the 1950s. By 1960, there were 22 minor leagues; in 1950 there had been 58.[1]

In his book, Leveling the Playing Field, Paul C. Weiler puts it in perspective.

“In the late 1940s there were more than 450 minor league teams drawing more than 40 million fans to their game – a team average of 90,000 a season. Then television arrive in American homes, drastically reducing the demand for minor league baseball. By the late 1950s attendance had plummeted to around 15 million, where it remained for the next 20 years.”[2]

The issue was such a concern to Nashville Vols co-owner Larry Gilbert that he sold his 50% ownership to his partner, Ted Murray. Soon in debt with the ball club, Murray looked for buyers, too, and in 1958 area civic leaders banded together to form Vols, Inc., a publicly-held company with intent to purchase the Vols from Murray.

Try as they may, in subsequent years fans did not show up, leading to the demise of the franchise after that fateful double header in 1963. The club drew 52,812 for their final year.

Even before World War II, when attendance waned after a sensational 1940 season. Nashville led the league from opening day, won the Southern Association regular season and playoffs pennants, then won the Dixie Series against the Houston Buffaloes. Attendance stood at 138,602 even though war was looming.

During the war years, attendance remained respectable:

1941      97,282

1942      96,934

1943      76,570

1944      146,945

In 1945, turnout was 83,014; an honorable figure as soldiers were returning home.

Sports writer Raymond Johnson, in his “One Man’s Opinion” column in the Nashville Tennessean, often addressed the issue. He could see the decline coming, and in 1952 gave his view of the matter for that season’s crowds.

“Unless the fans turn out in larger numbers when Those Vols return home Friday than they have been averaging this season, Nashville will finish last in league attendance for the first time since 1931…That was the last time Nashville finished in the cellar and the season when Those Vols set their all-time losing record of 102 games.”[3]

Baseball devotees stepped up somewhat; attendance figures ended at 113,193 for 1952.

But Johnson compared the waning appearance of fans to 1931, when totals were only 67,338. The club won only 51 games that season. He understood that fans liked to see winning baseball.

“That was the first season for night baseball in Nashville…But even the uniqueness of nocturnal ball failed to lure the fans out to see a ball club that was as interesting to watch as two black cats fighting on a moonless night.”[4]

Night baseball did not bring out fans. Neither did Bob Lennon’s remarkable home run season. Even Nashville’s unbelievable 1940 season did not relate to more fans in the seats. The 1948 season record attendance mark at Sulphur Dell occurred in Larry Gilbert’s final season as manager, then only fell to 238,034 in a Rollie Hemsley-led Vols repeat championship performance.

From then on, the challenge was a changing America: inventive television productions, expanding highways, and automobiles being produced instead of tanks.

The revival of baseball began in the late 1970s. Larry Schmittou was instrumental in bringing professional baseball back to Nashville after a 15-year drought, and was part of that revitalization.

Weiler tells how significant the interest was across the country.

“Then came the resurgence in interest in minor league (as well as major league) baseball among baby boom families who did not feel like staying home every night to watch television. By the late 1990s total minor league attendance had reached 35 million, an average of about 200,000 a season for each of the nearly 175 teams.”[5]

2016 regular season attendance for 160 teams in 14 minor leagues (including only teams affiliated with major league baseball) was just over 37 million.[6] That averages to just over 3,000 fans per game. Nashville Sounds attendance at First Tennessee Park was 504,060 in 2016[7].

Raymond Johnson, Larry Gilbert, Ted Murray, and the 4,876 stock holders of Vols, Inc. would have been happy with those numbers.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Sources

Newspapers.com

Paper of Record

Sabr.org

Notes

[1] Ian Kahanowitz. “A Brief History of The Minor League’s Reluctance to Integrate (Part 3),” 27outsbaseball.com, http://www.27outsbaseball.com/uncategorized/a-brief-history-of-the-minor-leagues-reluctance-to-integrate-part-3/, accessed August 10, 2017.

[2] Weiler, Paul C. (2009) Leveling the Playing Field. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] Raymond Johnson. “Vols Last in Attendance First Time in 21 Years,” One Man’s Opinion column, Nashville Tennessean, August 26, 1952, 15.

[4] Johnson.

[5] Weiber.

[6] Graham Knight. “Minor League Baseball Attendance in 2016,” Baseballpilgrimages.com, http://www.baseballpilgrimages.com/attendance/minor-leagues-2016.html, accessed August 10, 2017.

[7] “Pacific Coast League: Attendance,” milb.com, http://www.milb.com/milb/stats/stats.jsp?y=2016&t=l_att&lid=112&sid=l112, accessed August 10, 2017.

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MLB in Nashville? Nope

Jesse Spector, national baseball writer for Sporting News, published an online article on July 11, 2017, regarding potential cities for MLB expansion:

Eight cities that make sense for MLB expansion.

In his view, eight cities should be on target: Montreal, Charlotte, Portland, San Juan, Las Vegas, Mexico City, San Antonio, and Nashville.

Nashville? Here we go again. Hasn’t this story been written repeatedly?

I realize it is pure conjecture, but I think we have a long way to go, way down the road. We have no organized movement, no one with big bucks to step up to the plate (pun intended), and no place to play. So how can Nashville be on the list?

Sure, there could be an opportunity for a team to move, but the most logical choices are the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays. Both are in talks to build new stadiums. The Marlins are for sale for $1 billion. Know anyone who wants to buy them and move the franchise to Nashville?

And what would an expansion team cost? More than that.

Music City has only been a “big” city for a very short time, having just recently passed Memphis with Tennessee’s largest population, but there is always the chance of a crash as the growth has happened so fast. MLB would never take a chance on that in the short-term.

Since Atlanta, St. Louis, and Cincinnati are within 4 1/2 hours driving distance, it is doubtful MLB would want to dilute those fan bases. With those three cities being in the National League, Nashville could only become an American League city at that.

One never knows which cities are on the radar for team relocation or expansion unless it is heard straight from the commissioner. He did that yesterday during a press conference in Miami at the 2017 All Star Game:

MLB expansion won’t happen right away but Rob Manfred has three cities in mind

Montreal, Charlotte, and Mexico City top MLB commissioner Manfred’s list. Nashville? Not mentioned…

Lastly, The Tennessean published a story by USA Today’s Getahn Ward about another important subject: the cost of residing in our fair city, which now takes a salary of $70,150 to live in Nashville today:

Nashville ranked nation’s hottest single-family housing market

Nashville ranks as the No. 1 single-family housing market, according to the source in the article; the other the top five cities include Orlando, Fla., and Fort Worth, Dallas and San Antonio, Texas.

Key words: “single-family”. Which means, “on a budget”. To take it a step further, which single families are taking the crew to a major league game right now? According to statista.com, the average price of a ticket to an MLB game is $31.00. People on a budget certainly are not; according to baseball-reference.com, attendance is declining.

Remember, the NFL Tennessee Titans and NHL Nashville Predators are already here, battling for the same pro sports bucks versus each other. That’s without taking into consideration another potential major sports franchise, Major League Soccer, which would make ticket sales even more competitive.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see the New York Yankees come to Nashville for a regular-season game, but I’m afraid it won’t happen in my lifetime.

Here’s my advice for lovers of professional baseball in Nashville: go watch the Nashville Sounds at First Tennessee Park. They are here, and now. For a while.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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