Vols, Inc.: New Ownership to Save Nashville Baseball, Part 3

In September Gilbert had announced that the Vols were ending their three-year working agreement with the New York Giants, and had signed a working agreement with the Cincinnati Reds beginning with the 1955 season.

“I told Ted last fall I wanted to get out,” Larry said via long distance phone yesterday. “Gertie (Mrs. Gilbert) has had a bad hip since early in the fall and now she has a broken ankle. She needs me to be with her. I haven’t been feeling too good, either.”[5]

That was only part of the reason.  On May 21, 1955 Gilbert sells out for $125,000.00 and Murray owns the Vols lock, stock, and barrel[6]. It ends a relationship from November of 1938, when his grandfather Fay Murray brought Gilbert to Nashville and named him manager, general manager, and vice president, giving him ½ share in the team.

Gilbert’s last day with the club is set for June 1, when he will move to his lakefront estate in New Orleans.[7] As part of the Reds affiliation, his son Charlie is not retained as assistant general manager. The younger Gilbert played for Nashville under his father in 1939, 1943, and 1948, and had joined him in management of the club after his playing career.

At the suggestion of Cincinnati GM Gabe Paul, Columbia Reds (South Atlantic League – Class A) general manager Bill McCarthy will take over the same position in Nashville.

According to sports writer F. M. Williams, Ted never cared for owning the Nashville club. “If memory serves me correctly, he was in Sulphur Dell only three times last year, yet he drew a salary of five figures, not out of the ball club but out of the concessions.”[8]

Now Ted finds himself in dire straits. But saving the ball club from dying was a priority for several like-minded civic leaders had the same idea.

This is Part 3 of the ongoing story. Read more about the events that led to the sale of the Nashville ball club in 1959 in the next installment.

Note: This Nashville baseball history was presented on Saturday, March 3, 2018 at the 15th annual Southern Association Conference at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

© 2018 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Sources

baseball-reference.com

newspapers.com

[5] Johnson, “Owner Change,” Nashville Tennessean, January 23, 1955, 29.

[6] Murray Buys Gilbert’s Half,” Nashville Tennessean, May 22, 1955, 29.

[7] Johnson, May 22, 1955, 29.

[8] Ibid.

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Vols, Inc.: New Ownership to Save Nashville Baseball, Part 2

A similar transaction nearly took place four years earlier. On January 14, 1955, an agreement was signed by Murray, along with business partner Larry Gilbert, to sell to a syndicate represented by Fred C. Rule, president of F. C. Rule Construction, and headed up by J. D. Jackson. Reportedly, the plan of the syndicate was to demolish the grandstand and sell the property for business purposes. A new location was to be sought to build a new ballpark, and even though the syndicate had no plans to move the franchise, it was reported that Knoxville, Tampa, and Jacksonville were anxious to obtain the franchise.

“We want a modern baseball plant,” Rule stated yesterday. “We want one that will seat something like 10,000. We believe a new park would be the best think we could do for baseball.”[3]

On January 22, 1955, co-owners Murray and Larry Gilbert confirmed that they faced the loss of their franchise. The last year for the club to show a profit was 1950; in 1948, the best year for Nashville attendance with 269,843, was the last year Gilbert was manager. At the end of that season, another syndicate tried to buy, and he refused. Now Gilbert is desperate to sell his half-interest in the club and retire full-time to his native town of New Orleans.

All this after Nashville Vols outfielder Bob Lennon won the Southern Association triple crown with 64 home runs, hit for a .354 average, and knocked in 161 runs. But only 89,470 fans attended the games at Sulphur Dell that season, a decrease of 50,000.

This is Part 2 of the ongoing story. Read more about the events that led to the sale of the Nashville ball club in 1959 in the next installment.

Note: This Nashville baseball history was presented on Saturday, March 3, 2018 at the 15th annual Southern Association Conference at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

© 2018 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

[3] Raymond Johnson, “One Man’s Opinion – Baseball Business Brisk Despite City’s Winter Weather,” Nashville Tennessean, January 25, 1955, 16.

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Vols, Inc.: New Ownership to Save Nashville Baseball, Part 1

At 11:30 A.M. on January 20, 1959, in local attorney Jack Norman’s law office, Ted Murray turned over the Nashville Vols and Sulphur Dell to a newly-formed, publicly-held corporation. Murray, son of Fay Murray who first purchased the ball club along with Jimmy Hamilton in 1931, was paid $200,000.00 in exchange for his debt-free assets, including Nashville’s Southern Association franchise.[1]

Ted had acquired his stock in the team when his father died suddenly on March 4, 1941. Now the younger Murray was forced to sell for financial reasons. “I simply don’t have the money to operate the club any longer,” he told Nashville Tennessean sports writer F. M. Williams.[2]

It was an historic day in the timeline for this storied franchise. But how, and why, did it come to this? What events led to the near demise of the club? Wasn’t the city considered one of the keys to Southern Association stability? Hadn’t Sulphur Dell become an iconic ballpark, given its name by beloved sports writer Grantland Rice yet despised by visiting right-hand hitting outfielders?

In the days ahead, read more about the events that lead up to the sale of the Nashville ball club.

Note: This Nashville baseball history was presented on Saturday, March 3, 2018 at the 15th annual Southern Association Conference at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

© 2018 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

[1] Raymond Johnson, “Vols Change Hands Today,” Nashville Tennessean, January 20, 1959, 11.

[2] F. W. Williams, “Vol Owner Transfer Hinges on Stock Sale,” Nashville Tennessean, November 1, 1958, 13

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1940 Nashville Third Baseman Bob Boken

Bob Boken was born in Maryvale, Illinois, February 23, 1908, and proved to be a steady performer for the Vols’ 1940 championship team. Prior to being obtained by Nashville, the 5’ 11” 185-lb. Boken had played pro ball for 10 seasons.

He played for Washington and the Chicago White Sox in 1933 and 1934, having made his major league debut for the Senators on April 25, 1933 against the New York Yankees at Griffith Stadium, substituting for future Hall of Fame shortstop Joe Cronin late in the game.

Boken spent the better part of five seasons with St. Paul (American Association – Class AA). He had socked 21 home runs in 1938 with 19 doubles and four triples for St. Paul, one of his best seasons to date.

He was acquired by Nashville from Louisville (American Association – Class AA) on February 17, 1940. Nashville manager Larry Gilbert felt Boken was exactly what the Vols needed.

“I’ve been trying to get Boken since early last season,” declared Gilbert in announcing the deal. “…is a power hitter, not a “tapritis” hitter…I wanted a right-handed hitter for third base and he should fill the bill perfectly.”[1]

In 1940, Gilbert’s second year of managing the Nashville club, the team won on opening day and never fell below first place the entire rest of the season. Nashville finished the season with a 101-47 (.682) record as Boken and Gus Dugas tied with 118 RBI for the league lead. His season stats included 178 hits, 13 home runs, and a .302 batting average, and he was steady performer at the hot corner.

Boken had a 20-game regular-season hitting streak going until July 11 when he failed to get a hit in the first game of a double header against Atlanta. He probably has his best game of the playoffs in Game 1 against the Houston Buffaloes in the Dixie Series. Playing before 2,698 shivering Sulphur Dell fans, Nashville won 7-5 as Johnny Mihalic, Boken, and pitcher Ace Adams each have two hits apiece.

At the end of the season, Gilbert traded Boken and Mickey Rocco to Buffalo (International League – Class AA) for cash and left-handed hitting Les Fleming. Boken never quite matches his 1940 hitting ability, spending the next seven years with various minor league teams before giving managing a try with Newark (Ohio State League – Class D) in 1946 and El Centro, California (Sunset League – Class C) in 1947.  He  then hung up his spikes.

At the age of 80, he passed away on October 8, 1988 in Las Vegas, and is buried there in Memory Gardens Cemetery.

© 2018 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

SOURCES

Baseball-reference.com

Newspapers.com

Retrosheet.org

 

[1] Raymond Johnson, “New Infielder Power Hitter,” Nashville Tennessean, February 18, 1940, 41.

 

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Southern Baseball Moguls Prepare for 1909 Season

The 1909 baseball season was just around the corner. It would be March before spring training began for most teams, but many players arrived early to jump-start their daily regimens.

The St. Louis Cardinals would be training 55 miles away in Little Rock, but outfielder Joe Delahanty, who had played in the Southern Association with Memphis and New Orleans in 1903, joined pitcher Johnny Lush as among the first to appear in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on February 21; the next day, St. Louis Browns infielder Jimmy Williams, New York Yankees outfielder Charlie Hemphill, and Cincinnati Reds pitcher Art Fromme. They met six players from the Brooklyn Superbas who also gathered to begin their exercise routines: second baseman Whitey Alpermann, outfielders Al Burch and Jimmy Sebring, and pitchers George Bell and Jim Pastorius, and even manager Harry Lumley.[1]

The Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Red Sox were scheduled to hold workouts in Hot Springs beginning in early March. Boston had agreed to rent Majestic Stadium for the next five years.[2]

The Cubs were scheduled to spend time there, too, before heading to West Baden, Indiana, for final preseason activities. From there they would hit the exhibition game travel circuit on their way to Chicago in time for the regular season. All the other major league clubs did same from their own training sites.

Meanwhile, in preparation for the upcoming season, Southern Association directors gathered in Mobile, Alabama at the Battle House Hotel on Monday, February 22 for their own spring meeting. Nashville was coming off a championship, with the pennant captured on the last game of the year against New Orleans in what Grantland Rice dubbed, “The Greatest Game Ever Played in Dixie”.[3]

The win gave the Vols a .002-percentage point lead over the Pelicans: .573 to .571.[4]

President William Kavanaugh had already done some of his official duties. Before the meeting in Mobile, he had previously hired his umpiring staff for the year. Four would be returning from the 1908 season: Dan Fitzsimmons, Augie Moran, William Carpenter, and Dan Pfenninger, who would be calling balls and strikes in the Southern Association for a fifth straight year.[5]

They would be joined by Frank Rudderham, who had served in the National League in 1908, and former New England League umpire, J. O. O’brien. Although little is known about O’Brien, in the off-season Rudderham ran a bowling alley, Fitzsimmons and Pfenninger were union workers. Moran, who calls Philadelphia his home, runs a department at Wanamaker’s Department Store. Carpenter was from Cincinnati.[6]

 

League directors attending the meeting included league president Kavanaugh and secretary Clark Miller, Mobile president H. T. Inge and secretary Charles Z. Collson, New Orleans manager Charles Frank, Atlanta manager Billy Smith and president J. W. “John” Heisman (the Heisman Trophy is named for him), Little Rock manager Mike Finn, Birmingham president R. J. Baugh and manager Carleton Molesworth, Montgomery manager Ed Gremminger and team president R. J. Chambers, Memphis president Frank Coleman and his manager Charlie Babb, and Nashville president Ferdinand E. Kuhn and manager Bill Bernhard.

The main course of action was to approve the dates for the 1909 schedule. A preliminary calendar had been mailed to each club prior to the summit and was quickly approved with a few minor changes. It was decided that opening day would take place on April 15, with Memphis hosting Little Rock, New Orleans hosting Mobile, Atlanta hosting Birmingham, and Montgomery meeting Nashville at Sulphur Dell.[7]

For the first time, Nashville was given both opening and closing home dates, as well as the July 5 Holiday and September 6 Labor Day games.

An additional item on the docket was the case of Mobile pitcher Otis Stockdale. In 1908 he accused his 1907 Memphis manager Charlie Babb of having thrown a few games.[8]

Stockdale appeared before the board members and apologized, and after shaking hands with Babb, was promptly reinstated. Interestingly, once the reinstatement was made, Birmingham offered Mobile $1,000 for Stockdale, but the Sea Gulls turned down the offer.

Two rule changes were considered and approved[9]:

  1. Postponed games must be played the following day as a double-header unless the two clubs mutually agree upon a future date and so notify the president before playing the next game.
  2. All admissions paid by the ladies on ladies’ day shall be equally divided with the visiting club.

Nashville president Kuhn made a motion that the league enter a contract with Western Union that stated the telegraph company would not furnish any information of games to pool rooms or gamblers, but the company would furnish home ball clubs with details of other games. League approval was made.[10] It was also determined to allow Mobile and Montgomery to maintain separate gates for admission of colored patrons during the season.[11]

At the end of the 1909 season, the Atlanta Crackers ball club would be crowned champions with a 5 ½ game lead over the defending Nashville Vols.

© 2018 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

SOURCES

Baseball-reference.com

Newspapers.com

SABR.org

[1] “Early Birds At Spring Training,” Chicago Tribune, February 23, 1909, 12.

[2] “Red Sox At Hot Springs,” Daily (Little Rock) Arkansas Gazette, February 28, 1909, 9.

[3] Simpson, John. (2007). The Greatest Game Ever Played in Dixie: The Nashville Vols, Their 1908 Season, and the Championship Game. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., Inc.

[4] Wright, Marshall D. (2002) “The Southern Association in Baseball, 1885-1961. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., Inc.

[5] “Six Umpires For Southern,” Atlanta Constitution, January 31, 1909, 7.

[6] “Umpires For The Southern League,” Nashville Tennessean, February 16, 1909, 6.

[7] “Southern Moguls,” Nashville Tennessean, February 23, 1909, 12.

[8] “Stockdale Declares Babb Threw Games,” Nashville Tennessean, June 3, 1908, 7.

[9] “Southern Moguls.”

[10] “Baseball Moguls Meet At Mobile,” Atlanta Constitution, February 23, 1909, 4.

[11] “Stockdale Is Reinstated,” Nashville American, February 23, 1909, 6.

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P. T. Barnum, “The Greatest Showman”, in Nashville

Many recall the Shrine Circus at Sulphur Dell; how it entertained with clown parades and performers in the three rings laid out in the ball field. The finale was usually the Human Cannonball, and spectators oohed and aahed with the explosion of the cannon shot as his body hurtled through the air to a net, erected to catch him before he landed on his head in the ballpark outfield and keep him from bouncing over the right field fence into the ice house across the street in case of a miscalculated trajectory.

A reminder of those special nights comes in the form of a 2017 movie, The Greatest Showman, based on the life of P. T. Barnum, founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. It has garnered a 3.5/4 review from film critic Sheila O’Malley[1] and is widely accepted as a success.

P. T. Barnum with Tom Thumb

Barnum proclaimed himself, “…a showman by profession…and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me…”[2] This king of the circus loved money so much, that he is often credited with having said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” which meant he was happy to separate anyone from the money in one’s pockets. His fame includes bringing a dwarf, General Tom Thumb, and the “Swedish Nightingale”, Jenny Lind, to his circus. His entourage toured Europe, and many cities and towns in the United States in the middle of the 19th Century.

Nearly 40 years before it was known as Sulphur Dell, the low-lying area north of Nashville’s downtown was called Sulphur Spring Bottom. It had a natural salt lick and sulphur spring, and many years before the city was founded, the area teemed with wildlife, especially buffalo and deer who came to lick the mineral salt.

In the 1860s the area was the city’s recreational grounds. It was there that baseball found its home, evacuated it 100 years later, and then reclaimed it in 2015 when the Nashville Sounds opened their new ballpark.

But in 1872, wild animals returned in the form of one of Barnum’s excursions named his “World’s Fair.”[3]

The exposition set up tents on Tuesday, November 12 for two days of performances after traveling from nearby Columbia where Nashville’s Republican Banner said “A very large number of people attended Barnum’s show at Columbia yesterday. It is said that his mammoth tents were well filled.[4]

With a warning that “The ‘Digger Indian’ in Barnum’s circus leaped down from his stand, while on exhibition at Elizabethtown, Kentucky, the other day, and gave a negro who had insulted him a sound drubbing”[5], the same newspaper gave a glowing recommendation by reporting “Barnum’s big show is now a topic of much discussion. It is likely to be better attended than anything of the kind that has appeared for years.”[6]

The newspaper also gave another warning on November 10.

“Reliable information has been received at Police headquarters to the effect that a large troupe of thieves, burglars, pickpockets, ebony legs and every conceivable kind of dishonest men are following Barnum’s circus around and as this will exhibit at Nashville Tuesday and Wednesday next, we are requested to warn our citizens in time that they may be on the look out [sic] for the visits of such characters as above alluded to.”[7]

Everyone expected thrills for adults from Barnum’s entourage, but it was the imagination of the young that brought great expectation.

The opening was a wonderful success, and certainly made an impression on the minds of youth.

“Barnum’s big show is agitating the hearts of juveniles.”[8]

The Nashville Union and American also lavished praise on Barnum’s creation “a brilliant and elaborate exposition that attracted universal attention and admiration” and “Great is Barnum”.[9]

But there was one Republic Banner report was did not initially seem positive in the substance of the exhibits.

“The stuffed whale, and that more stupendous stuff, the Cardiff Giants, were hardly worth transportation. Those “cannibals,” sentenced to death, from which fate the generous Barnum is to rescue them by the sacrifice of the pitiful $15,000 bond he is under to return them to the irate King of the Feejees; that “beautiful” Caucassian [sic], captured from some New York harem-scarem; the “sleeping beauty” (in wax) and other absurdities, were as cheap “curiosities” (as the interpreter of the ring phrazes [sic] it) as the little wooden automatons on Barnum’s portrait gallery.”[10]

In closing, the newspaper had to acknowledge the popularity of the big show and the mastery of Barnum’s ability to promote his business.

“And yet it drew like a house on fire. It drew because it was well advertised, and good people who protest that their business, which is genuine, does not draw, while Barnum’s, which is not so legitimate, does, should consult P. T., and see “what he knows about advertising.”

Soon reviews out of Columbia did not hold the same manner of respect for Barnum; not for his exhibits, but for the crooks who followed the circus from town to town.

On the same day as the report of the Columbia newspaper, support for Nashville’s police force was made public. Perhaps Nashville’s finest had heeded the warning from the city Barnum had visited only days earlier.

Sadly Barnum’s New York museum and menagerie burned on the morning of December 24. Two elephants and a camel were the only animals to survive. Barnum was still on tour in New Orleans; his losses were estimated at over $100,000.[11]

P. T. Barnum, who was known primarily as a circus man, was an author, a newspaper publisher, politician, businessman, and certainly, a showman. He did not establish his circus until 1871, a year before it appeared in Nashville.[12]

Barnum died in 1891 at the age of 80. Perhaps in his only visit to Nashville, nearly 150 years ago he once constructed his circus on the grounds we now hallow as Nashville’s historical baseball home.

Note: My wife Sheila and I saw “The Greatest Showman” on January 3, 2018. We thoroughly enjoyed it, and though not a professional film critic, I give the movie the best review I can: it’s a home run, hit far over the fence and out of the park.

© 2018 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

[1] Sheila O’Mally, “The Greatest Showman”, RogerEbert.com, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-greatest-showman-2017, accessed January 3, 2017.

[2] Kunhardt, Philip B., Jr.; Kunhardt, Philip B., III; Kunhardt, Peter W. (1995). P.T. Barnum: America’s Greatest Showman. Alfred A. Knopf., 6.

[3] “Barnum’s Mammoth Show, Nashville Republican Banner, November 13, 1872, 4.

[4] “Sidewalk Notes.,” Nashville Republican Banner, November 9, 1872, 4.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Burglars, Thieves and Pickpockets,” Nashville Union and American, November 19, 1872, 4.

[8] “Sidewalk Notes.,” Nashville Republican Banner, November 13, 1872, 4.

[9] “Barnum’s Show.,” Nashville Union and American, November 14, 1872, 4.

[10] “What He Knows About Advertising.,” Nashville Republican Banner, November 14, 1872, 4.

[11] “New York. Barnum’s Menagerie Burned Again,” Nashville Union and American, December 25, 1872, 1

[12] Sarah Maslin Nir and Nate Schweber. “After 146 Years, Ringling Brothers Circus Takes Its Final Bow,” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/21/nyregion/ringling-brothers-circus-takes-final-bow.html, accessed January 4, 2018.

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Waiting for the New Season

As the cold winds blow outside from this winter’s blast, we tend to seek asylum between our blankets, in front of our fireplaces, or under layers of warm clothing with thought of spring’s early sunrises and warm glows. That helps to while away the time, but there is nothing like rejoicing in the Pastime that it brings.

Since baseball’s creation, revelers in the gentle sport have waited patiently for the new season to bring the cracking sound of bat on ball and thump of ball in mitt.

For years and years in towns and cities across the country during winter’s cruel and harsh term, there has been enthusiasm for new grass on dry fields and fetching of equipment from trunks and bags to expose them to warmth of sunlight.

On January 2, 1909, a piece was published by sports writer Billy W. Burke in the Nashville Tennessean under the column heading “Sportoscraps”, which brought assurance to baseball fans that spring was right around the corner.

It was a cue like the one most often credited to Rogers Hornsby, a Hall of Famer who reportedly once said, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Since staring out the window will only bring one a cold nose, dreams of America’s favorite sport will bring out good thoughts of energy, youth, and sunshine. Hold onto those happy clues, as it’s all just around the corner: major league pitchers and catchers report six weeks from today, and the home opener for our Nashville Sounds is only 99 days away from today.

Stay warm and certainly stay away from the window, but stay on course for a new spring and a new season. It will be unmasked soon; then let the revelry begin!

Note: I have suspicion that Billy W. Blanke is a pseudonym for Grantland Rice. A few of Blanke’s articles appear in the theater section of the Nashville Tennessean, a task which Rice also had. I have nothing that gives proof to my doubt, other than columns attributed to him are between 1908 and 1910. Rice left Nashville for an opportunity with the New York World in late 1910, a time when Blanke disappears from the local newspaper. I can find no “Billy W. Blanke” in other publications or geneolgy sites. In the least, Blanke must have been an apprentice to Rice; I am open to any proof that Billy was a real person, and will be happy to correct my questioning of his existence. 

© 2018 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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