Tag Archives: George Leonard

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 Herschel Greer Stadium was its home; the ballpark was outdated, rusty, and confined.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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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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Bleachers in the Sun

There once was a tall marquee that called attention to Nashville’s famous ball field that had been home to amateur and professional teams since 1870. The sign stood over the entrance to Sulphur Dell and proclaimed it as “Baseball’s Most Historic Park”.bis3

The professional Americans, Blues, Tigers, Seraphs, and Vols were joined by the Negro League Elite Giants and a multitude of local amateur teams which claimed “the Dell” as their home field.

In the early days the park had faced the northeast toward the State Capitol. The park was reconfigured in the winter of 1926 so that the sun would no longer be in the eyes of batters during afternoon games, and Nashville was soon to have one of the finest steel and concrete stadiums in the South.

Although the old ballpark had seen its share of historic moments from seasons past, in 1927 the new stadium would soon add new chapters to its history of full crowds, exciting teams, outstanding players and gigantic home runs.

Located just north of the city, Sulphur Dell was situated in an area that was below the street level. It had an unusual contour that was prone to flooding as the banks of the nearby Cumberland River often overflowed during spring rains. One sports writer described the park as “looking like a drained-out bathtub.”

Major league teams scheduled exhibition games in southern cities as they broke training camp and made their way north to begin the regular season. Nashville was a popular stop, and the people of Nashville had grown to love the old ballpark that was dubbed “Suffer Hell” by players who had to navigate the outfield. Those who had never seen the park but had heard of the unique outfield configuration were often victims of its hills that made even the most routine fly ball an adventure.

Babe Ruth, always a fixture in right field for the New York Yankees, reportedly refused to play “the dump” and once moved to left field for an exhibition game in Nashville, saying, “I won’t play on anything a cow won’t graze on.” The bottom of the fence was 22 1/2 feet above the playing surface.

Often the second baseman would field a hard-hit ball that slapped against the bottom of the wooden fence, caroming back into the infield, as the right field fence was only 262 feet from home plate.

That was the Sulphur Dell beloved by Nashville baseball fans. The capacity of the ballpark was around 8,000, and as baseball boomed fans faithfully showed their loyalty by filling the parking lot and streets with their cars, traveling by trolley or bus, and walking the short distance from the city center or from the surrounding residential areas nearby.

As Nashville became a baseball town, the stands were usually buzzing with cheers of support whether on a chilly spring day in April in the 1920’s or a hot sunny afternoon in the 1950’s, but Nashvillians had an insatiable thirst for baseball and enjoyed cheering on their “Vols”. Sulphur Dell had actually become a major tourist attraction.

When lights were added in the late 1930’s, folks could spend an evening supporting the Vols. They did not have to leave work early, and since television was not yet on the horizon, they could turn their attention to the National Pastime that their grandfathers and fathers had enjoyed.

Even amateur teams playing at Sulphur Dell experienced rabid fans that supported them, as baseball was king in the city with the unusual ballpark outfield and short right field ‘porch’.

On Opening Day on April 12, 1932, Nashville’s largest crowd to see a game at Sulphur Dell according to Fred Russell, sports editor of the Nashville Banner. Along with sports writer George Leonard he published Vol Feats 1901-1950, a booklet that celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Nashville baseball clubs participation in the Southern Association, documenting the first 50 years of Nashville’s professional team.

But something was missing.

Yes, Nashville had a beautiful park, even with its idiosyncrasies. Its clean grandstand shaded its patrons from the afternoon sun during day games. That’s why the stands had been reconfigured, with the setting sun no longer in the batters’ eyes and the fans could shielded from the heat with a cover that provided shade during the 4 or 4:30 PM starting time.

Fans would often arrive early for batting practice, filling the shaded rear seats until the sun began to move to the west. Then they would move closer to the field as the shadows stretched out into the lower seats.bis1

The Vols were supported by the Negro community, but they were limited to a segregated section of the park where they would watch the game. It was an unusual place to have to sit.  The Negro bleachers were located down the left-field line all the way out to the outfield fence.

In the sun.

Everyone loved to cheer for their favorite teams. Black fans had the Nashville Elite Giants to cheer for in the mid-1930’s, who played at Sulphur Dell in 1932 and 1933 until owner Tom Wilson built his own park in another part of town. Later another Black team came into existence, the Nashville Cubs which played in the Negro Southern League.

Satchel Page brought his barnstorming team to Sulphur Dell, and the fans poured into the park to see the future Hall-of-Famer. When Negro League teams came to town, supporters could sit in the stands, although there was always a section behind home plate that was reserved for whites. The same was not true when white teams were playing; Blacks were relegated to the Negro bleachers.

Those bleachers were located on the foul-territory hill, with a view of home plate that was partially blocked by the grandstand. The distance to the restrooms and concessions was as about as far away as one could get. And if a batter hit a home run over the center field or left field fence, one had to crane his neck to see it go over the fence.

All of the action was not in front of you and there certainly was no cover from the sun.

Then Jackie Robinson broke the major league’s color barrier. In 1947, Robinson took his place in immortality by starting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and things began to change.

And something changed in Nashville, too. Although it was not an event that changed baseball, I believe it did change the hearts and minds of baseball fans in the mid-state area.bis2

On April 8, 1956 the Brooklyn Dodgers came to town to play the Milwaukee Braves. One of the Dodger players was Nashville’s own Jim (Junior) Gilliam, tutored at Sulphur Dell by Willie White. White was the long-time equipment manager for the Nashville Vols, and controlled who had use of the ballpark when the Vols were not using it. He also helped to develop Gilliam in his youth, and no doubt had a profound impact on the young player.

Along with white fans, the Black community came out in droves to support their hero. They filled the bleachers reserved for them, and the Nashville team owners allowed them to sit on the outfield hills, creating their own ‘bleachers in the sun’. Although there is no way to know the percentage of whites or blacks in attendance, the total crowd was announced as 11,933.

The Dodgers rolled to a 12-2 exhibition game victory, and Gilliam pleased the crowd by garnering three singles, a double, walking once, and scoring twice. He was finally retired in the eighth inning on a fly out to left. Gilliam had to have been pleased with his performance in his home town. Willie White must have been pleased, too.

In the mid-1950’s crowds had begun to dwindle as their attention turned to television and air conditioning. Perhaps the demise of the Southern Association in 1961 could be attributed to feelings about black ballplayers still not being able to play even though integration of baseball leagues across the country was ongoing. Major league clubs were no longer going to support segregated leagues.

bis4Southern attitudes had been slow to change. But the legacy of Sulphur Dell is not its odd shape, its high outfield hills, or its fine stadium seating. Its legacy is that through the dark shadows of segregation, baseball provided a way for people to enjoy the game that so many loved, and that everyone could cheer for a hero, no matter his skin color.

And when the park was gone, everyone was in the sun.

Author’s note: This article was presented at the 2006 Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I am honored to be the morning keynote speaker at the 2014 Conference on April 4th. Contact Warren Tormey (warren.towmey@mtsu.edu) for more information

© 2014 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Behind the Pen, Keystroke, and Microphone

Before the television set made its way into the homes of America, baseball fans relied on game accounts of newspaper stories and play-by-play radio broadcasts. In Nashville, delivery of the morning and evening newspapers were anxiously awaited to find out how the Vols fared that day or the night before.


Sulphur Dell Rooftop, 1926

George Leonard, Raymond Johnson, Fred Russell, John Bibb, F. M. Williams, Jimmy Davy, Bill Roberts, and many others wrote vivid summaries which gave each game’s detail. If one could not be there in person, the sportswriter’s article was the closest thing to it.

Radio was an important ingredient in a fan’s life, too. Time after time I have had emails sent to me on http://www.sulphurdell.com that tell about sitting by the radio with other family members to listen to the Vols games.

Some of those email recollections stand out when it comes to first-hand experiences:

Marlin Keel wrote to say, “…spent many a summer night in front of the radio listening to Dick Shively and then Larry Munson call the games for the Vols at home and on the road. It was a real treat to enjoy the simplistic pleasures and excitement that those radio broadcasts brought to my life. I remember to this day hearing Munson say: ‘Sit back, relax, have an Coke and a smoke and enjoy the ball game’.”

Russell Brecheen worked in a variety of responsibilities that gave him great experiences that many of us envy: “…I worked the scoreboard out in left center field and even worked for the Gilberts in the office. I would get the lineups for each game and take to Herman Gizzard and Larry Munson for the PA and radio, and took care of the Western Union ticker and passed the scores to the scoreboard.

“I would answer the phone and run any other errands that the Gilberts (Vols General Manager Larry and his son Charlie, assistant GM) needed me to take care of. I still have my first Social Security Card that had The Nashville Baseball Club/5th Avenue North typed on it!”

Fred Russell’s daughter, Carolyn wrote to say, “I remember as a very little girl sitting right outside the door of the press box on that screened walkway high above the seats, looking down at the people, waiting for my father, Fred Russell, to come out when the games were over.”

For a sportswriter named George Leonard and an 8-year-old kid, every game was exciting: “I learned about scoring a game, how to run a scoreboard, and how to catch a foul ball at the Dell. For me, the stadium has many fond memories. I have a great photo of my dad in the press box, hammering out another story on an old “Royal” typewriter, as he views the field below.”

Ernie Leonard fondly remembers, “My dad was in his element at the park, and so was I!”

George Deuel’s brother-in-law John DuVal was the PA announcer at Sulphur Dell for a while and, as a young boy of about 10 years of age, got to sit up in the press box with him a few times. He always took a baseball glove with him and after missing foul ball hit into the booth radio announcer Larry Munson and his assistant invited him to sit with them and Munson he shared over the radio how some freckled-face kid had dropped a foul ball that had been hit up to the booth.

“…all in all, the good memories of that night far outweigh my error of letting the foul ball get away. That is my claim to fame, that I got to sit in the radio booth with Larry Munson.”

Bill Poland recalls one night at Sulphur Dell when his father, Hugh Poland, Vols manager from 1951 to 1953, argued an umpire’s call and found himself thumbed out of the game.

Dizzy Dean was announcing the minor league “game of the week” from the press box. My dad had known Dizzy from when they were in spring training together in the ’30s. My dad came unglued at the umpire’s call and gave the ump such a verbal chastising, was sent to the showers. Dizzy sent for my dad to come to the press box after he had dressed.

“While in the press box between innings, Dizzy asked my dad on the air what the home plate ump would think if he saw my dad in the press box with “Ole DIz”. My dad said, “I don’t think we have to worry about that because the ump can’t see that far”. About ten minutes later the league president sent a teletype to the press box telling my dad to get off the air and fined him.”

In the heyday of the minor leagues the interest was high both at the park and at home.  At some point, everything changed.

“I was the last play-by-play broadcaster in the Dell in 1963”, recollects Warren Corbett. “I was a freshman at Vanderbilt and my radio gig lasted only a few weeks before the sponsor canceled and the games were taken off the air. That was the Vols’ only year in the Sally League, the last year they played at the Dell.

“Some nights it seemed like there were more players than fans in the park.”

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