Tag Archives: Brooklyn Dodgers

Chuck Coles, 1958 Nashville Vols Hero

Charles Edward “Chuck” Coles was born on June 27, 1931 to Dorothy and Charles “Chalky” Coles in Fredericktown, Pennsylvania. He excelled at football, basketball, and baseball at Jefferson High School. His father had been a sandlot pitching ace in Greene County[1] and was a semi-pro player in the Middle-Atlantic League and managed in the local Big Ten baseball league. “Chalky” was inducted into the Big Ten Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1954.[2] Chuck played American Legion ball for his father’s Jefferson team, and enrolled at Waynesburg College. He was signed by Rex Bowen of the Brooklyn Dodgers before the 1950 season.

At Newport News (Piedmont League – Class B) to begin his professional career, Chuck had seven hits in 39 plate appearances before being sent to Valdosta of the Georgia-Florida League (Class – B). It was there he began to show the promise of being a solid hitter. Joining the club nearly a month after the season began, he had 30-game hitting streak at one point.[3] Finishing with a .355 batting average to go along with 14 home runs and 161 hits, he was named Georgia-Florida League Co-Rookie of the Year.[4] Back to Newport News for the entire 1951 season, his average tailed off to .299, but he impressed the Dodgers during spring training in 1952 and was sent to Mobile (Southern Association, Class – AA).

1952 with Mobile, on May 11 the 5’9”, 180-lb. outfielder had his streak of seven consecutive games of two or more hits halted when he was held to a single.[5]  He was selected to the Southern Association All Star game, Bears outfielders Bill Antonello and Bama Rowell[6]. Coles led off and played right field in the game at New Orleans, but had no hits in three turns at bat. He was one of three rookies from Mobile to play in the game, along with Norm Larker and Don Zimmer.

Mobile finished third in league standings with an 80-73 record, but in the SA playoffs, Coles had a key home run in Mobile’s 8-2 win over Atlanta to take a 3-2 margin over the regular season champions. In the final game of the series, Mobile won 3-2 as Coles knocked in two runs with a double.[7] In December, Coles notified Mobile club president John Toomey that he had been inducted into the armed services the previous month and was stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia[8]. Coles served in the military in 1953 and 1954.

Back to baseball in 1955, he began the season with the Bears but in May was optioned by Mobile to Elmira.[9] Benched due to weak hitting on July 10, the next day he had a double and two triples, knocking in four runs in a 5-4 win over Johnstown.[10] He finished with a mediocre .278 batting average.

Sent to Pueblo of the Western League in 1956, he regained his hitting stroke and slammed 24 round-trippers during the season. He had two grand-slam home runs each against Sioux City and Des Moines. In 1957 he remained with Albuquerque for the entire year, and was selected to the Western League’s All Star team at the end of the season.[11] He hit .354 with 26 home runs and 120 RBI.

On March 10, 1958, Nashville purchased Coles’ contract outright from Albuquerque, and he reported to the Vols the next day at their spring training camp in Brooksville, Florida. Coles had been recommended to Vols general manager Bill McCarthy by Nick Cullop, who had managed him the for the first half of the previous season. Once Cincinnati farm director Bill McKechnie approved, the deal was made.

“Cullop told me that Coles would make an ideal Deller,” McCarthy said. “Apparently Cincinnati thinks he can help us, too.”[12]

Coles immediately made an impact. On April 23, 1958, he had two triples in successive innings in a 13-12 slugfest over Atlanta, [13] and by May20 had extended his hitting streak to 15.[14] The next day in the first game of a double header at Rickwood Field he extends it to 16 games, as he becomes only the second player in league history to hit three home runs (all three off Barons pitcher Ron Rozman) in a seven-inning game as the Vols beat Birmingham 8-3. In his last at-bat, Coles hits a single as he drives in seven of the eight Nashville tallies. In the nightcap, Barons pitcher Bob Bruce ended Coles 16-game hitting streak. But Coles had raised his batting average to .425.[15]

On June 6, Nashville’s fourth annual Knot Hole Night draws a crowd of 2,579 paid fans, with the club donating half of the proceeds to the Junior Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Knot Hole League baseball program.  But the evening is marred by an injury to Coles, who is hit in the head by a rock thrown from the stands. He was hitting .358 at the time, was not seriously hurt.

On July 1, he got Nashville’s only hit against Little Rock right-hander Bud Black as the Travelers beats. the Vols 3-0. A few weeks later his batting average had dropped to .333, but was selected to the 1958 Southern Association All Star Game.

In the annual event, he hits three-run home run off Atlanta’s Bob Giggie and later doubles to lead the All Stars win over Atlanta 4-0. Just six days prior, Coles had hit one off Giggie at Ponce de Leon ballpark, then had another off the same pitcher on Tuesday night. In total, Chuck hit four home runs off Crackers’ pitching, all but one off Giggie, then added the All Star homer to his feat. He had hit four-of-five home runs off the same pitcher.[16]

He ended with a .307 average with 107 RBI and 29 home runs, topping the league with 320 total bases. Called up by the Cincinnati, he made his big-league debut on September 19. Starting in left field against the Milwaukee Braves at Crosley Field, his first putout was on a fly ball by Vada Pinson for the third out in the second inning. In the Reds half of that inning, he struck out against right hander Carl Willey, who would be named National League Rookie of the Year for the season. In the fourth inning, the bespectacled Coles hit a double to drive in Smokey Burgess, collecting his first RBI in the majors.

Playing center field at Milwaukee’s County Stadium a week later, he gained his second (and last) major-league hit, a single in the fifth inning off Lew Burdette. Coles has the distinction of having played in five games for the Reds, all against the Braves; he wraps up his stint with a .82 batting average in 11 plate appearances.

Chuck played winter ball with Valencia, hitting two home runs in the game that clinched the pennant for his team. Beginning in 1959 with Havana (International League – Class AAA), in 30 games his batting average was a paltry .181 and he soon found himself back on the Nashville roster.

“We’re glad to have Chuck back,” general manager McCarthy said. “I talked with Dick (Nashville manager Dick Sisler) today and he was quite pleased. I don’t know where Dick will play him, but we can use a bat like Coles swings. We’re fortunate to get him. Havana has been getting a steady diet of left-handed pitching and wants to add some right-handed power.”[17] Coles never regained his batting ability. Used sparingly, he hitting .203 when on July 1, he was traded to Atlanta by Nashville for Ray Shearer. Coles was a visitor in the press box during the game that night against Memphis at Sulphur Dell.

“Maybe it’s all for the best,” he said. “I just couldn’t get going here. I have to play regularly. Maybe I’ll get to with Atlanta. I hate to leave Nashville, but it’s part of the game.”

It was an unusual trade. McCarthy’s negotiated deal with Atlanta owner Earl Mann meant both Coles and Shearer would return to the other club at season’s end, as both player’s contracts were owned by their parent organizations (Coles with Cincinnati, Shearer’s with Milwaukee).[18] It took some coaxing by Coles to Nashville’s new manager, Jim Turner. After a March 10 workout with the Vols, Turner was ready to give the former star a chance.

“I see no reason why he should not have five or six more good years left,” turner said. “It isn’t normal for a man of his age (29) to have two seasons like he did in 1957 and 1958 and then suddenly not be able to do a thing. I don’t believe he’s through.”[19]

coles-1960

Chuck Coles, Nashville manager Jim Turner, Cincinnati coach Jack Cassini at Spring Training in 1960

Chuck promptly led the Vols in spring training round-trippers with six. Once the season began, he joined Erv Joyner and Crawford Davidson in the outfield and he regained some of his hitting form. By September, he got on base 11 straight times on five hits and six bases-on-balls, then popped out to end the string, and at year’s end had hit 14 home runs, drove in 99 runs, and batted .290.

Surprisingly, he returned to Mobile to begin the 1961 season, but after 32 games and a .202 average, he was demoted to Charlotte (South Atlantic League, Class – A), a Minnesota Twins farm club. He hit .313 in 101 games, eight home runs and 47 RBI.

Remaining with the Hornets beginning in 1962, his manger was Spencer “Red” Robbins, who had managed Nashville the previous season. Used as an outfielder-first baseman at Charlotte, by late June he was leading the SALLY with a .369 batting average, and by June had increased his numbers to .376, six HR, and 22 RBI. But Robbins benched him when Ernie Oravetz reported from Syracuse (International League – Class A).

With 80 games under his belt, and a .305 average, on July 27 he was optioned to Wilson (Carolina League – Class B)[20]. The Tobs (short for Tobacconists) were in a pennant-chase and it was thought he would provide much-needed help at the plate. On August 1, Coles hit a home run with one on in the ninth inning to give Wilson a win over Winston-Salem, 3-1. The next day, he hit another homer against the Red Sox in a 6-0 win. here he finished the season by playing in 42 games. Wilson finished woefully 24 games out of first place, and as Coles’ average was only .243, it seemed he was near the end of his career.

1963 was last season, with Tidewater Tides in Carolina League. In 27 games hit .260, but his career had indeed ended. He finished after 12 minor league seasons with a .292 average, 176 home runs, and 357 RBI to go along with two RBI earned in his brief period with Cincinnati. Upon retirement, he became a millwright in Jefferson, Pennsylvania.

He passed away on January 25, 1996 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina at the age of 64, and was buried in Greene County Memorial Park in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. In 2009 was inducted posthumously into the Washington-Greene County Sports Hall of Fame[21].

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

[1] The Evening Standard (Uniontown, Pennsylvania), July 6, 1956
[2] Von Benko, George. “Chuck Coles was another Jefferson baseball star”. Greene County Messenger. http://www.heraldstandard.com/gcm/sports/chuck-coles-was-another-jefferson-baseball-star/article_be836705-bdb6-5729-b73d-cd26583d5b6e.html. Retrieved January 25, 2017.
[3] The Sporting News, August 9, 1950, p. 20.
[4] Ibid., August 16, 1950, p. 22.
[5] Ibid., May 21, 1952, p. 29.
[6] Ibid., July 9, 1952, p. 43.
[7] Ibid., October 1, 1952, p. 46.
[8] Nashville Tennessean, December 10, 1952, p. 28.
[9] The Sporting News, May 18, 1955, p. 34.
[10] Ibid., p. 41.
[11] The Sporting News, September 25, 1957, p. 41.
[12] Nashville Tennessean, March 11, 1958, p. 19.
[13] The Sporting News, May 7, 1958, p. 37.
[14] Ibid., May 28, 1958, p. 35.
[15] Ibid., June 4, 1958, p. 31.
[16] Nashville Tennessean, July 17, 1958, p. 27.
[17] Ibid., May 21, 1959, p. 30.
[18] Ibid., October 16, 1959, p. 43.
[19] Nashville Tennessean, March 11, 1960, p. 24.
[20] The Sporting News, August 11, 1960, p. 41.
[21] Washington-Greene County Chapter Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, http://www.wash-greenesportshall.org/2009/Coles.htm. Retrieved January 26, 2017.

Bibliography

Marazzi, Rich. Baseball Players of the 1950s: A Biographical Dictionary of All 1,560 Major Leaguers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2004.

Nipper, Skip. Images of Baseball: Baseball in Nashville. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

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

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Vandy was a Vol

Johnny Vander Meer was born on November 2, 1914 to Dutch parents in Prospect, New Jersey, and grew up in Midland Park. Baseball became his love and he found the attention of a Cincinnati Reds scout, signing with Dayton (Class C – Mid-Atlantic League).[1] The next two seasons were spent in Scranton (Class A – NYPL) where he was 18-18.

In his first three years in the Cincinnati Reds farm system he developed arm trouble. In 1936 he was sent to Nashville to consult with Dr. Lee Jensen, a noted sports doctor who determined there was an issue with a muscle in Vander Meer’s back. After therapy and exercises, he was being counted on as a starter for the Vols.

vander-meerIn two-game exhibition series against the St. Louis Browns at Nashville’s Wilson Park, he was starting pitcher on April 7 and appeared as a reliever on April 8. In the first game, a cold and windy affair, after one out he issued walks to four consecutive batters to force in a run before being relieved by Johnny Intlekofer. The Browns won 3-1.

The next day he relieved Junie Barnes in the seventh. Only giving up one hit, Vander Meer gave up five runs in the eighth; for the game, he struck out four, walked five, and hit batter Harlond Clift before being relieved by Ray Davis. Johnny was the losing pitcher.

On April 21, he faced the Atlanta Crackers in his first start for the Vols, another cold affair that was eventually called due to darkness that ended in a 4-4 tie. Continuing to relieve for manager Lance Richbourg, on May 3 Vander Meer was given his second start, this time in Birmingham. He allowed two runs in five innings before being yanked for Red Ahearn.

In Nashville’s Sulphur Dell on May 9, Johnny started against New Orleans, but did not finish in the Vols 15-8 trouncing of the Pelicans. Having appeared in 31 innings in eight games but with no wins, he started against the Travelers in Little Rock on May 19, but did not last the inning after walking the first three batters he faced. He was the losing pitcher.

With 25 bases on balls in 32 innings, his arm control was beginning to show. By June 1 he was gone, sent to Durham (Class B, Piedmont League). Still under contract to Nashville, Vander Meer found his curve ball under the tutelage of manager Johnny Gooch, and won 19 games while losing only 6 with a 2.65 ERA.

Most impressive were his 272 strikeouts in 194 innings. He struck out 20 in one game, 19 and 18 in two others. “Vandy” was named The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year for 1936.

Sold by the Vols to Cincinnati, he was invited to spring training and spent the season between the Reds where he was 3-4 with a 3.84 ERA, and Syracuse (Class AA – International League) where he was 5-11 with a 3.34 ERA.

He was an All Star for Cincinnati in 1938 and threw consecutive no-hitters, the only player to ever accomplish the feat. His first came against the Boston Bees on June 11 in Cincinnati and the second was accomplished against the Brooklyn Dodgers on June 15, the first night game ever played at Ebbets Field.

Four days later, on June 19 in Boston, he no-hit the Braves until one out in the fourth inning when Debs Garms hit a single. The streak ended at 21 1/3 innings, which included the batter Vander Meer retired in the game before his first no-hitter.[2]

Named The Sporting News Major League Player of the Year that season, Johnny was also named to the All Star team in 1939, 1942, and 1943.

His lifetime 119-121 record included 1,294 strikeouts, and he led the league in that category for three consecutive seasons; 1941 (202), 1942 (186), and 1943 (174).

Upon his release from the Cleveland Indians in 1951, he pitched in 24 games for Tulsa and won 11, losing 10. But on July 15, 1952, 14 years and one month after his record performance, he hurled a no-hitter in a Texas League game against Beaumont.

Oddly enough, Beaumont manager Harry Craft was centerfielder for the Reds and made the final putout in the second no-hitter by Vander Meer. The ball was hit by future Hall of Famer Leo Durocher of Brooklyn.

Upon retiring from active playing, he managed in the minors for 10 seasons where his teams won a total of 761 games and lost 719. Future major leaguers Jim Maloney, Vic Davalillo, Jack Baldschun, Lee May, Jim Wynn, Ed Kranepool, and Pete Rose played for “The Dutch Master”.

When his baseball career was over he worked for a brewing company and enjoyed fishing. Vander Meer passed away on October 6, 1997 in Tampa, Florida, and was buried with a baseball in his left hand.[3]

SOURCES

Ancestry.com

Baseball-reference.com

Nashville Tennessean

Newspapers.com

Retrosheet.org

Sabr.org

© 2016 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

 

[1] Johnson, James W. Johnny Vander Meer, SABR Baseball Biography Project. Retrieved from ww.sabr.org

[2] Goldstein, Richard. “Johnny Vander Meer, 82, No-Hit Master, Dies”, New York Times, October 7, 1997

[3] Johnson, James W. Ibid.

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Early Exhibitions Led to a Working Agreement with Chicago Cubs

On October 11, 1951, when the Nashville club signs a working agreement with the New York Giants, it ends a long association with the Chicago Cubs. Upon Larry Gilbert’s arrival in the southern city, in 1939 he continued owner Fay Murray’s working agreement with the Brooklyn Dodgers through the 1942 season, and signed his club on with the Chicago. Gilbert was even considered to manage or coach the Cubs

But the relationship goes back much further than that. In 1885 Cap Anson brought his Chicago White Stockings (often called Anson’s Colts) to Nashville. On April 10, his club wins over Nashville’s professional team 4-2 before 4,000 fans.

In 1903 the Chicago baseball team would become the Cubs. As early as 1908 the National League team visited Nashville for a series of exhibition games that continued for another 10 years.

In front of 3,500 in attendance at Sulphur Dell on April 6, 1908, the Cubs are victorious over Nashville 7-0. Chick Fraser holds the Vols to two hits, both by Doc Wiseman. The next day, the Cubs beat Nashville as Chicago pitcher Carl Lundgren holds the Vols to two hits once again, this time for a 7-2 win.

The famous “Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance” combination has one double play in the game.

Coming off their 1908 World Series victory over the Detroit Tigers, the Cubs visited Nashville once again, this time to play a late-March three-game series. Manager Bill Bernhardt’s Vols lost all three by scores of 3-0, 3-0, and 11-2. Boston Red Sox players attended the game as both major league squads had set up camp in Nashville (the Red Sox won 9-2 on April 1 and 10-2 the following day.)

In 1910, on March 28 and 29, Nashville loses by consecutive 3-1 scores. In the third game, the Vols have 10 hits against Chicago starting pitcher and future Hall of Famer Three-Finger Brown and reliever Orval Overall but lose 9-2.

Settling in Nashville once again for two exhibition games at Sulphur Dell in 1911, the Cubs takes game over the Vols, 8-4, 8-2 on March 28 and 29.

On March 24, 1912, the Vols continue their losing streak to the Cubs, 6-3. In the second inning against Nashville-born pitcher Fred Toney, Vols catcher Rowdy Elliott socked a long home run that cleared the Sulphur Dell fence by 10 feet and is considered only the second home run off a right-handed pitcher ever hit in the fabled ballpark.

Scoring four runs in the ninth inning on March 24, 1915, the Cubs win over the Vols 4-2 even though the big leaguers committed three errors. Breaking a habit of losing to Chicago, Nashville wins 3-1 on March 25, 1913, as a fist-fight ensues between Heinie Zimmerman of the Cubs and umpire Hadley Williams. Zimmerman was peeved at the way the Vols were hitting pitcher Lew Richie.

On March 24, 1914, Nashville loses to the Cubs by a score of 2-0, and the next year lose again 7-4 on April 4 as Cy Williams has two home runs for the visitors including an inside-the-park homer.sporting-life-march-10-1917-chicago-cubs-nashville-vols-agreement

Williams has another home run on April 7, 1915, along with Cubs outfielder Frank Schulte, in a 12-1 win over Nashville at Sulphur Dell. Vols third baseman Johnny Dodger has two errors and the Cubs outhit Nashville 17-5 in Chicago’s win.

It appears the two clubs did not play each other during 1916, but a new agreement that include the Cubs was on the horizon. On February 6, 1917, having broken off talks with the St. Louis Browns, it was expected the Nashville Baseball Club will sign a working agreement with the Chicago Cubs. On March 6, a working agreement was announced with the Chicago Cubs whereby the major league club would provide an infielder, outfielder, and pitcher each season.

© 2016 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

SOURCES

baseball-reference.com

newspapers.com

Paper of Record

sabr.org

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Hank Aaron’s Professional Debut Was in Sulphur Dell

Henry Aaron was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1982 after a career that included 25 All-Star appearances, at least a .300 batting mark in 14 seasons, hitting 30 home runs 15 times, and winning three Gold Glove Awards.

Aaron1Most notably renown for becoming baseball’s home run king on April 8, 1974 in passing Babe Ruth with his 715th, Aaron would still have more than 3,000 hits should his total of 755 home runs be removed from his hit total.

“Hammerin’ Hank” captured the National League MVP Award in 1957, won the league’s batting title in 1956 and 1959, and appeared in the World Series in 1957, 1958, and 1969.

Born on February 5, 1934 in Mobile, Alabama, the 18-year-old, 5’11” 170-lb sensation began his march to baseball immortality as a member of the 1952 Negro American League Indianapolis Clowns. The team held spring training in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, then traveled to several cities to play exhibition games between Buffalo and Kansas City.

The Kansas City Monarchs, Chicago American Giants, Birmingham Black Barons, Memphis Red Sox, and Philadelphia Stars were the other teams in the six-team league. The Clowns did not schedule games in Indianapolis, playing all games in other cities, but opening day was scheduled for May 11, 1952 as a double header against the Philadelphia Stars.

In Nashville, at Sulphur Dell. It would be Hank Aaron’s first regular-season game as a professional.

The Memphis World heralded the “newcomer Henry Aaron, the sensational 16 [sic]-year-old, will open at short…”

Memphis World 05-06-1952 Indianapolis Clowns Philadephia Stars Hank Aaron Rookie Sulphur Dell

But the Nashville Tennessean made no mention of Aaron in articles previous to and after the two games:

Tennessean 05-10-1952 Henry Aaron Sulphur Dell Indianapolis Clowns Philadelphia Stars 05-11-1952Tennessean 05-11-1952 Henry Aaron Sulphur Dell Indianapolis Clowns Philadelphia Stars 05-11-1952Tennessean 05-12-1952 Henry Aaron Sulphur Dell Indianapolis Clowns Philadelphia Stars 05-11-1952

With no report of his batting or field totals on that day in the historic ballpark, one can only guess that he began a string of games that included strategic hits and powerful blows that lent to his successful career.

Exactly one month later, on June 11, Aaron was leading the Negro American League with a .483 batting average on 15 hits, 51 total bases, five home runs, six doubles, 28 runs, and 24 RBI. On that day he was purchased by the Boston Braves for $10,000 and his major league career was off and running.

Sent to Eau Claire (Class C – Northern League), he ended his first season in organized baseball with a .336 average. In his first full year in the minors at Jacksonville (Class A – South Atlantic League) in 1953, Hank slammed 22 home runs and had 208 hits leading to a batting average of .362. He earned a trip to spring training where he caught on with the Braves who had left Boston for Milwaukee.

On April 4, 1954, Hank returned to Nashville and had two doubles, scored twice and had two RBI in an 18-14 exhibition win over the Brooklyn Dodgers. At Sulphur Dell one year later against Brooklyn, he hit a home run and a single, driving in two runs in the Dodgers 10-8 win.

In Brooklyn’s 12-2 win the next year on April 9, he had a double and an RBI. It would be four years before Aaron returned to Sulphur Dell, this time against Cincinnati before 6,763 in a 6-3 win over the Reds when he had a single and scored a run.

Aaron’s four appearances in Nashville as a member of the Braves were preceded by a particular date on the baseball calendar, May 11, 1952, when Hammerin’ Hank marked his official professional debut in the infield dirt at Sulphur Dell.

© Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Special thanks to fellow researcher, Mark Aubrey (oldknoxvillebaseball.blogspot.com)

References

Bryant, Howard. (2010). The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. New York, New York. Pantheon Books.

Vascellaro, Charlie. (2005). Hank Aaron: A Biography. Greenwood. Westport, Connecticut.

Online Sources

http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/aaron.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com

http://www.baseballhall.org

http://www.crossroadstofreedom.org

http://www.georgiaencyclopeia.org

http://www.newspapers.com

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Jackie Robinson at Sulphur Dell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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(Rain) Check, Please

Abner Powell, along with Nashville’s Newt Fisher and Memphis’ Charlie Frank, organized the Southern Association that began play in 1901. Powell had played and managed New Orleans beginning in 1888 and played for Nashville’s Southern League team for eighteen games in 1894.

He managed New Orleans in 1901 and 1902 and Atlanta’s entry in the new league in 1903 and 1904, and in 1905 sold his interest in his team and purchased a share of the Nashville club. In those days, loyalty to a particular team, especially when a player, was often trumped by investment power.

Powell is credited for introducing knothole gangs and ladies’ days to boost attendance at baseball games during his early years in New Orleans. And he invented one key item that became known as the “rain check”, the detachable stub on printed tickets.[1]

RaincheckRain outs have been the bane of team owners, players, and fans across the nation. Long before concessions and attendance added to the bottom line, paid attendance paid the bills.

Sulphur Springs Bottom was Nashville’s area for recreation and games were played at Athletic Park, later known as Sulphur Dell. It was a low-lying area just north of the city center, prone to flooding especially during spring rains. There have been many rain outs in Nashville, and the phrase “Rain, rain, go away” has been sounded for years, especially during baseball season.

Teams organized in the 19th Century and were at the mercy of the skies. On July 6, 1875 as W. T. Lincks and Morgans played to a 2-2 tie at Sulphur Springs Bottom before being rained out and the May 4, 1879 game between the Memphis club and a team from Nashville is rained out and postponed indefinitely.

Suspended games, postponements, and cancellations were the result. On June 26, 1895 Nashville played an unusual number of games in one day, three games against Little Rock due to the previous day’s double header being rained out. The first game is scheduled for 10 AM when only two opposing players show up and umpire Cline calls a forfeit in favor of Nashville as manager Dick Gorman explains that his team refuses to play three games in one day. The afternoon games are won by Nashville 17-7 and 8-5, and the Seraphs and manager George Stallings are credited with three Southern League wins.

More than 2,500 fans stood in line for nearly an hour on May 1, 1945 before Nashville’s home opener was called due to rain, and the next year on April 8 the exhibition game between the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers was cancelled due to morning rains and a downpour which came 45 minutes before the scheduled start. The outlook for the game had called for 7,500 fans to turn out, as all reserved seats were sold out and 4,000 fans were turned away.

Rain checks came in handy without rain on April 23, 1956 in a 12-8 loss to New Orleans when only 438 Nashville fans show up in 46-degree weather. Each was rewarded by general manager Bill McCarthy who announced the club would honor their rain checks for any future Vols game during the season. There was no rain, but the detachable ticket gave loyal rooters a way to attend another game free of charge.

Abner Powell was a visionary who gave many things to baseball that continue today: the rain check, ladies’ day, and knothole gangs. But his greatest invention may have been one that today’s players and fans take for granted: He innovated the covering of the playing field with a tarpaulin to keep the surface dry.

Team owners probably do not take that one for granted.

[1] Taggart, Caroline. Right as Rain: The Meaning and Origins of Popular Expressions. Great Britain: Michael O’Mara, 2013

© 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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