Tag Archives: Fred Russell

Fast Track Through Nashville: Lefty Jim O’Toole

Jim O’Toole was signed by Cincinnati on December 23, 1957 for $50,000, paid over four years, coming off a 4-1 college season for the University of Wisconsin. He struck out 15 batters in three different games for the Badgers.

JO'TooleThat summer he played semi-pro baseball for Mitchell, South Dakota in the Basin League where he had an 8-1 won-lost record and 2.79 ERA[1]. With nine other clubs interested in his services, the large contract was an investment general manager Gabe Paul was willing to make. Averaging 12 strikeouts per game in the summer league might have had something to do with it, furthering the Reds’ intent on signing him.[2]

The son of a Chicago policeman, the 6’1” 195-lb. O’Toole’s high school did not field a baseball team, but he played in area amateur leagues and took up boxing.

His reputation began in his teens as he missed tossing no-hitters on three occasions where he allowed a hit in the final inning and once struck out 19.[3]

Assigned to Nashville after spring training, he immediately showed the Reds that he would be worthy of their confidence. With the letters “T-H-I-N-K” written on the fingers of his glove[4], on April 18, 1958 the 21-year-old shut out the Chattanooga Lookouts 1-0, allowing only four hits.

Four days later he struck out five but walked 10, gaining the win over Chattanooga as Nashville catcher Vic Comoli had a grand-slam home run in the first inning to lead the Vols to a 15-7 win over the Lookouts.

Jim won three of his first four decisions as a professional, but he continued to impress. On May 3, he nearly tossed the first no-hit, no-run game at Sulphur Dell in 42 years in a 14-0 route of Little Rock. With two outs in the ninth inning former St. Louis Cardinal Harry Elliott hits a single, and Ben Downs adds another before Jim retired Lou Heymans to end the game. O’Toole finishes with a two-hitter.

He earned his fifth win in six decisions on May 12. Throwing a five-hitter in an 8-2 win over Mobile, he broke one of manager Dick Sisler’s team rules by walking the opposing pitcher. Jim was fined $1.00 which was collected for the player’s party account.[5]

The warmer weather of June proved to be of Jim’s liking. On June 3 Nashville won over Little Rock 4-2 as the Vols scored three runs without hitting the ball out of the infield. Two walks, three singles and an error help break open a pitching duel between Nashville’s O’Toole and the Travelers’ Al Grunwald, with Jim improving his pitching record to 7-3 with the win.

On June 11 Nashville ends a six-game losing streak at Hartwell Field in Mobile as the left-hander blanked the Bears on six hits, 3-0.  It is O’Toole’s third shutout and ninth win of the season.

Not only did he shut out New Orleans on four hits on June 20, Jim slugged his first home run and was perfect at the plate in three appearances. The Vols beat the Pelicans 16-0 as he registered his fourth shutout of the season and eleventh victory.

He pitched fourteen innings on June 24 in leading the Vols over Memphis 3-2, the Chicks’ ninth loss in the ten games.  O’Toole raises his record to 12-3 with the victory, lowers his league-leading ERA to 2.07, and his twelve complete games, 106 strikeouts, and 152 innings also lead the Southern Association.

O’Toole was a unanimous selection to the leagues’ July 16 All Star game and was named the starter by All Star manager, Nashville’s Dick Sisler. Jim pitched the first two innings, gave up two hits, and was credited with the 4-0 victory over host Atlanta Crackers. Four days earlier he improved his record to 14-4 in a win over Atlanta, giving him a win over each team in the circuit. A six-hit win over Memphis on July 22 gave him victory number 15.

Jim added to his credentials in a mid-season poll of all Southern Association managers compiled by Nashville Banner sports editor, Fred Russell. O’Toole was voted number one major league prospect in the league, picked as one of the fastest pitchers, and surprisingly one of the fastest base runners.[6]

He became the league’s first 17-game winner of the season with a 4-3 win over New Orleans on August 5.

It was the only full season Jim spent in the minors. His totals for Nashville were impressive: 180 innings pitched in 35 games, 21 complete games, a 20-8 record and 2.44 ERA.

Called up to the parent Reds, he appeared in one game in Milwaukee. Starting against the Braves on September 26, O’Toole allowed one unearned run on four hits, striking out four and walking five in the Braves 2-1 win over Cincinnati.

He was selected to the AA and A All Star team by the National Association of Sports Writers, and was named the player in the minors who made the most rapid advancement toward major league status for the season. Jim was also selected to the Southern Association’s All Star team, and a unanimous choice of the loop’s top rookie at season’s end.

He would have a 10-year major league career, nine with the Reds and one with the Chicago White Sox. Never a 20-game winner, he made the National League All Star team in 1963, and had five consecutive seasons of 10 or more wins. Perhaps his best season came in 1964 when he was 17-7 with a 2.66 ERA.

In his first year of eligibility in 1970 O’Toole was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame. Born on January 10, 1937, he passed away on December 26, 2015.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

[1]The Sporting News, January 1, 1958 p. 6

[2] Ibid., January 15, 1958, p. 16

[3] Ibid., June 11, 1958, p. 55

[4] Ibid., October 8, 1958, p. 10

[5] Ibid., May 21, 1958, p. 35

[6] Ibid., August 6, 1959, p. 36

Additional Sources




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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


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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The Demise of a League: Fred Russell Explains

The demise of the Southern Association at the end of the 1961 season brought an end to one of the longest running leagues at the time. League president George M. Trautman faced the press in January of 1962 with painful words.

“I don’t like to be sentimental at a time like this. But it is tough to preside over a session that marks the exodus of a league as old and respected as the Southern.”

It was not unexpected. Total attendance across all minor leagues had dropped from 41,900,000 at the peak in 1949 to 10,900,000 in 1961, a 75% drop in only 12 years.

Fans picked up the pace near the end of World War II, but slowed rapidly as the new decade began. Nashville’s drop from 228,034 in 1949 to 64,460 in 1961 is telling in itself. That’s a 72% decline.

So where did the fans go? Nashville’s demise ran about even as other cities, and by 1961 two stalwart cities of the league, Atlanta and New Orleans, had already dropped out.

Russell-FBOnce again, we turn to dependable Fred Russell, sports editor of the Nashville Banner and contributor to The Sporting News. He wrote a series of articles that the national sports journal published between March 28 and April 11, 1962. In it, he explained the reasons given by those “in the know.”

It would be easy to surmise that the main reasons for declining visits to ballparks were television, air conditioning, and automobiles were the culprits. I have done that before. But is that really why?

Well, yes, and then some.

Russell begins his explanation by asking his readers a few questions in “Why Did Southern Go Under” in the March 28, 1962 edition of The Sporting News:

“Who killed the Southern? What killed the venerable league, referred to just a couple of years ago as the most stable in the minor league orbit? Could it have been avoided?

“Or was it inevitable?”

Adding to the banter of dissatisfied Southern Association members who questioned the leadership of the league, including owners who have used their long-term power to solve short-range problems, Russell gives a list of reasons:

“Apathetic fans, rising opportunity of outdoor participative sports (particularly boating), bowling’s boom, major league baseball telecasts, television itself, air-conditioning comfort, slower games, poorer teams, indifference of major league officials to a quickly deteriorating situation, too much dependence on the majors, inability to meet competition, refusal to accept Negro players (until too late), football’s gradual encroachment on the sports fan’s late-summer attention, unaggressive leadership, etc.”

There you have it. It was more than one, or two, or three things. It is striking that there was so much dissension, but one does not lose sight of explanations that could be used today in criticism of everything that is wrong with baseball.

However, Russell goes one step beyond.

“My own belief is that the biggest single reason for declining interest in minor league baseball is the lack of any continuing identity between clubs from one year to the next.

“It used to be you would attach yourself to some favorite. He might stay with your home-town club for several years, and with him, maybe a bunch of other players you felt close to. It was fun to watch their progress when they advanced to the big leagues.”

There you have it. Russell was warning owners and fans alike that things had changed, not for the better, and without teams having players that the fans could relate to it washed out the reason for loving one’s team.

In 1972 Curt Flood challenged the rule that allowed Major League Baseball to have antitrust exemptions regarding player contracts. Flood passed away in 1997 and did not live long enough to know legislation was passed in 1997 and 1998 that gave major league players antitrust protection.

Although Organized Baseball rebounded from early free-agent signing, multi-year contracts have kept players with the same team for longer periods than just a few years. The trade-off in most cases has been exorbitant salaries.

At the time of the Southern’s passing it was not known that Nashville and other cities would make valiant efforts to resurrect their teams. But the damage had been done, and after attempts to bring the glory days of minor league baseball back it would be 15 years or more for some cities to succeed.

Fred Russell explained the complications of baseball’s struggles and brought light to questions about minor league baseball of the day. This beloved sports writing sage had the answers then.

Funny thing, how wise he was about those same questions today.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Note: The Tennessean’s Nine-inning (part) series in conjunction with the Nashville Sounds’ new ballpark opening continues daily and may be viewed by clicking here: “Coming home to Sulphur Dell“.

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Fred Russell: Night Games or Day Games?

FRussell_FBPerhaps no sports writer had more insight to pass on to his readers than Nashville’s Fred Russell. The beloved journalist had a following who believed him, who relied on him for the inside story and insight that went beyond the box score and stats.

On more than one occasion the sports editor of the Nashville Banner ponders the future of baseball. In the 1950s and ’60s he would sorrowfully describe the fall of minor league’s baseball franchises. Ultimately he would lament the loss of the Southern Association after the 1961 season; two years later, the beloved Nashville Vols would disappear, too. And he would name the reasons (more to come).

It was a different story two decades earlier when night games were rapidly replacing  those being called in the afternoon. Nashville had seen attendance boom from 99,615 in 1932, 113,292 in 1934, to 138,602 in 1940 before the United States entered the fray across the oceans.

By 1942 the country was fully at war. But Russell felt there was more money flowing than for any period since the Great Depression.

Quoted in the January 15, 1942 edition of The Sporting News, the prudent scribe said, “There’s more employment. Factories are running night shifts. Many men are looking for afternoon recreation. We still have the 40-hour week in most occupations. That means plenty of time for relaxation.

Night baseball had been added to minor league team’s schedules, and there was some conversation about reducing the number of them while the country was fighting overseas. Russell seems to struggle with his reasoning for day games or night games.

He had sensed a new interest with positive results. As more games were played at night, fans depended on radio broadcasts when they could not get to the ballpark. He felt that fact alone gained interest from a new fan: women.

Lights had been added to Sulphur Dell in 1931 and the first regular season night game on May 18 drew approximately 7,000 fans to the contest against Mobile. Nashville lost 8-1.

But as he names reasons for playing games after dark, he questions whether there may be day games again.

Suppose night baseball is banned in the Southern Association and other leagues this summer, and they only play in the afternoons. Will enough people come to the parks to enable clubs to make expenses?

And with the rationing of automobiles and tires, there’ll be fewer motor trips, less partying, more of the old forms of amusement.

Maybe day baseball in the minors is gone. I’m not saying it isn’t. But remember the railroads – ten years ago. Did anyone forsee the booming business of 1941 and 1942, with not an idle car in the yards and freight trains a half-mile long?

“Of course, the war is mainly responsible. And that’s what I am getting around to, the matter of whether the war may be responsible for some other comebacks. In particular, day baseball.”

At the end of 1942 season attendance stood at 96,934, so there must be some truth to the reasons the Russell listed about what people were able to do. In 1944, with hopes that the war would soon be over, attendance skyrocketed to 146,945.

Russell’s thoughts from both sides of the day or night question only helped to prove that either way, he had it figured.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Note: The Tennessean’s Nine-inning (part) series in conjunction with the Nashville Sounds’ new ballpark opening continues daily and may be viewed by clicking here: “Coming home to Sulphur Dell“.


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From My Bookshelf: Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell-Raiser

BootsBookArguably the most famous baseball team in the history of Nashville sports, the 1940 Nashville Volunteers were voted the 47th best minor league team of all time in the 100th celebration of Minor League baseball in 2001. Its heroic bad-boy pitcher, who finished the season in spectacular fashion with a 26-9 record, is celebrated by author Austin Gisriel in Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell-Raiser (2014, Summer Game Books), .

With the huge advantage of sorting through scrapbooks kept by Boots’ first wife Jo and made available by Poffenberger’s grandson Jeremy Knode, Gisriel thoroughly examines the life of one of baseball’s unruly children.

And this journey of Poffenberger’s life in baseball, even with his garish attitude, is a pleasurable one.

Gisriel describes the portly pitcher in easy fashion, allowing the reader a view into those well-kept scrapbooks. He thoroughly details Poffenberger’s life from his home town of Williamsport, Maryland through sandlot ball, military service, and ultimately professional baseball and retirement.

Having been declared ineligible after his antics perturb both the Detroit Tigers and Brooklyn Dodgers management, Boots’ three-season foray into his major league career ends. Nashville manager Larry Gilbert takes a chance on the affable Poffenberger, purchasing him from the Dodgers in March of 1940, when no one else would have him:

“The Vols were skippered by Larry Gilbert, who had become part owner of the club after managing New Orleans for 15 seasons.There, Gilbert developed a reputation as an effective handler of eccentrics, flakes, and trouble-makers…”

Poffenberger’s success culminates in Nashville. It was then and there that he found his best success with one of the best minor league teams of all time.

“Boot(s) Poffenberger, of course, lead the league in wins with 26 becoming the first Volunteer hurler to notch at least 25 in a season. Boots appeared in 37 games and remarkably, received a decision in all but two of them. His .743 win percentage was first in the league.”

At an end-of-season banquet held at a local supper club for the 1940 team, Nashville Banner sportswriter Fred Russell sings Boots’ praises for what he had meant to the team:

“I mean it with the utmost sincerity when I say that Poffenberger’s reputation is unfair to him, and, as this season has proved, he has been the victim of major league operators’ and managers’ own deficiencies in what should be a prime requisite of their job – handling men.

Model boy? No. Bad actor? I have known ten dozen ball players who were bigger problems than Poffenberger.”

But seven months removed from the glowing tribute given by Russell, the wrapping comes off of the package. Already facing questions about his drinking habits and game preparation, on June 25, 1941 Poffenberger is suspended for 90 days by League president Trammel Scott after throwing at umpire Ed “Dutch” Hoffman in the fifth inning of the previous night’s game. And Larry Gilbert, the well-respected molder of disorderly baseball men, gives up on him:

“I’m through with him”, Gilbert was quoted as saying in the Nashville papers the next day. “He won’t pitch for Nashville anymore.”

His time in Nashville parallels every aspect of Poffenberger’s baseball career. Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell-Raiser is a quality description of this up-and-down life. This account finds tempo in Boots’ visit to the major leagues and ends in some humility in his failings. Boots had become lost in baseball lore until Gisriel brings him out of his slide to obscurity.

I recommend adding it to one’s Nashville’s baseball and southern history library.

Disclaimer: Austin Gisriel provided a copy of his book in exchange for a Nashville/Sulphur Dell cap. That exchange had no influence on this review.

 © 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.


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Grantland Rice Named “Sulphur Dell” On This Day

From humble beginnings as Nashville’s city park, even P. T. Barnum pitched his city of tents on the grounds of Sulphur Spring Bottom in November of 1872. Throughout its history the proximity of this lovely piece of ground was not so beautiful after late-winter’s rainfalls filled the low-lying basin.

Escalating interest in the game of “base ball” led to the formation of Nashville’s first professional team to play in the inaugural Southern League season in 1885. The grounds at Athletic Park were often in such poor condition that games were postponed, moved to another ball field at Peabody or Vanderbilt, or cancelled.

The African-American community took to the emerging National Game and cheered on their local favorites. As early as June of 1907 the semi-professional Nashville Standard Giants played at Athletic Park; renamed the Negro League Nashville Elite Giants in 1920, Sulphur Dell was often the home playing field for the team.

Grantland_RiceIn his sports column published in the Nashville Tennessean on this day, January 14, 1908, Grantland Rice referred to the local ballpark as “Sulphur Spring Dell”. In later years Nashville Banner sports editor Fred Russell intimated that Rice couldn’t find anything to rhyme with “Sulphur Spring Bottom”, as the area had been known, thus the new moniker for Nashville’s baseball home.

In subsequent columns Rice shortened the name to “Sulphur Dell”, and fans and players adopted it when referring to their beloved ballpark. When Grantland Rice first typed out the words “Sulphur Dell”, how could he have known that time would etch the name into the minds of baseball folk, casual fans, players and sportswriters across the country.

After the 1926 season ended new ownership of the Southern Association’s Nashville Volunteers decided to turn the ballpark around so fans would not be squinting in the afternoon sun. One of the visitors to the new “turned around” Sulphur Dell was player-manager Casey Stengel and his Toledo Mud Hens; Stengel hit a triple in the exhibition game against Nashville.

A few weeks later on April 7, the 65th General Assembly of Tennessee adjourned early to see Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees play the St. Louis Cardinals at Sulphur Dell. The two teams had faced each other in the past World Series with the Cardinals winning four games to three.

A resolution had been adopted to invite Ruth to address the Senate the morning of the game, but he sent word that it would be impossible for him to appear because of a lack of time. Undoubtedly the Legislature had time and observed the Cardinals beat the Yankees that day 10-8.

The first night game was played at Sulphur Dell on May 18, 1931 as the Vols lost to Mobile 8-1.

On April 12, 1932 attendance was 14,502; with seating capacity of 8,000 in the grandstands the outfield was lined off with rope to accommodate the crowd. It was the largest crowd to see a game at Sulphur Dell.

After arriving from Memphis by team bus at 4 PM on May 8, 1946 the Racine Belles checked into the Noel Hotel then made their way to Sulphur Dell to play against the Muskegon Lassies. The Belles won 8-5.

On opening day April 17, 1951, Nashville’s Sulphur Dell celebrated 24 years of service to local citizens with a new look that included a remodeled façade, new turnstiles, brick walls, wider exits and other improvements.  Unchanged were the “dumps” in the outfield and the short right field fence.

The last professional baseball game was played at Sulphur Dell on September 8, 1963, as the Vols of the South Atlantic League faced Lynchburg in a double header.  Nashville outfielder Charlie Teuscher belted three home runs as the Vols won over Lynchburg 6-3 and 2-1.

It was the last hurrah of the famous park. Amateur baseball was played at Sulphur Dell in 1964 and in 1965 it was turned into a speedway. After becoming a tow-in lot for Metro Nashville, Sulphur Dell was demolished in 1969.

Today’s recollections of great players, games, and teams honor the memory of the hallowed grounds of Sulphur Dell thanks to the “Dean of American Sportswriters”, Grantland Rice.

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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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