Tag Archives: First Tennessee Park

Nashville Attendance and the Ebb, Flow of Minor League Baseball

On September 8, 1963, only 971 fans attended a double header between Nashville and Lynchburg at Sulphur Dell. It would be the final professional games played at the historic ballpark.

The end had been foretold by attendance numbers for several years. The Vols’ best year at the turnstiles had been in 1948, when 269,893 watched Nashville play, but the numbers never came close again until the death of the club. In 1954, the last of a three-year affiliation with the New York Giants, the total was 89,470. That was the year when Nashville slugger Bob Lennon hammered 64 home runs, but even that achievement was not enough to drive fans to the ballpark.

Nashville was not alone.

Fan support dwindled across the entire country during the decline of minor league baseball in the 1950s. By 1960, there were 22 minor leagues; in 1950 there had been 58.[1]

In his book, Leveling the Playing Field, Paul C. Weiler puts it in perspective.

“In the late 1940s there were more than 450 minor league teams drawing more than 40 million fans to their game – a team average of 90,000 a season. Then television arrive in American homes, drastically reducing the demand for minor league baseball. By the late 1950s attendance had plummeted to around 15 million, where it remained for the next 20 years.”[2]

The issue was such a concern to Nashville Vols co-owner Larry Gilbert that he sold his 50% ownership to his partner, Ted Murray. Soon in debt with the ball club, Murray looked for buyers, too, and in 1958 area civic leaders banded together to form Vols, Inc., a publicly-held company with intent to purchase the Vols from Murray.

Try as they may, in subsequent years fans did not show up, leading to the demise of the franchise after that fateful double header in 1963. The club drew 52,812 for their final year.

Even before World War II, when attendance waned after a sensational 1940 season. Nashville led the league from opening day, won the Southern Association regular season and playoffs pennants, then won the Dixie Series against the Houston Buffaloes. Attendance stood at 138,602 even though war was looming.

During the war years, attendance remained respectable:

1941      97,282

1942      96,934

1943      76,570

1944      146,945

In 1945, turnout was 83,014; an honorable figure as soldiers were returning home.

Sports writer Raymond Johnson, in his “One Man’s Opinion” column in the Nashville Tennessean, often addressed the issue. He could see the decline coming, and in 1952 gave his view of the matter for that season’s crowds.

“Unless the fans turn out in larger numbers when Those Vols return home Friday than they have been averaging this season, Nashville will finish last in league attendance for the first time since 1931…That was the last time Nashville finished in the cellar and the season when Those Vols set their all-time losing record of 102 games.”[3]

Baseball devotees stepped up somewhat; attendance figures ended at 113,193 for 1952.

But Johnson compared the waning appearance of fans to 1931, when totals were only 67,338. The club won only 51 games that season. He understood that fans liked to see winning baseball.

“That was the first season for night baseball in Nashville…But even the uniqueness of nocturnal ball failed to lure the fans out to see a ball club that was as interesting to watch as two black cats fighting on a moonless night.”[4]

Night baseball did not bring out fans. Neither did Bob Lennon’s remarkable home run season. Even Nashville’s unbelievable 1940 season did not relate to more fans in the seats. The 1948 season record attendance mark at Sulphur Dell occurred in Larry Gilbert’s final season as manager, then only fell to 238,034 in a Rollie Hemsley-led Vols repeat championship performance.

From then on, the challenge was a changing America: inventive television productions, expanding highways, and automobiles being produced instead of tanks.

The revival of baseball began in the late 1970s. Larry Schmittou was instrumental in bringing professional baseball back to Nashville after a 15-year drought, and was part of that revitalization.

Weiler tells how significant the interest was across the country.

“Then came the resurgence in interest in minor league (as well as major league) baseball among baby boom families who did not feel like staying home every night to watch television. By the late 1990s total minor league attendance had reached 35 million, an average of about 200,000 a season for each of the nearly 175 teams.”[5]

2016 regular season attendance for 160 teams in 14 minor leagues (including only teams affiliated with major league baseball) was just over 37 million.[6] That averages to just over 3,000 fans per game. Nashville Sounds attendance at First Tennessee Park was 504,060 in 2016[7].

Raymond Johnson, Larry Gilbert, Ted Murray, and the 4,876 stock holders of Vols, Inc. would have been happy with those numbers.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Sources

Newspapers.com

Paper of Record

Sabr.org

Notes

[1] Ian Kahanowitz. “A Brief History of The Minor League’s Reluctance to Integrate (Part 3),” 27outsbaseball.com, http://www.27outsbaseball.com/uncategorized/a-brief-history-of-the-minor-leagues-reluctance-to-integrate-part-3/, accessed August 10, 2017.

[2] Weiler, Paul C. (2009) Leveling the Playing Field. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] Raymond Johnson. “Vols Last in Attendance First Time in 21 Years,” One Man’s Opinion column, Nashville Tennessean, August 26, 1952, 15.

[4] Johnson.

[5] Weiber.

[6] Graham Knight. “Minor League Baseball Attendance in 2016,” Baseballpilgrimages.com, http://www.baseballpilgrimages.com/attendance/minor-leagues-2016.html, accessed August 10, 2017.

[7] “Pacific Coast League: Attendance,” milb.com, http://www.milb.com/milb/stats/stats.jsp?y=2016&t=l_att&lid=112&sid=l112, accessed August 10, 2017.

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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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First Tennessee Park Open to the Public Today

NSThis past weekend I had tickets to see the Colorado Rockies vs. San Francisco Giants in Denver. My youngest daughter lives there with her husband and son, and although it was raining we just knew the clouds would part and we’d be singing the National Anthem around 2 PM.

I’d never been to Coors Field; it has been on my ballpark bucket list for some time and I was anxious to see the park and watch the game. From the outside, it’s a beautiful facility.

Standing at the Will Call ticket window about two hours before the game I could tell there was plenty of bustle up and down the streets and sidewalks as fans began to gather in anticipation of the first pitch. As the nice lady behind the glass handed the ticket envelope to me, a man behind her said that the game had been called due to rain.

Bummer.

I have viewed games in many ballparks over the years including Sulphur Dell, Knoxville’s Bill Meyer Stadium, Memphis’ Blues/Tim McCarver Stadium, Birminhgam’s Hoover Stadium and Rickwood Field, Charleston’s Watt Powell Park, and Columbus Cooper Stadium. I have always been partial to minor league parks.  Not many old ones are still around.

Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, Riverfront Stadium and Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Chicago’s Wrigley Field and U. S. Cellular Field, the Astrodome, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, St. Louis’ Sportsmans Park and old Busch Stadium, and Yankee Stadium come to mind as highlights of major league visits.

There are  dozens of others on my list when I consider spring training games and more minor league parks, especially the ones I have been able to view only from the sidewalk outside the stadium, usually peering through an opening in the fence. That’s something else I have been partial to: taking in the beauty, imagining the history, remembering a story or two about a player and team.

Peering through the fence is fine, but a unique opportunity is available to us today in Nashville. Between 1 – 4 PM, our new First Tennessee Park is open to the public. There will be tours of the entire facility, including the locker rooms and batting cages that one will probably never be able to see again.

Free food and games for the kids will help to make this an opportunity to remember. Fan or not, this is a chance to see what ballparks are all about.

And I can tell you from experience: it’s the finest minor league facility in the United States, hands down.

We can pretend to imagine what great history this ballpark will give us, what great players and teams will perform there. But we have an opportunity to view our new First Tennessee Park and take in the beauty today.

And you won’t have to peer through a fence.

© 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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This Ballpark Belongs to Us

1stTnParkToday marks a new day in the calendar of Nashville baseball history. Future timelines might read something like this:

April 17, 2015 – Nashville’s new ballpark, First Tennessee Park, opens in the vicinity of beloved Sulphur Dell. It marks the traditional locale of the city’s baseball history beginning in the 1860s through amateur and professional teams until 1963

Finally.

Junie McBride used to tell stories about growing up around Sulphur Dell. He was proud of having been able to warm up Hall of Famer Honus Wagner in the 20s when Pittsburgh came to town for an exhibition game heading north after spring training.

He joked and laughed about sneaking into Sulphur Dell through an ice chute as a youngster long before the ball park was turned around in the opposite direction following the 1926 season. He not only spoke of seeing games at Sulphur Dell and Greer Stadium, he hoped to live to see a new Nashville ballpark.

Negro Leaguer Butch McCord loved to tell his baseball stories, to relate what he experienced and how The Game impacted his life, expressing the pains and joys of baseball but then moving away from the bitterness it brought to him. The ballparks he played in were not always places of baseball glory.

He wanted to see a new ballpark for Nashville, too.

My dad Virgil Nipper gave a history lesson about Sulphur Dell seated next to me on an airplane as we returned from our first visit to Wrigley Field in 2002. The conversation sparked my interest in studying and writing about it. A website, a book, a blog and a renewed interest in the history of Nashville baseball were the result.

To Junie, Butch, and dad: I am grateful for your stories. Thank you.

There are two others who are owed a debt of gratitude.

A fan of baseball as well as being mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean has heard stories such as those told to me. Placing the city in a prominent position in the world of minor league baseball was a hard road, as the idea of a new ballpark has gone through a political process that seemed endless.

His vision for a ballpark was kick started when he responded to Nashville Sounds owner Frank Ward’s statement to him on Opening Day at Greer Stadium in 2013, “Let’s go build a ballpark at Sulphur Dell.

It took only a few words from Dean. “Let’s do it.

Frank Ward purchased the Nashville ball club in 2009. Herschel Greer Stadium was its home; the ballpark was outdated, rusty, and confined. A new place for his ball club was in order. Four years later he said those words to the mayor and the commitment was off and running.

Mayor Dean and Frank, thank you. My Nashville cap is off to you both, as by working together the ball began to roll towards the completion of the ballpark the citizens and fans deserve.

Today it will be known as the finest minor league ballpark in the land. That’s quite an accomplishment.

In attending tonight’s first game my thoughts will be about so many things. My dad. Junie McBride. Nashville Vols manager Larry Gilbert and Vols owner Fay Murray. Negro Leaguers Jim Zapp, Turkey Stearnes. Jim Gilliam. Larry Schmittou and Farrell Owens and the original owners from the Sounds. Nashville Elite Giants teams. Butch McCord. The Nashville Old Timers. Radio broadcaster Larry Munson. Sports writers Grantland Rice, Fred Russell, and George Leonard. Bat boys and scoreboard operators.

Former Vols Larry Taylor, Roy Pardue, Buddy Gilbert, and Bobby Durnbaugh will be attending, too. It must be a special night for them.

Sadly, Junie McBride and Butch McCord did not live to see this day. But I will take a look around more than once and observe those who are celebrating the most.

The fans.

We waited a long time for this. We hoped and prayed for this. We looked over the plans, attended meetings, heard the gossip, wondered when, watched the camera, and even held our breath. Through it all, we never gave up.

Frank Ward and Mayor Dean, for all you have done you deserve our thanks. You can claim this ballpark as part of your legacy.

But this ballpark is ours. And we are going to enjoy this for a long, long time.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Today’s Visit to First Tennessee Park

A month ago assistant general manager Doug Scopel gave me a nice tour of the new Nashville Sounds ballpark. With the on-going construction we side-stepped pipes, boards, and electrical supplies along with the workers who were bustling about their business. I had been given a similar tour when Autozone Park was built in 2000, so I knew how important it was to watch my step.

I was honored that Doug would be so kind, and he was more than accommodating in providing information and answering questions that I had. I’ve got to be honest that I wasn’t sure what I my perception was going to be, but once I was there I couldn’t have been more impressed. There were plenty of options for the Sounds management team to consider, such as how large to make the dugouts, how wide to build the concourse, and how much emphasis to place on the players’ batting cage and swing areas.

And the view, oh my, fans are going to love the view.

Since my visit to First Tennessee Park was “off the record” I was not able to take photographs, although I did get to sneak this one in as I was leaving:

IMAG0163

Today, I revisited First Tennessee Park with a media group. Once again Doug lead the tour and allowed everyone plenty of time to take photographs and ask questions. Sounds general manager Garry Arthur, owner Frank Ward, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, and groundskeeper Thomas Trotter were there, too, and each one was available for questions and answers.

Mayor Dean and Frank Ward did the honors of putting home plate in place at its new home in the ballpark. Not just any home plate, however; Greer Stadium’s home plate had been saved just for that purpose. It wasn’t so much a ceremony, but I have to admit it was touching as if to say a final “so long” to Greer.

This time I took plenty of photos and even recorded the Mayor’s address to the media from behind the plate. The helicopter buzzing above was a little disconcerting, but I believe he was able to establish once again how happy he is with how things have turned out. Images will be forthcoming, but there is one that I took just before leaving the infield; big difference from a month ago, wouldn’t you say?

IMAG0101

And before heading out of the construction zone, I was able to reach down and scoop up a pocketful of infield dirt  mix, too. That will be tucked away for the ages.

IMAG0121

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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I Give Up: Where Was Sulphur Dell?

The question alwaysSDsignFB comes up: “Where was Sulphur Dell?”. Unless one has visited the construction site of the new First Tennessee Park, it is not easy to pinpoint the location, even by locating the historical marker on Fourth Avenue (don’t worry, it has been out of place since it was installed there).

1860s Sulphur Springs Bottom

Sportswriters Fred Russell and George Leonard often wrote that the ballpark was located between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, Jackson, and a spur railroad track. Before the street names were changed to numbers in 1904, the location was the same; the ballpark area was bordered by Cherry Street, Summer Street, Jackson and Washington.

I have a signed 3 x 5 index card signed by then Nashville Vols manager/general manager from 1960. He signed his autograph and inserted “900 Fifth Avenue North, Nashville, Tennessee” as the address, where the offices were located.

Until 1927, home plate was near the corner of Jackson and Fourth. Games were called at 3:30-4:00 PM, and in late innings the sun was in the eyes of the batter (facing toward the State Capitol).  To alleviate the problem, the ballpark was turned completely around and a new grandstand constructed where it remained until meeting the wrecking ball in 1969.

1927 Field View

No, the new ballpark is not going to look like this. No, there will be no real connection to the old one, other than overlapping the location. Yes, there is a whole lot of baseball DNA in the dirt.

As a fan, the ballpark could be located somewhere else and I would buy tickets. True fans do that.

 © 2014 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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