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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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Pete Rose and a Baseball Stain

One of my great memories as a father is having played catch with my kids. One particular day my youngest son Chris wanted to throw and went to his room to get a baseball. He was playing in Little League and was a strong, hard throwing left-hander. His throws could more aptly be called “scorchers” instead of “tosses”.

As we separated about 40 feet from each other, he hummed his first pitch to me but it took a couple of hops (“worm burners” my dad used to call them) and went under my reach. I turned and retrieved the ball and took a look at the grass stain on it. It had an autograph on it.

grass stained baseball“Pete Rose” was clearly legible as the grass stain had not perpetrated the autograph. Pete’s signature was clear as a bell.

I said, “Chris, you brought a ball that has Pete Rose’s autograph. Don’t you want to hold on to it?” He shrugged, as it was more important that we have a ball to catch than not.

I examined the ball for more autographs, and found another: “Bill Boner”. The Nashville mayor’s signature was not as legible since a green smear came over the “er”.

A decision had to be made. Do I rescue the icon of baseball lovers everywhere by stopping our backyard encounter with the National Pastime, or do I continue to play catch?

Impatient during the delay, Chris finally yelled, “C’mon dad, throw it!” Our throwing to each other continued.

In 1987 Greer Stadium hosted a two-game exhibition series between the Montreal Expos and the Cincinnati Reds, the parent club of the Nashville Sounds. As my uncle Walter Nipper was a member of the ownership group of the Nashville club, he invited my dad, me, and my children onto the field to watch batting practice and shake hands with players.

Uncle Nip gave each of my boys a baseball to collect autographs. My oldest son Doug was able to get the signatures of a couple of the Reds players, most notably Barry Larkin (who would be named to the Hall of Fame in 2012) and Chris had to settle for Pete Rose and the mayor (I specifically remember Chris asking Ron Dibble to sign his ball, but Dibble told him “no”, that Chris didn’t even know who he was).

All this leads me to yesterday’s announcement that evidence had been found that Pete Rose had gambled on baseball games (including his own team, the Cincinnati Reds) while he was a player. Since then mainstream media, radio talk shows, and social medial posts have been rampant both critically and in support of Rose’s potential reinstatement to Baseball by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. I have bantered back and forth with Facebook friends today, and here is my take on it.

Is Rose eligible for reinstatement because he finally confessed?

No. He knew the rule. It’s Rule 21 under the heading “Misconduct”, instituted for good reason: to keep players from taking payouts to affect the outcome of a game and ruining the nature of The Game. Rose knew the rule but chose to ignore it.

Many people compare Rose’s gambling issue to the Chicago Black Sox scandal (which lead to Rule 21), but there was no such rule in 1919 when the Black Sox scandal occurred. Chicago player Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball in 1921 by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was a great player who Babe Ruth patterned his hitting stance on. Jackson often has been mentioned in the same sequences of support as for Rose.

Another contention questions whether Rose’s actions are as bad as PED users including Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriquez, Ryan Braun and others, along with questions of the character of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Mickey Mantle.

Really? Aren’t these entirely different sets of circumstances?

To put anything into one’s body to enhance athletic performance has long been considered “against the rules”. No matter that former MLB commissioner Bud Selig took so long to address the issue (remember, Sosa and McGwire were swatting long home runs, and lots of them, while “juiced”), the PED issue became a distraction and subsequent steroid use has been banned.

That banishment has left many fans with a bad taste in their mouth, including me. I see no reason to include known steroid-users from Hall of Fame selection. And the argument that other moral issues should keep outstanding players out of Cooperstown should hold no bearing, either, if there was no rule against it.

Otherwise, does Joe Jackson get tossed into the A-Rod, Ryan Braun, etc. category?

When Cobb and Ruth were playing there was no National Baseball Hall of Fame and I doubt they were too worried about what people thought of their lives beyond the ball field. When Mantle was playing, he thought he was going to die at a young age and did some things that may have been morally wrong but I don’t believe were against baseball rules.

Even if Rose were to be reinstated, which he won’t, he will never be elected to the Hall of Fame. That conversation, his appeals, and consideration for anything but being a proven liar over and over, should end.

Hall of Fame selection is an honor. A great player? Yes. Charlie Hustle? You bet. But according to the rules for voting on players by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for Hall of Fame membership, there is one glaring rule that can never be overlooked:

5. Voting: Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

I suppose three out of six ain’t bad.

Pete does not need the money that Hall of Fame membership brings. He makes plenty of money right now signing baseballs and memorabilia. Let him ponder his own flaws that will keep him from Hall of Fame selection forever.

If he can only be honest with himself.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Boguskie: Most Popular Nashville Vols Player Ever?

Sulphur Dell played host to many teams, mostly the Nashville Vols but also the Negro League Nashville Elite Giants, Nashville Cubs, and Nashville Stars. With games played there through 1963, fans are bound to have a favorite player or two.

In January of 2014 I wrote a blog entry that asked the hypothetical question, “The Nashville Vols Era: Did You Have a Favorite?” which led me to add an unscientific poll on http://www.sulphurdell.com with no parameters other than listing a few of my own. Buster Boguskie, Buddy Gilbert, Bobby Durnbaugh, Jack Harshman, Jim O’Toole, and Jim Maloney are the players that I receive the most questions about, so they were added to the poll but there was also an option for “write-ins” by clicking on the “Other” selection.

The poll ended at 7 PM tonight, and it’s time to share the results:

poll2

The overwhelming selection is Buster Boguskie. Always a fan favorite, Boguskie played for Nashville from 1947 through 1954 and due to his longevity and popularity was often called “The Mayor of Sulphur Dell”. Read a previous blog entry about Boguskie by clicking here.

A few observations about the poll:

I should have been more specific in asking the question about player popularity. “Who was your favorite player you ever saw play at Sulphur Dell?” would have disqualified some of the entries received. Hall of Famers Waite Hoyt and Kiki Cuyler played for the Vols in the 1920s and it is doubtful that anyone still living would have seen them play. The same goes for Boots Poffenberger (1940, 1941), Frank Duncan (1942), and probably Hal Jeffcoat (1946, 1947), and Butch McCord (Nashville Cubs 1947).

However, legitimate players named included Chico Alvarez, George Schmees, Bob Lennon, and Earl Averill, Jr.

Soon there will be a new poll to select players, owners, managers, coaches and others to a Sulphur Dell Hall of Fame. Be looking for it, and be sure to vote for your favorite. This poll will have selections by decade beginning in the 19th Century and will include a short biography to aid in learning about each nominee.

In the meantime, congratulations to the spirit of Buster Boguskie and his selection as “fan favorite”!

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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New Friends, Old Friends, and Ballpark Notes

SD OutsideApril 17, 2015 will always be a special memory for me; so many great things happened that day. Some were expected, many were not, but with the opening of First Tennessee Park near the site of the Sulphur Dell ballpark all were a dream come true.

Here are a few observations, special memories, and special people who were there. I’ll remember these for a long time:

  • Carol Yochem, president, Middle Tennessee Region, First Tennessee Bank. We were able to speak for a few minutes before the ribbon cutting. It was our second meeting; the first was at the unveiling of the new ballpark concept. Carol, thank you for your kind words in person and in your Tennessee Voices column of Friday’s Tennessean, and thank you for being the driving force behind our beautiful new ballpark.
  • My wife Sheila, my son Chris and grandson Brody, my father Virgil and brother Jim. We were able to attend Opening Day together. These are the special people in my life who have supported my research and writing for many years. Thanks for being there to share wonderful memories.
  • Dave Ammenheuser, Tennessean Sports Columnist. We were able to hear stories from Nashville Vols Buddy Gilbert, Larry Taylor, Roy Pardue, and Bobby Durnbaugh. Wasn’t that one of the best baseball moments? You are a true professional, but your recent friendship means more than a walk off grand slam homer over the Sulphur Dell right-field fence.
  • Farrell Owens, Andy Lane, and Eddie Dempsey. Friends extraordinaire, it was great to relive stories of baseball history with you while we were navigating the new ballpark.
  • Toby Compton. You have become the reliable face of the Nashville Sports Authority. Your ability to alleviate concerns for building costs and traffic issues has been top-notch.
  • Ushers and operations staff at First Tennessee Park. When the ushers wipe the seats off before letting fans sit in them, that’s a professional service that was missed at Greer Stadium. Food and beverage service? You bet it was.
  • Thomas Trotter and the grounds crew. These guys do not get enough accolades. Yes, it was a new field, but Thomas and his team were able to perfect it for their specifications. It was perfect.
  • Media coverage. The number of reporters and cameras along “media row” on the third base concourse gave credence to the importance of this historic event.
  • Families and friends of Nashville Vols players Bobby Durnbaugh, Larry Taylor, Buddy Gilbert, and Roy Pardue. Getting these guys to the ballpark to share their stories are nearly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. How great was it to see these Sulphur Dell idols together?
  • Sulphur Dell marquee. Not the original but a great testament to what once was, no doubt. Just thinking about the memories that are stirred by seeing this iconic marker. Wow.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

 

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From My Bookshelf: “The Greatest Game Ever Played in Dixie”

Dixie coverWith the descriptive sub-title of “The NASHVILLE VOLS, Their 1908 SEASON, and the CHAMPIONSHIP GAME“, John A. Simpson’s book (2007, McFarland & Company, Inc. Jefferson, North Carolina & London) gives a true account of an especially historic game at the end of an especially historic season.

It did not take nearly eight years from when first published for me to read this book nor review it. Actually, I found it to be such an amazing account from first reading that I reread it, finishing it again a few days ago.

Since I thirst for anything about Nashville baseball, I could not help myself. Now it’s time for me to tell you what I think about it.

The title of the book comes from a description by Nashville Tennessean sports writer Grantland Rice about the last game of the 1908 season, played for the Southern Association championship between the Nashville Vols and New Orleans Pelicans at the Vols’ home field, Athletic Park.

Simpson’s research of Nashville baseball in the early 20th Century comes through in great detail, as he writes of events leading up to this final game. His ability to set the stage for the season, then ending with specific line scores, playing careers of the ballplayers, and a final argument about Nashville player Jake Daubert’s Hall of Fame credentials summarize his wonderful volume.

John takes his reader from explicit reasons for Nashville’s involvement in professional baseball from its roots, with an early description  of the ballpark which would also become known as Sulphur Dell in 1908 (once again, named by Rice in a sports article and immortalized in prose), to the detail surrounding the game.

The game itself is described by inning-by-inning as players come to bat, pitchers’ throw their pitches, and umpires make their calls. The fans number over 10,000 according to Rice, and they jeer and cheer and boo and hiss, giving atmosphere to the challenge of the competing teams attempting to win that last game and earn the right to the pennant.

Well-respected Nashville manager “Berny” Bill Bernhard assembled a special team for the season, including speedy Harry “Deerfoot” Bay, Wiseman, and Daubert to complement pitchers Hub Purdue, Vedder Sitton, Win Kellum, George Hunter, and Johnny Duggan. Bernhard gets in the action from time-to-time, too, and proves a valiant leader and mentor in the championship drive.

Gathering information and data from a myriad of sources has allowed Simpson to accurately detail players’ families, attitudes, and idiosyncrasies even up until each one’s death. In the end, the chapter named “Life After Baseball” helps Simpson’s readers command a deeper understanding of what happens when players’ careers are finished and how they deal with being away from The Game.

He summarizes each players’ life from an objective genealogy and statistics perspective, but also gives compassion to those whose life does not necessarily end in happiness. Players’ careers are also indexed by year and by team, so one can easily see how Nashville was often one of many stops in the move up or down the baseball ladder.

Included is a familiar relationship that he gained through the Julius “Doc” Wiseman family in Cincinnati, who opened their homes and family albums to John. This incredible opportunity is not taken lightly by the author and once again offers a compassionate look at Wiseman’s remarkable career inside and outside of baseball.

Wiseman was revered by his teammates and his fans, as his playing career ended having played for 11 seasons with Nashville.

Limited images do not deter the storytelling of early Nashville baseball or detract from the detail within the chapters. He weaves an important story in great respect; to take it all in, one needs only to accept this book as a history book, and a fine one it is for others who thirst a deeper understanding.

The legacy of Nashville and southern baseball is told in this wonderful book. I have read it twice, I have referred to it a hundred times, and I highly recommend it.

 © 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

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Birth of the Elites

On March 26, 1920, Nashville’s Thomas T. Wilson and seven others took a bold step that set in motion the establishment of a Negro League team in Wilson’s home town.

With the assistance of investors T. Clay Moore, J. B. Boyd, Marshall Garrett, Walter Phillips, W. H. Pettis, J. L. Overton, and R. H. Tabor a corporation was chartered with the State of Tennessee named “Nashville Negro Baseball Association and Amusement Company”, “for the purpose “of organizing base ball clubs and encouraging the art of playing the game of baseball according to high and honorable standards and of encouraging the establishment of a league of clubs in different section(s) of the state; and also of furnishing such amusements as usually accompanying base ball games and entertainments. Said corporation to be located in Nashville, Tennessee, and shall have an authorized capital stock of $5,000.00”.

133052a_lgWilson had become owner of the local semi-pro team, the Standard Giants, which had been founded in 1907 as a member of the Capital City League by J. W. White, C. B. Reaves, and W. G. Sublett.

These organizations were the predecessors to what would become the Nashville Elite (pronounced ‘ee-light’) Giants. Ever the entrepreneur, Wilson dropped “Standard” from his team’s name in 1921, substituted it with “Elite”, and sought membership in the Negro National League. He built his own 8,000-seat ballpark in Nashville in 1928 and the team played in the Negro Southern League until 1930.

Granted membership in the Negro National  League Wilson signed Satchel Paige for his drawing power, but Wilson moved his club to Cleveland and renamed them the Cubs for one season before returning to Nashville. Eventually he would move club to Cleveland, Columbus, Washington, D. C., and finally to Baltimore.

Wilson would serve as president of the Negro National League from 1938-1946.

The illustrious history of the Elite Giants includes players from Nashville: Henry Kimbro, Jim Zapp, Sydney Bunch, Clinton “Butch” McCord, Jim “Junior” Gilliam. Sam Bankhead and Hall of Famer Ray Dandridge spent time with the Nashville club.

That same history beckons us to honor all those who played “The Game”. Tom Wilson’s dream for Negro League baseball evolved from a Nashville vision to a national treasure. Ninety-five years ago today, March 20, 1920, was a key date in that vision.

Hail to you, Tom T. Wilson, a visionary for the ages.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Sweat Equity: 1950 Southern Association Doubleheaders

1950 Schedule FrontOne of my prized possessions is a 1950 Nashville Vols pocket schedule. I could not tell you if the Nashville baseball club printed these and sold advertising in the center or if the owner of Hagey’s (“The Complete Store”, 2521 Clarksville Highway, Ph: 4-7589) had them printed on their own as an advertising piece.

I have seen no other like it for 1950, so I would guess that Mr. Hagey’s was the only one for that year. Hopefully the Vols management put their stamp of approval on it, although in those days any promotion paid for by someone else would probably be blessed by the Nashville club staff.

The 154-game season schedule printed on it shows an equal number of home games as away games, 77, and 11 games against each member of the Southern Association at home and 11 games on the road against the same opponent.

It is notable that the schedule lists 12 doubleheaders at Sulphur Dell for Nashville, and 10 at opposing ballparks.  On Sunday, July 2nd Nashville hosts Chattanooga and two days later plays the visiting Lookouts on a 4th of July Tuesday doubleheader.

The schedule reciprocated in favor of the Lookouts near the end of the season. On Sunday, September 3rd, the Vols were scheduled against Chattanooga at Engel Stadium and followed up there with another twin bill on Labor Day. There were twenty-two doubleheaders scheduled for the Vols in 1950. There were twenty-two Sundays in the season.1950 Schedule Back

For comparison, in 2013 there were 25 doubleheaders played in the major leagues.

Total.

How in the world did those guys play 154 games in 1950, much less with Sunday doubleheaders in the heat of the season, with no PEDs, no indoor stadiums, no energy drinks, no uniforms or caps made from moisture-absorbing materials to cool them?

I’ll tell you how: there were towels soaking in rubbing alcohol-laced ice water in a cooler to wrap around one’s blistering neck; maybe a fan or water cooler in the dugout. And maybe a chance to play at a higher level. Or for pride, or for honor.

Or maybe they just loved it that much.

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