Category Archives: Opinion

Cobb to Cubans to Limbless Wonders

The sports page of the March 19, 1910 edition of the Nashville American included a story about exhibition games the Nashville Volunteers would be playing at Sulphur Dell in the weeks to come. Most games were scheduled with major-league clubs: a three-game series each with the Chicago Cubs and Brooklyn, two games each against the Philadelphia Athletics, Cleveland and Boston of the American League, and a game against Detroit. Buffalo of the Eastern League would visit for a single game on April 9[1].

The array of baseball wonders playing on those teams included future Hall of Famers: Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford of Detroit, Eddie Collins of the Athletics, Frank Chance, Johnny Evers, and Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown of the Cubs, and Nap Lajoie of Cleveland.

To conclude the exhibition schedule, a game against the visiting Cuban Stars would be held on April 12; the club would be comprised of players from Cuba and possibly other Latin American countries. It is unknown whether the game had been scheduled as a curiosity, or as a slow down to the quality of play afforded major-league teams before Nashville delved into the Southern Association season.

With some uncertainty, it appears this visiting Cuban club was formed in 1899 by Cuban baseball magnate Abel Linares, taking on the name “Cuban Stars” in 1905[2]. The March 1 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune reported a letter had been received from Linares the previous day stating his club would “sail for the states right after the close of the Cuban season on April 28”[3]. However, a team of “Cuban Stars” did arrive in New Orleans on March 31.[4]

For whatever reason, the game did not take place. Sports writer Allen Johnson of the American felt the fans had their fill of the special preseason games, and chose to report a special event that would take its place: boxing, on April 11. But not just any boxing.

Matches were scheduled “among the representatives of the colored race strictly”. The main event was to include “Kid” Ditmore, and “Kid” Dilihaunty; but almost eerily, there was mentioned a bout between “two old-time black fighters, each of whom now has but one leg.”[5]

Johnson’s account, under the heading “Clever Bouts in the Dell”, stated 1,500 people attended the fight and “some good bouts were put up by the dark fight fans of this city”. In the best satire he could muster regarding the one-legged pugilists, he wrote “This fight was very amusing while it lasted, but Chambers gave out in the second round”.

To add insult to injury, Johnson describes the participants as “limbless wonders”. Even though it was a sign of the times, it could be argued that this was an example of how quality sports reporting degenerated in only a few days into a wonder of its own.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

[i] Nashville American, March 18, 1910, p. 5.

[2] Burgos, Adrian (2011). Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball. New York: Hill and Wang.

[3] Chicago Daily Tribune, March 1, 1910, p. 15.

[4] Hartford Courant, April 5, 1910, p. 14.

[5] Nashville American, April 11, 1910, p. 8.

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Nashville Barons?

In the fall of 1961, attempts to continue the Southern Association were failing. Atlanta dropped out in hopes of becoming a major-league city, and Shreveport and Mobile decided not to remain in the league.

Birmingham was rumored to be moving its franchise to Montgomery, Huntsville, or Columbus, Georgia. Barons owner W. A. Belcher would not remain in Birmingham due to the enforcement by city officials prohibiting mixing of the races in athletic contests, even though the law has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal court.

If it was to continue, operating as a six-team loop became a real possibility. Not only was it difficult to navigate through the question of playing black players (in September the board of directors of Nashville had voted to include negroes beginning in 1962), finding major-league affiliations was another issue. Chattanooga (Philadelphia Phillies), Birmingham (Detroit Tigers), and Little Rock (Baltimore Orioles) had affiliations, but Nashville and Macon did not.

When Belcher decided to withdraw the Barons from the league, two cities were needed. It had been determined the Los Angeles Dodgers would attempt to place a team in Evansville, Indiana, and the Minnesota Twins would do the same in Columbus.

But the key was Nashville’s inability to round up a major-league club to supply financial support and players. The final discussion about survival in Nashville, a last-gasp solution, was for the Vols to take over the Barons-Tigers agreement.

raymond-johnsonNashville Tennessean sports writer Raymond Johnson was aware of the possibility on November 17. It came from a conversation he had at the Georgia Tech-Alabama football with Eddie Glennon, who had resigned as general manager of the Barons just a few days earlier.

“Here take this.” Glennon told Johnson. “You might need it.”

It was a roster of players that Detroit was going to supply to Birmingham for the 1962 season. It included: Stan Palys, George McCue, LeGrant Scott, Norman Manning, Bob Micelotta, Mike Cloutier, Bob Patrick, Rufus Anderson, John Ryan, Al Baker, Henry Duke, John Sullivan, Larry Koehl, Jerry Lock, Bob Humphreys, Jim Proctor, Willie Smith, Jim Stump, R. G. Smith, Gene Bacque, Bob Paffel, and Nashville native Jere Ray.

It is doubtful the Nashville Vols would have become the “Barons”, but it shows willing effort to keep the Southern going. Per Johnson, the assistance of Glennon and behind-the-scenes activity by Dick Butler, president of the Texas League, Sam Smith, head of the SALLY League, and Buzzy Bavasi of the Dodgers were instrumental in attempts to prolong the historic league.

The entire process became moot a few months later, as the decision to shut down came in January of 1962, ending Southern Association operations. In his column, Johnson described the recent troubles that led to downfall, an epitaph that could have been written on the league’s gravestone.

“Fire that destroyed Russwood Park took Memphis out…Sale of Pelican Stadium so a huge motel could be built at the site virtually eliminated baseball in New Orleans…Atlanta scribes got the idea the Georgia metropolis was too big for the Southern and they inoculated the fans so well that they forgot baseball was played in Ponce de Leon Park…They may not return for triple A ball, either…The fear of mixing black and white athletes caused Birmingham to withdraw.”

SOURCES

Johnson, Raymond. (1961, November 30). One Man’s Opinion Column: “Sadler Spins Like a Reel After Closing Tiger Deal”. Nashville Tennessean, p. 30.

Watkins, Clarence. Baseball in Birmingham. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2010.

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

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You Did It, Frank. You Did It.

I never thought we’d get to this point, but here we are. Fifteen years ago it wasn’t on the mind of most people, only a very few, and now we are putting a lid on one of the most storied years in the history of Nashville baseball.

Truly, it ranks right up there with 1901 when Newt Fisher organized the first Nashville ball club in the inaugural Southern Association season. It compliments the building of the new concrete-and-steel grandstand at Sulphur Dell in 1927.

Tonight is the final home game for the 2015 Nashville Sounds season. The team had a tough year but the Oakland A’s hook-up provided top-notch talent and the games have been exciting. This is our team.1stTnPark

First Tennessee Park is our ballpark, too. And it passed the test. It is a feel-good facility for Old Timers, Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, Millennials, and everyone’s kids and grandkids. The stadium is nestled into the spot it was designed for, and the inside allows for gentle flow before, during, and after games.

Everyone can munch, walk, talk, watch, and cheer without standing in line or getting pushed around. We can even watch the game when we choose to stand in line, and when we are elbows-to-elbows it’s because we want to be.

It wasn’t a trial run season, either. From Opening Day when the Sounds hit the ground running to provide fans the best possible baseball experience possible to now, everyone is happy. I’ll bet there’s more to come over the winter, more improvements. I’m excited about 2016 already and everyone else should be, too.

Couldn’t you just see how the Sounds staff evolved? From just getting by at an old delapidated facilty to really enjoying their workplace haven, the difference was evident. Smiles got a whole lot more conversation going than blank stares, all adding to a great atmosphere as Booster and those staff members have become the game-day face of the franchise inside the stadium.

Frank_Ward.fwI doubt any of them wishes they were back at Greer Stadium. First-class fans needed a first-class ballpark, the one we deserved.

Co-owner Frank Ward delivered it and deserves a thunderous applause for that. The full-time face of the franchise quieted a whole bunch of disparaging citizens who said it couldn’t be done, that it wouldn’t measure up, that parking would be a mess, and that it wouldn’t be worth it.

Those folks probably came to see a game or two. And loved it.

Frank, thanks. A lot. We knew it could be done, and you did it. And you did it right where it belonged all the time.

See you at the ballpark, where tonight I will enjoy the Game on more time.

Until next year.

© 2015 Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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The Trouble With Umpires

George Stallings was on his deathbed on May 13, 1929 when his doctor asked why the former baseball manager had a bad heart. Stallings was reported to have said, “Bases on balls, doc … those damned bases on balls.”

He may not have had enough time to give further detail, but couldn’t Stallings have been a little more specific? Was it the failure of his pitchers to throw strikes, or the failure of the umpire to call them?

A pitcher’s aim is to throw strikes. That’s what they do, or at least what they want to do. Umpires, on the other hand, use their judgment to call them as they see them. Therein lies the one word that have haunted them since before Abner Doubleday was knee-high to a shin guard: judgement.Ump

I believe that should Stallings have been able to carry on the discussion, he would most certainly pinned the blame on umpires. That’s a great yoke for arbiters to carry, the cause of his death being the decisions of umpires.

But that’s nothing new. Umpires have been criticized and disparaged for years. The pay scale is probably pretty good these days, but defending one’s decision in the old days could actually lead to fights among players, managers, and fans. The umpire’s job can often become a thankless one, too, as being judge and jury often leads to having to take cover.

One such instance occurred in Nashville on September 12, 1915. The Chattanooga Lookouts had taken the first game over the Nashville Vols at Sulphur Dell when all hell broke loose.

In the bottom of the second inning, umpire Dan Pfenninger removed Nashville outfielder George Kircher from the coaching box. When Vols manager Bill Schwartz argues against Pfenninger’s action, unhappy fans begin to toss bottles from the grandstands. The trash literally covered the field.

The disturbance continues for nearly ten minutes as a few fans begin to infiltrate the playing field and are dispersed by an officer. Four spectators who had been seen hurling bottles onto the field were arrested.

Play resumed, but in the bottom of the third umpire Ted Breitenstein twice reversed a decision at second base and another disturbance began as a bottle aimed at Pfenninger strikes Nashville catcher Gabby Street on the arm.

Pfenninger forfeits the game to the Lookouts 9-0 after the crowd surged onto the field and threatened Chattanooga manager Kid Eberfield. He had climbed into the bleachers to take a bottle away from a raucous fan who had hit him on the head with a thrown bottle. Lookouts players removed their leader from the fray and intercede in their leader’s verbal barrage.

Stallings, who was a pugnacious bulldog of a manager, would probably have sided with Eberfield’s actions and taken great delight in those two particular umpire’s plight.

But shielding oneself from players, managers, and fans was not always the responsibility of the umpire himself, as leagues began to take a protective approach. Havoc was not to reign at each and every disagreement.

For example, Southern Association president Robert H. Baugh must have had enough of such shenanigans and on October of 1916 decreed that beginning with the 1917 season any player put out of a game by an umpire would be automatically fined $10.

Rules of conduct that included fines did not always make for keeping the peace. On June 25, 1941, Nashville pitcher Boots Poffenberger was suspended for 90 days by league president Trammel Scott. It seems Boots was upset with umpire Ed “Dutch” Hoffman’s calls, and in the fifth inning of the previous night’s game had been ordered off the field by the arbiter after “continual griping and use of abusive language”.

Instead of leaving the field, Poffenberger turned and threw the ball at the umpire, hitting him in the chest protector but not injuring.  Commenting on Poffenberger’s suspension, Nashville manager Larry Gilbert declared, “I’m through with him.  He won’t pitch for Nashville any more”.  Poffenberger won 25 games the previous season and had won seven and lost only three up to the unfortunate confrontation.

But he never pitched for Nashville again.

We have to hand it to the ump for keeping his head in the game, too. On April 25, 1948 in Mobile, Buster Boguskie of Nashville and the Bears’ George Shuba were both ejected for scuffling at second base after Shuba’s hard slide in an attempt to break up a double play.

As the two were rolling in the infield dirt Mobile’s Stubby Greer, who had been at second, ran home and when Nashville coach George Hennessey protested umpire Red McCutcheon’s decision to count the run, Hennessey was tossed.

And on July 18 of that same year umpire Bill Brockwell ejected four Nashville Vols in their 10-3 loss in Chattanooga.  Buster Boguskie was sent packing 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.

Someone has to be in control, don’t they?

Stallings would have been upset at the umps for an entirely different reason in another game 1952. On April 25 the start of the game in Nashville was delayed by twelve minutes due to the belated appearance of umpires Walt Welaj and Andy Mitchell. They exclaimed they “were rubbing up baseballs”.

Twelve minutes can’t be so bad, but isn’t that another thing umpires do before each game? Was there more baseballs than they could handle that day?

A few guys give the position a bad name, however. All the way back in 1903, J. E. Folkerth, the baseball umpire who had passed bogus checks of $25.00 to Nashville manager Newt Fisher and three others, was given a sentence in criminal court this morning of three years in the state prison.

Crime doesn’t pay, even if you receive the benefit of the doubt; but steps were taken in the 19th Century to hire and keep the best umpires.

The organizing of the inaugural Southern League for the 1885 included the hiring of an umpire staff of four men at $75 per month and $3 per diem for expenses. That was decent pay by some standards: in 1878 National League teams had to pay umpires $5 per game.

By the end of the season, five of the eight clubs requested that the league president consider increasing that amount. It was hard to keep them on the staff if they were underpaid and could not cover their expenses.

And the owners did not want to pay it out of their own pockets, either.

Beyond that, one season was all it took for conscientious owners to realize the importance of having their games to be overseen in an honest and worthy manner. It was still a “gentlemen’s game”, and it was to have stayed that way.

And going nose to nose with an umpire to argue a call can be hazardous to one’s health, as not all umpires remain “gentlemen”. On October 22, 1933, while managing a barnstorming team playing in Mexico City, Nashville’s Lance Richbourg was struck in the face by Cuban umpire Senor Hernandez after Richbourg disputed a decision at home plate.

For the remainder of his career and beyond, Richbourg suffered from the effects of sciatic rheumatism. Could his encounter have been the cause?

And then there are substitute umpires. Consider the case of one James Hillery, a multi-talented player for Nashville’s first professional team. A gentlemen? Yes. Qualified to call balls and strikes when no league umpire is present? Yes.

But how long does the honor of an umpire last, no matter that his reputation precedes him.

On April 1, 1885 before a home town crowd of 1,500, a clear picture of what lies ahead begins to focus. The newly-formed Nashville Americans topped the visiting Clevelands by a score of 15-7 on that day. There is nothing unusual about that, but James Hillery was asked to serve as umpire.

Was he filling in for an ump who didn’t show up for the game? Had umpires in the fledgling league not been assigned for exhibition games?

There is no evidence that he did other than discharge his duties as asked and as expected. But something happened, lending to the fact that all umpires, and players for that matter, should always hold themselves to the standard set before them.

Without more detail other than the reporting of its occurrence, on June 1, 1885 visiting Chattanooga wins over Nashville 6-2. After the game, the directors of the Nashville Baseball Club indefinitely suspended third baseman James Hillery for drinking, and assess a $50.00 fine. Although he returns 10 days later, a precedent is set.

Rogues, rhubarbs, and umpires? Just part of the game.

In defending the standing of his trade in his book Standing the Gaff (1935), long-time Southern Association umpire Harry “Steamboat” Johnson may have said it best:

“A doctor has an undertaker to cover his mistakes, and umpires don’t. When (a physician) makes a mistake, it is buried and forgotten. When I make one, it lives forever. Play ball.”

© 2015 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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Baseball Brotherhood

DadBoSkipOur family has always loved baseball. Our dad, Virgil Nipper, was always at the ballpark playing, coaching, or watching; one or all of us were usually with him. Mom said that when he was playing City League ball she was either at Shelby, Centennial, or Morgan Park watching him play nearly every Saturday and Sunday.

Mom didn’t stand a chance of not enjoying baseball. If she didn’t love baseball when she and dad met, she learned to love it. I understand dad was pretty good and was bound and determined to teach his boys how to play.

My brother Jim (“Jimbo”, to me, mostly shortened to just “Bo”) and I were taught everything there was to know about The Game: how to throw, certainly, and how to hit. I wasn’t that great at either one, but Jim had a strong arm and always could knock the ball out of the park. My shortcomings (“weak arm, average hitter” is bound to have been written on some scout’s notes) are blamed on my being left-handed.

Ahem.

Besides, I wore glasses. No, wait. Come to think of it, my brother did too, so I can’t use that excuse. He was just better.

There’s something else Bo is better at, too. He is pastor of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Johnson City, Tennessee and a blessing to not only his parishioners but to his family as well.

Have a theological question around the dinner table? For over thirty years discussions about religion have often been intermingled with baseball and other sports.

I admire his perception about life’s experiences; always have, always will. I suppose he enjoys our chats about baseball, too, and I am grateful that we have a relationship beyond those subjects.

A few weeks ago I came across a bat that was autographed by our grandfather, Jack Waddell, who was a sporting goods sales rep and another great influence on our lives. I posted an image of the bat on various social media outlets, and a few days later Jim sent me one of his unique perspectives of our lives at the ballpark.

To explain the setting for the content of his letter: Dad was one of the organizers of the Little League park that was built at the entrance to Shelby Park and sponsored by the Downtown Optimist Club back in the early 1960s. It was another time when our family was at the ballpark; not necessarily playing, but being there while dad and other Optimist Club members were installing fences, sowing grass seed, setting up irrigation, and building a concession stand.

We played there, too, and after our Little League days Dad coached both of us in amateur ball in games all around Nashville. Shelby Park, right next to the Cumberland River, was our “home” park. I’m sure there is still a bit of Nipper DNA in the dirt there.

Bo remembers many things much better than I do (remember, I’m left handed) and his letter helped me to recall an earlier, more peaceful time. I hope it does the same for you:

“I looked at the bat you had on Facebook, and, for the first time in many years, I really missed baseball…..

“Not baseball as it is today, but, as it was….

“Simpler.  No frills, just right…..

“Just dust and dirt and grass and heat on hazy Saturday mornings; and the lights at night time, with the bugs climbing up into the light, ascending then descending in an awkward, erratic way – like they don’t really know where to go, but didn’t ever want to leave.  The humid air from the Cumberland, made homers die and liners float, the sound of the bat connecting with that ball was a sound that still rings in the heart of my ears. The hard run to first, or, the slide into second, and a fresh dirt stain to match the one of grass I received robbing a kid of his double in his first at bat. The next time he stood in the box he gave me a stare of hate that only lasted until he swung a third strike and twisted and fell trying to kill that ol’ horsehide. Even his own teammates laughed him down from his anger, to where even he had to smile underneath that helmet that had slid down over his slightly freckled face, a toothy grin – wiped quickly away so as to not admit defeat or so that his daddy wouldn’t swat him once he got home.

“Those real dugouts, with steps down into that dirt, not like other ones just built in top of the ground.  Those dungeony, clammy holes in the ground, where we sat on benches of wood, splinters and all, telling jokes and losing interest when the team was out on the field, waking up from our stupor when a foul ball would rake across the screen of our dugout. Then – we ‘d sit up straight and acted like we had good sense and cared about what just happened!

“We were the coolest in our button-up uniforms and tight-hosed socks, with tightly tied shoelaces so that there weren’t any trips stretching a single into something else.

“The smell of those concessions: hotdogs, popcorn, the sound of the ice shaver making snow cones, and of course, the Double Bubble, gum that ended stuck to a Momma’s shoe more than staying in our mouths.  “Atta boy, Joe!” we’d yell as our buddy sliced a hit to right field-yelling as loud as we could, but, with such exuberance – We’d lose that gum, somewhere between the bleachers and the concession stand. Watch your step, especially on a hot Saturday morning, a gooey surprise that can only be removed with some ice and a used Popsicle stick….

“Those were the days of no worries, when we only went to show up and swing a bat, or, shag some flies. And we were always up for it – come heck or high water, come bright sultry sun or a downpour of rain. We stood willing and ready. Glove in hand, or, sometimes hanging from the barrel of that wooden bat–draped across our shoulder.  Drooping pants, disheveled shirts, hot woolen clothes with the name of some school or market in script across our chests. Sweating even before the game begins, only because a touch of wool acts that way.

“Yep, those were the days, simpler days. A time gone past. I welcome them back, only I can’t run any longer or even swing a mean bat without aggravating my rotator cuff or twist a knee or back muscle…

“They were heavenly, those days, but we didn’t know it. But we do now, and sadly, it is too late.

“Heaven can wait. We’ll find it again. I know we will, with legs that can fly, like wings on our heels, swift and true again. It will come, and I can’t wait; but wait I must.

“And patiently I will…

“Peace in this world can’t be any sweeter than the good ol’ days of baseball.

“Love, Bo”

Thank you brother. I love you too. Peace be with you.

© Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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The Demise of a League: Fred Russell Explains

The demise of the Southern Association at the end of the 1961 season brought an end to one of the longest running leagues at the time. League president George M. Trautman faced the press in January of 1962 with painful words.

“I don’t like to be sentimental at a time like this. But it is tough to preside over a session that marks the exodus of a league as old and respected as the Southern.”

It was not unexpected. Total attendance across all minor leagues had dropped from 41,900,000 at the peak in 1949 to 10,900,000 in 1961, a 75% drop in only 12 years.

Fans picked up the pace near the end of World War II, but slowed rapidly as the new decade began. Nashville’s drop from 228,034 in 1949 to 64,460 in 1961 is telling in itself. That’s a 72% decline.

So where did the fans go? Nashville’s demise ran about even as other cities, and by 1961 two stalwart cities of the league, Atlanta and New Orleans, had already dropped out.

Russell-FBOnce again, we turn to dependable Fred Russell, sports editor of the Nashville Banner and contributor to The Sporting News. He wrote a series of articles that the national sports journal published between March 28 and April 11, 1962. In it, he explained the reasons given by those “in the know.”

It would be easy to surmise that the main reasons for declining visits to ballparks were television, air conditioning, and automobiles were the culprits. I have done that before. But is that really why?

Well, yes, and then some.

Russell begins his explanation by asking his readers a few questions in “Why Did Southern Go Under” in the March 28, 1962 edition of The Sporting News:

“Who killed the Southern? What killed the venerable league, referred to just a couple of years ago as the most stable in the minor league orbit? Could it have been avoided?

“Or was it inevitable?”

Adding to the banter of dissatisfied Southern Association members who questioned the leadership of the league, including owners who have used their long-term power to solve short-range problems, Russell gives a list of reasons:

“Apathetic fans, rising opportunity of outdoor participative sports (particularly boating), bowling’s boom, major league baseball telecasts, television itself, air-conditioning comfort, slower games, poorer teams, indifference of major league officials to a quickly deteriorating situation, too much dependence on the majors, inability to meet competition, refusal to accept Negro players (until too late), football’s gradual encroachment on the sports fan’s late-summer attention, unaggressive leadership, etc.”

There you have it. It was more than one, or two, or three things. It is striking that there was so much dissension, but one does not lose sight of explanations that could be used today in criticism of everything that is wrong with baseball.

However, Russell goes one step beyond.

“My own belief is that the biggest single reason for declining interest in minor league baseball is the lack of any continuing identity between clubs from one year to the next.

“It used to be you would attach yourself to some favorite. He might stay with your home-town club for several years, and with him, maybe a bunch of other players you felt close to. It was fun to watch their progress when they advanced to the big leagues.”

There you have it. Russell was warning owners and fans alike that things had changed, not for the better, and without teams having players that the fans could relate to it washed out the reason for loving one’s team.

In 1972 Curt Flood challenged the rule that allowed Major League Baseball to have antitrust exemptions regarding player contracts. Flood passed away in 1997 and did not live long enough to know legislation was passed in 1997 and 1998 that gave major league players antitrust protection.

Although Organized Baseball rebounded from early free-agent signing, multi-year contracts have kept players with the same team for longer periods than just a few years. The trade-off in most cases has been exorbitant salaries.

At the time of the Southern’s passing it was not known that Nashville and other cities would make valiant efforts to resurrect their teams. But the damage had been done, and after attempts to bring the glory days of minor league baseball back it would be 15 years or more for some cities to succeed.

Fred Russell explained the complications of baseball’s struggles and brought light to questions about minor league baseball of the day. This beloved sports writing sage had the answers then.

Funny thing, how wise he was about those same questions today.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Note: The Tennessean’s Nine-inning (part) series in conjunction with the Nashville Sounds’ new ballpark opening continues daily and may be viewed by clicking here: “Coming home to Sulphur Dell“.

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