Category Archives: Opinion

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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Father’s Day, 2017: Remembering Dad and Harmon Killebrew

Our father, Virgil Nipper, was inducted into the Nashville Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008 at the 69th annual Old Timers banquet at the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel. It was a prestigious honor for dad, one that includes local greats W. A. Wright, Larry Cole, Joe Casey, and Bobby Reasonover, among many others.

Dad has always been friendly and jovial, but most certainly humbled by his award. His personality was at its best when talk turned to sports and baseball, and that night was one of the best. He had a way of reeling in others with his stories, but mostly from his honesty and humility.

The following year as president of Old Timers, I was able to greet our 2009 banquet speaker, Harmon Killebrew, at the airport. He and his wife Nita were congenial folks, very cordial, and they were looking forward to an extended visit with relatives in the area along with being available to our board members and guests at the banquet.

A prolific slugger who spent 22 years in the majors, Killebrew was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984. At the time of his retirement, he was second only to Babe Ruth in American League home runs. I was humbled by his on-field accomplishments, but his graciousness soon put my awe to rest.

I explained the format of our banquet, and when the time came for him to make his address, he did not disappoint. He was a stirring guest, free with his stories, and he held the audience spellbound. To everyone’s surprise, he remained in the banquet hallafterwards and signed just about any memorabilia item brought to him. While our banquets usually end around 9:30 p.m., he stayed on for over an hour and fifteen minutes.

Before he made his way to his hotel room, I asked if he would mind meeting our board of directors for breakfast the following morning. He agreed.

I took the opportunity to seat him at the head of a table of around 14 in the hotel restaurant. Dad sat to his right (yes, I did it on purpose), and they talked and talked. Dad was in his element, and afterwards told me it what a great opportunity it was.

Almost a year and a half later, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Rickwood Classic, a Birmingham Barons ‘turn-back-the-clock’ game played once a year at Rickwood Field. Harmon was the featured guest that year, and would be throwing out the first pitch at the game, to be held on June 2. I was invited to attend an informal gathering at the Barons home park, the Hoover Met, the night before.

As a guest of the Friends of Rickwood, I arrived at the press box and watched others greet the affable Killebrew. Once everyone had said hello, I ambled up to him and reached out my hand.

“Harmon, I don’t know if you remember me or not. I’m Skip Nipper; we were proud to have you at our Old Timers banquet in Nashville last year.”

“Of course, I do. How’s your dad?”

I was literally stunned that a Hall of Famer, no matter how humble, no matter how famous, no matter how time had separated our banquet and breakfast in Nashville, would ask about dad.

But then, I knew another Hall of Famer who would have said and done the same thing.

Rest in peace, dad. And say hello to Harmon for me.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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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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