Category Archives: Negro League

Nashville’s Junior Gilliam Named 1953 National League Rookie of the Year

On October 3, 1953, The Sporting News named Harvey Keunn and Junior Gilliam as Rookie of the Year for their respective leagues. Keunn, a shortstop for the American League’s Detroit Tigers, finished first in voting with Boston Red Sox Tom Umphlett outfielder, St. Louis Browns shortstop Billy Hunter and pitcher Don Larsen finishing 2-3-4.

Gilliam, who beat out Jackie Robinson for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ second base position prompting Robinson’s move to the outfield, finished ahead of pitcher Harvey Haddix, outfielder Rip Repulski, and third baseman Ray Jablonski, all of the St. Louis Cardinals, in the voting for the National League honor.

Born in Nashville on October 17, 1928, Gilliam hit for a .278 average, stole 21 bases, and led the National League with 17 triples to earn the award. He had played for the Nashville Black Vols and Baltimore Elite Giants before being purchased by the Dodgers prior to the 1951 season. Gilliam spent two seasons with the Montreal Royals (International League, Class AAA), where he was league MVP in 1952

Sources

Nashville Tennessean

Newspapers.com

Paper of Record

Sabr.org

The Sporting News

​© 2018 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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“Bittersweet Goodbye: The Black Barons, the Grays, and the 1948 Negro League World Series”

A new book, “Bittersweet Goodbye: The Black Barons, the Grays, and the 1948 Negro League World Series (The SABR Digital Library) (Volume 50)” has been published and is now available. I am fortunate to be a contributing writer to this publication.

Released at SABR’s 20th annual Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference last week in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, all available copies of “Bittersweet Goodbye” quickly sold out at that event.

1948 is often considered by many the last, great season of the Negro Leagues. Jackie Robinson’s signing with Brooklyn in 1946, then becoming a member of the Dodgers in 1947, was the impetus that ended segregation in the majors. The popularity of the Negro Leagues began to diminish, as all eyes turned to Robinson and his successes on and off the field.

Edited by Frederick C. Bush and Bill Nowlin and associate editors Carl Riechers and Len Levin, this book includes biographies on the owners, managers, and players from the Homestead Grays and Birmingham Black Barons, and describes the detail of the final playoffs between the two teams to determine a final Negro World Series champion.

It also includes information on the two East-West All-Star Games, the Negro National League and Negro American League playoffs, along with the World Series.

Nashville-born Jim Zapp was a member of the Black Barons that season, along with 17-year-old Willie Mays.

Some of these biographies and histories are written by close friends. Friends of Rickwood members Jeb Stewart and Clarence “Skip” Watkins, both knowledgable resources for Birmingham baseball history, and friend and fellow Grantland Rice-Fred Russell (Nashville) SABR chapter member Peggy Gripshover, are included.

My biography is on Grays pitcher Bill “Willie” Pope. Born in Birmingham, his father moved the family to Pennsylvania where Willie played baseball and boxed, and ultimately became a strong, competitive right-handed thrower in the Pittsburgh area sandlots. His professional career took him to Pittsburgh and Homestead in the Negro Leagues, then to organized baseball in Canada at Farnham and St. Hyacinthe, Colorado Springs (Colorado) and Charleston (West Virginia), and winter ball in Mexico.

Standing 6’4” and weighing 247 pounds, his ultimate dream was to play for the Chicago White Sox. That opportunity passed him by, but his season with the magical Homestead Grays would be his legacy.

“Bittersweet Goodbye” is available from Amazon by clicking here.

Or, if you area  member of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research), it may be downloaded for free here at SABR’s Digital Library.

Not a SABR member? I encourage you to consider joining! An annual SABR membership is $65 (which works out to about $5 a month), with discounts available for three-year rates and for anyone under the age of 30 or over 65. Family memberships are also available. More information is here.

I hope you will enjoy reading about Willie Pope, Willie Mays, Jim Zapp, and many others who deserve our thanks for being the final bastions of Negro League history.

Note: Previous contributions to SABR publications include biographies on Sam Narron, published in “Sweet ’60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates” (SABR, 2013); Hank Schenz, published in “The Team That Time Won’t Forget: The 1951 New York Giants” (SABR, 2015); John Mitchell, published in “The 1986 New York Mets: There Was More Than Game Six” (SABR, 2016); and R. A. Dickey, published in “Overcoming Adversity: The Tony Conigliaro Award” (SABR, 2017).

A biography on Jack Scott in “20 Game Losers” is to be published soon. Profiles on former major league players Jim Turner, Charlie Mitchell, Sherman Kennedy, Bobby Durnbaugh, Jerry Bell, and Buddy Gilbert are ongoing, as well as Nashville Old Timers board member bios published here.

I continue to publish here and update www.sulphurdell.com on a regular basis.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Jackie Robinson at Sulphur Dell

Jackie Robinson appeared in Nashville six years after his heroic entrance to the major leagues when on April 5, 1953 he played at Sulphur Dell in an exhibition game against the Milwaukee Braves. It was the first of four consecutive visits for the two clubs as they journeyed from spring training.

Displaced at second base by one of Nashville’s favorite sons, Jim “Junior” Gilliam, Robinson played third. Jackie had a double and a single in three appearances in Brooklyn’s 3-1 win.

The ballpark was packed with 12,059 fans that day, many from the black community, as the outfield hills were overrun from those who flocked to the game. It had been only three years since Ray Dandridge became the first black player on an integrated team in Sulphur Dell when the Minneapolis Millers visited Nashville on April 9, 1950.

Black players Bill Bruton and Tennessean Robinson 1BGeorge Crowe of the Braves joined Robinson, Gilliam, and Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella in the starting lineups.

In 1954 the two clubs returned to the historic ballpark. On Sunday April 4 in the cleanup spot once again, Robinson amazed the 12,006 cheering fans by getting four singles in six trips to the plate, driving in two runs and scoring twice as the Braves won a slugfest 18-14 over the Dodgers.

Brooklyn won 10-8 on April 4, 1955 before 5,117 in attendance, but the hero of the game was Eddie Mathews of the Braves who slammed three homers along with Henry Aaron who hit one. Jackie Robinson had two singles and was walked twice while performing brilliantly at third base.

The Dodgers took their third win in four visits to Nashville on April 8, 1956, winning 12-2. Jackie had dropped down in the batting order but still managed to get two singles in four at-bats and one RBI as 11,933 attended the game.

It would be Robinson’s final season. His batting average diminished to .275 and he dealt with diabetes. Traded at the end of the year to the New York Giants, he chose to retire.

His legacy continues as a torchbearer for his race, not in only baseball, but as a voice in his community and across the United States.

© Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Junior Gilliam Way: A Fitting Tribute

Today a ceremony will be held at First Tennessee Park, home of the Nashville Sounds, to rename Jackson St. “Junior Gilliam Way” in honor of the former Los Angeles Dodgers player. Gilliam was born in Nashville near Sulphur Dell which was in the vicinity of Nashville’s new ballpark, and Jackson Street leads to the home plate entrance of the park.Junior Gilliam Way

It is a fitting tribute for one of Nashville’s favorite sons from the baseball’s post-integration era. But who was this man, born James William Gilliam on October 17, 1928?

His first baseball glove was given to him by his mother, a housekeeper, when he was 14 years old. Sulphur Dell was near his home, and groundskeeper Willie White is credited with allowing young Gilliam into the ballpark so he could hone his skills.

“He was one of my lambs around Sulphur Dell, a bashful fellow,” White once recalled. “He was a member of the Sulphur Dell Giants and we played games when the Vols were on the road.

“He was a natural from the very start. He was fast and could do everything, so I changed him into an infielder quick.”

At the age of 17 he signed to play for the Nashville Black Vols, an affiliate of the Negro League Baltimore Elite Giants. Gilliam continued to blossom as a player, learning to become a switch-hitter, and was known for his determination, bat control, and smart approach to the game.

Moving to the parent Elites, his manager was George “Tubby” Scales, who gave him his nickname “Junior”.

The Brooklyn Dodgers acquired Gilliam for their minor league Montreal club for the 1952 season. It was the same team which Jackie Robinson was sent to when Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey signed him to integrate baseball. Gilliam was to play second base for the Royals, and at season’s end his batting average was .278 and he had driven in 73 runs.

GilliamHe was selected as the International League’s MVP and his statistics were impressive: a .303 batting average and 109 RBI. Promoted to the parent club for the 1953 season, he was made the second baseman on a team which had won the National League pennant the previous season.

When the Dodgers broke from spring training and made their exhibition trek towards Brooklyn to begin the season, one of the stop-overs was at Sulphur Dell in Nashville. The Dodgers defeated the Milwaukee Braves 3-1 on April 5, 1953 as 12,059 fans turned out to see their hero Jim “Junior” Gilliam.

Warren Spahn was the losing pitcher as the Braves mustered only one run on catcher Ebba St. Claire’s home run over the high right field wall. The Dodgers’ Dick Williams doubled off the left field wall and droves in two runs.

But it was their hometown favorite they came to see, and he did not disappoint. The African-American community turned out in great numbers for the game, mostly taking a seat on the rolling hills of Sulphur Dell’s outfield as Gilliam was 2-for-4 at the plate.

On December 23, 1953 was named National League Rookie of the year The Sporting News. Brooklyn had won the pennant again and Gilliam had contributed two home runs in the World Series in a losing cause to the New York Yankees.

Once again as the club headed north to start the 1954 season, Brooklyn made a visit to Nashville. On April 4, 1954 before 12,006 fans at Sulphur Dell, the Milwaukee Braves defeated Brooklyn 18-14. Nine ground-rule doubles were called on balls hit among those seated on the outfield hills.

Carl Furillo smacked a grand-slam, and George “Shotgun” Shuba, Duke Snider, and Ed Mathews each hit homers. Roy Campanella pinch-hit and works the last inning behind the plate as Junior Gilliam played third, batted lead-off, and had two doubles and scored three runs.

The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles before the 1958 season, and Gilliam moved with them. The versatile athlete would eventually play most outfield and infield positions in his career and would become a favorite of Dodgers manager Walt Alston (who was his manager at Montreal). When Gilliam’s major league career ended after 14 seasons as a player, Alston added him to the Dodgers coaching staff.

Alston retired after the 1976 campaign and two candidates were considered as a replacement, Gilliam and Tommy Lasorda. When named to the position, Lasorda immediately asked Gilliam to remain on the coaching staff.

On September 15, 1978 Gilliam suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He passed away on October 8. He was 49. The National League title was won by the Dodgers the next day.

Gilliam’s tribute today not only calls attention to a great player but is a continuation of baseball’s capability to shorten the gap from the segregation and integration eras. There are others whose contributions to Nashville’s baseball history are honorable, too: Henry Kimbro, Hall of Famer Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, Sydney Bunch, Jim Zapp, Clinton “Butch” McCord, and others should be worthy mentions.

Mayor Karl Dean and Sounds owner Frank Ward will host the festivities beginning at 6:30 PM (Central) prior to Nashville’s game with the Iowa Cubs at 7:05. A special video message from longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully will be played.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Note: Much of this information came from Jeff Angus’ excellent article on Jim Gilliam published on SABR’s (Society for American Baseball Research) Baseball Biography Project and may be accessed here: Jim Gilliam. Thank you Jeff.

Additional sources include the Tennessean, Nashville Banner, and The Sporting News.

Should you wish to become a member of SABR (I highly recommend it as the resources are invaluable in researching) you may access more information here: Join SABR

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Listening In With Butch and Me

After developing http://www.sulphurdell.com 13 years ago I was invited to participate in a panel discussion at the Metro Archives in Green Hills, “Play Ball: A Look at Nashville Baseball“. Others on the panel included former Negro Leaguers Jim Zapp, Sydney Bunch, and Butch McCord along with former Nashville Vols Larry Taylor, Roy Pardue and a few others. After some discussion visitors were able to ask questions and casually view the exhibit of photographs, documents, and information on display.

The discussion helped to kick off renewed interest in the history of Nashville’s illustrious baseball past including Sulphur Dell. I will always be grateful for Metro Archives director Ken Fieth for his direction, and archivists Debie Oeser Cox and Linda Center, both since retired, for their assistance in making the event happen.

My father Virgil and I had become members of the Nashville Old Timers Baseball Association about that time, and Butch McCord was a member of the organization, too. Butch and I seemed to hit it off at the Archives and our relationship grew at Old Timers board meetings and events.

ButchMcCordI was invited to his home where I met his lovely wife, Christine, and on that first visit he told story after story, shared his books and newspaper clippings about the Negro Leagues, and told about what Jackie Robinson did for the African-American community. Subsequent visits to his home brought more stories, more books, and more clippings, and more Jackie Robinson.

On returning from a trip I took to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City he told me how proud he was that I took an interest in Negro League history. I told him it began with him.

Often during the baseball season he would call me on Saturday mornings and we would continue our discussions. A Nashville Sounds season ticket holder, Butch would always mention something over the phone that had happened at a Sounds’ game during the week.

Butch loved to talk about the past, but his love of baseball allowed him to continue his interest in his hometown Nashville club.

If the Sounds had played an away game on Friday night, the first thing he would say when I answered my phone was, “Did you listen to the game last night?”

Saying I had, we would discuss the game; if I hadn’t we would still discuss the game, as Butch wanted to tell about it and use it as a lesson about baseball. That’s the kind of fan he was.

Listening to baseball broadcasts was something my dad, my brother Jim and I shared over the years. Television had pushed me  away from that, but Butch helped bring me back to it.

I listen to the radio every chance I get, and tonight as the Nashville Sounds new season kicks off in Colorado Springs, I get another chance to hear my hometown Nashville club’s game. I’m anxious to know more about this club, the new players, and the new West Coast affiliation with the Oakland Athletics.

Nashville Sounds games are broadcast live in Middle Tennessee on 102.5 The Game (WPRT-FM) and online at http://www.thegamenashville.com/.

Won’t you join me as I “root, root, root for the home team” by listening to Sounds play-by-play announcer Jeff Hem’s broadcast of our favorite club? Game time is 7:35 P.M.

Butch passed away on January 27, 2011. I’ll be listening and thinking of him a little bit, knowing he’d be proud of me.

He’d be proud of you, too. Won’t you join us?

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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A Baseball Museum for Nashville?

On more than one occasion I have visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York; every baseball fan should visit in one’s lifetime. Exhibit displays are excellent (rotated often), library and research opportunities abound, and the ambiance of the quaint village is rarely paralleled.

Hiking, boating, and golf are just a few outside opportunities available, too, and should your son be on a team playing in a tournament nearby, that’s even better. Doubleday Field and the Cooperstown Dreams baseball complex host amateur games for youngsters and adults, and there is a Fantasy Week offered for those who want to learn from former pros such as Ozzie Smith and Phil Niekro.

My visits have included traveling with business associates and friends, and once I visited alone to do research in the library at the tutelage of Tim Wiles, who recently left as Director of Research at the Hall of Fame to become Executive Director of Guilderland Public Library some 60 miles away. Tim was able to access files on Nashville baseball which help immensely in my ability to tell local baseball history more completely.

Even with Tim’s valued assistance, those files were pretty thin.

All of those things aside, I often wonder why the National Baseball Hall of Fame is even in Cooperstown? In 1939 it was determined by the Mills Commission that a century before, Abner Doubleday invented The Game in Phinney’s field in the village named after the family of author James Finnemore Cooper. I get that.

2DayCome to find out, Doubleday was nowhere near Phinney’s field at that time; he was at West Point where he had entered the United State Military Academy the previous year. Doubleday never claimed to be the father of baseball, although he did have a relative by the same name who lived in the area in the early 1800s.

To boot, Cooperstown only has about 2,000 residents, is 4 1/2 hours away from New York City, and is in the middle of nowhere except for the beautiful countryside.

Some may like it that way, but I’m guessing that the location is a detriment to mass visits. The village may not be able to cater to more than those who currently stop by for a tour of the museum, take advantage of the library, or visit another venue.

So, why is “Cooperstown” in Cooperstown?

In reality, the Hall of Fame and Museum is not going anywhere even if I were to remotely suggest that Nashville would make a better and more accommodating home.

The question is this: Would local citizens and visitors to Nashville support a baseball museum, even if it was about regional baseball history only?

For one, I think they would. Baseball was not born in Nashville, and southern baseball has roots in many communities below the Mason-Dixon Line. However, as Nashville continues to experience rapid growth and with visitor momentum continuing to accelerate, new venues of opportunity are needed.

And everyone loves baseball.

Can two Halls of Fame exist? Yes. In Kansas City there is the Negro League Baseball Museum, and in Birmingham construction is underway for another one to emphasize African-American participation in the illustrious history of the Negro Leagues.

Besides, our “Athens of the South” calls out not only to the many local colleges and universities, it really is a testament to our being a center of learning. Locally, the Country Music Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame, Johnny Cash Museum are in full measure, with newly-announced George Jones and African-American Music museums on the horizon.

Wouldn’t a museum entrusted to the documents, images, oral and visual histories, and opportunity to view those traditions of yesteryear make sense, a repository of southern baseball history?

We have a new ballpark that will soon open near the site of beloved Sulphur Dell, which was once known as baseball’s oldest ballpark in existence. Games were played there as early as 1862. We have ownership and management of the Nashville Sounds who will be immortalizing a part of local history within the stadium, and a city whose leadership will allow for the same throughout the greenway outside the stadium.

The Old Timers Baseball Association of Nashville continues to promote baseball with scholarships, an annual award banquet, and monetary support to area ball fields and programs, too.

1DaySuccessful baseball programs at Vanderbilt, Lipscomb, Belmont, Trevecca, and nearby Cumberland are also a tribute to baseball roots in the area. Toss in local baseball  at the high school and youth league levels, and we can easily say “We know our baseball”.

19th Century baseball has taken a foothold, too; what began as a two-team league in Franklin and Nashville, in three short years the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball has expanded in middle Tennessee to Knoxville and Chattanooga.

This great opportunity to provide a location for the study of baseball and to view its visual and oral merits, all within a day’s driving distance from much of the United States, should not be overlooked.

I am sure we had an Abner Doubleday in our town once, too.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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12th Annual Southern Association Conference at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field

Rickwood Field, Birmingham’s historic ballpark, is preserved through the efforts of the Friends of Rickwood and maintains Rickwood, built in 1910 as home to the Barons and used by the Negro League Birmingham Black Barons.

Over 200 amateur games are still played there, and each year the AA Southern League’s Barons host a regular season turn-back-the-clock contest dubbed the “Rickwood Classic”; this year’s game will be played on Wednesday, May 27th, as the Barons host the Jacksonville Suns at 12:30 PM. Former New York Mets star Darryl Strawberry will be the featured guest.

2015 ProgramA visit to Rickwood should be on every baseball fan’s list of places to visit. The ballpark hails a time when Sunday doubleheaders were played in the sweltering heat and future major leaguers hoped to move up the ranks to the majors. Each time I visit I think of what it must have been like for Nashville Vols Buster Boguskie, Lance Richbourg, Tom Rogers, Phil Weintraub, Bill Rodda, Boots Poffenberger, and Babe Barna to have played there. And how proud they’d be that it is still there.

It is such an iconic picture of baseball’s past that Rickwood has been used for commercials and movies.

The movie about Jackie Robinson, “42” utilized the ballpark during filming.

Like baseball? Like history? Like the history of southern baseball? Then you’ll need to remember this for the future: the Friends of Rickwood group sponsors an annual conference dedicated to the history of the Southern League (1885-1899) and Southern Association (1901-1961). It is a gathering of historians, writers, fans, and players who are interested in sharing their research, stories, and memorabilia.

The 12th Annual Southern Association Conference was held this past Saturday on March 7 after an informal gathering the evening before.

P1011126What took place? Well, the usual shaking of hands, pats on the backs, and hugs from friendships gained over previous conferences. But that’s not all.

The 28 attendees were treated to presentations on the birth of the Southern League (1884-1885); a perspective on Atlanta’s Henry W. Grady, an integral leader in the formation of the 19th Century league; an image of the 1885 Nashville Americans; a summary of a new book on the horizon about the Negro Southern League; and images and film about the Birmingham Barons.

P1011127Of particular interest to me was film presented by Birmingham and Memphis historian Clarence “Skip” Watkins which included color footage of a game between the Memphis Chicks and Nashville Vols. In color. Wow.

During the all-day event, we were treated to viewings of memorabilia collections and discussions about the old ballparks, teams, and what the future holds for southern professional baseball.

David Brewer, director of Friends of Rickwood, and Watkins came up with the idea in 2003, and the program has been ongoing since that time. The setting has changed from time-to-time, too: Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Nashville have hosted the conference and there may be opportunity to be in New Orleans in 2016.

P1011129Which leads me back to my original questions: if you are interested, you cannot go wrong. New Orleans or Birmingham, the Rickwood Classic or just a visit to the grand old ballpark in Birmingham. If you get your chance, take it in.

You can always ride with me.

 © 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Filed under Current, History, Negro League, Research, Vintage