Category Archives: Current

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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Nashville Baseball Documentary: A Work in Progress

Over a year ago I was approached by Joshua Maxwell about my interest in producing a documentary about Nashville baseball history, centered on the city’s historic ballpark, Sulphur Dell. He had produced “The Kitty League: Hometown Heroes” in 2015, an excellent documentary about the heroes of the class D minor league that spanned four states, and their very unique stories from as far back as the early 1900s.

We agreed to co-produce, combining his skills in the techniques of audio and video recording with my love for research and collecting.

A Kickstarter campaign was begun to allow Joshua to purchase the appropriate equipment and assorted needs to get the project off on the right foot. 45 backers pledged $5,790, along with our own support, to help bring this project to life.

Since then, we have accumulated over nine hours of video footage from interviews, Nashville Sounds and Tennessee Vintage Baseball game footage, and scoured image files at Metro Archives and Tennessee State Library & Archives along with personal collections.

We had been hopeful of premiering our collaboration last year, but there was so much more to do. Besides, producing a film to fit in an hour time  slot was a bit overwhelming, so we decided to postpone our project until July, 2017.

We have learned that mid-summer is not the best time to release a baseball movie.

We are asking for your patience once again, as it is imperative that the quality of our documentary is well-worth the telling of the story. Our investors and fans have been very patient, but today we are announcing that in April, 2018, our joint effort will be released.

Be looking for continued updates here, and should anyone have information deemed important to include, please email me at skip@sulphurdell.com or Joshua at westkyvideo@gmail.com.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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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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14th Annual Southern Association Conference at Rickwood Field

scan0001Yesterday, I attended the 14th annual Southern Association Conference in Birmingham, and want to take this time to encourage you to be a part of this event next year. The Rickwood Field SABR chapter put on quite a conference, led by David Brewer and Clarence Watkins; but the opportunity to visit Rickwood Field is great in itself – it is truly one of America’s historic ballparks.

To be able to hear presentations about baseball in the South, among friends in a casual setting, was great. To wax poetic: Baseball was literally “in the air”.  Attendees came from Mobile, Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Atlanta; we heard presentations about baseball in Montgomery (and pitcher Roy “Goat” Walker), Selma, the Southern Association, and vintage player A. T. Pearsall, but sidebar conversations were ongoing beyond.

An added treat was lunch with former Montgomery Rebels player and minor league manager Ted Brazell. One could literally hear and feel the passion Ted has with his love of the game of baseball. It was inspiring.

More than anything, the friendships rekindled and friendships made were more than worth the trip. The date could change, but put the first Saturday of March, 2018 on your calendar. You won’t be disappointed.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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