Tag Archives: Jackie Robinson

Famous Teams, Stars Played Exhibitions at Sulphur Dell on April 4

Major-league ball clubs, training in the southern part of the United States, scheduled exhibition games as they made their way homeward, primarily against minor-league clubs. April 4 was a popular date for such games in Nashville as the teams worked their way toward opening day. Often, the starting lineup consisted of the most famous stars against the hometown team.

In 1906, the Chicago Americans defeated Nashville 6-2 in a game that took 1 hour and 40 minutes. The game was played at Peabody Field due to the wet conditions at Athletic Park. Known as the “hitless wonders”, the White Sox would go on to win the pennant despite having the lowest batting average in the league, then becoming World Series champions by winning four-games-to-two over the Chicago Cubs.

In 1915, the Chicago Cubs defeated the Nashville Vols 7-4 at Sulphur Dell. Cy Williams hits two home runs and the Cubs score three runs in the ninth for the win. Cubs short stop Bob Fisher and brother of former Nashville owner/manager/player, was born in Nashville.

The World Champions New York Yankees paid a visit to Nashville in 1928, falling to the Vols 11-10. Ed Pipgras, brother to the Yankees’ George Pipgras, tossed the last three innings and was the winning pitcher for the Vols. One of his strikeout victims was Babe Ruth, who had a home run in the first inning. Lou Gehrig and Leo Durocher each had a double. The star of the game was Nashville right fielder Wally Hood, who hit a double and home run along with three singles. He was 5-for-5, had a sacrifice fly, drove in two, and scored three runs.

Ruth and the Yankees returned to Sulphur Dell in 1933. With two home runs, New York shut out the Vols, 13-0. Nashville had 23 assists, and only one runner made it to third base. 2,500 fans were in attendance.

In 1942, only 3,500 attend the game at Sulphur Dell as the New York Yankees route the hometown Vols, 10-1. Nashville can muster only six hits, while the Yankees collect a total of 15, including a three-run homer by Don Pulford. Charley English hits a home run in the bottom of the fourth inning off Lefty Gomez for the only run for the host team. The next day, the Yankees win again by a 11-6 score with a barrage of 18 hits as 8,000 fans witness the contest.

In a three-hour, six-minute game played before 12,006 fans in 1954, the Milwaukee Braves defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers, 18-14.  Nine ground-rule doubles are called on balls hit among those seated on the outfield hills. Carl Furillo smacks a grand-slam, and George “Shotgun” Shuba, Duke Snider, and Ed Mathews each hit homers. Roy Campanella pinch-hits and works the last inning behind the plate as Junior Gilliam anchors third and Jackie Robinson plays first.

Two years later, only seven days after Sulphur Dell is under fourteen feet of water, Eddie Mathews hits three home runs to lead the Milwaukee Braves over the Brooklyn Dodgers 10-8. Mathews’ first homer off Don Newcombe is a 340-foot drive over the left field wall. Tom Lasorda relieves in the 9th inning for the Dodgers. Sandy Amoros has two home runs and Hank Aaron also has a homer as Johnny Logan has two doubles and a triple. The Dodgers will go on to win the 1956 National League pennant with a one-game lead over the Braves.

Nashville fans had many opportunites to see baseball’s best and brightest at famous Sulphur Dell.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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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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It Happened On This Day in Nashville Baseball: December 22 – December 28

Junie McBride

Junie McBride

December 22, 1916 – Today is the birthday of J. F. “Junie” McBride, player, coach, and manager in Nashville’s local amateur leagues for over 50 years. President of the Nashville Old Timers Baseball Association from 1966 through 1968, Junie was given the group’s prestigious “Mr. Baseball” award in 1992. The upper floor of the clubhouse at Nashville’s Old Timers Complex at Shelby Park is named the “Junie McBride Hall of Fame Room” in his honor.

December 23, 1953 – Nashville’s own Jim “Junior” Gilliam, second baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, wins the National League Rookie of the Year, awarded by The Sporting News.

December 24, 1913 – Today is the birthday of George Jeffcoat, Nashville pitcher from 1939 though 1942 and brother to former Vols player Hal Jeffcoat. With an overall record of 53-38 for Nashville, his best season for the Vols was in 1940 when he was 14-6 with a 3.78 ERA and was second in the league with 121 strikeouts. His greatest accomplishment for Nashville came on September 11, 1940 in a Southern Association playoff game as Jeffcoat struck out seven consecutive Chattanooga batters on his way to tallying a league record eighteen strikeouts

December 25, 1908 – Former major leaguer Ben Chapman is born in Nashville. In his 15-year career he played for the Yankees, Senators, Red Sox, Indians, White Sox, Browns, and Phillies and played every position except first base and catcher. His career major league batting average was .302. A four-time All Star, Chapman led the American League in stolen bases for three consecutive seasons (1931, 1932, and 1933) and again with 35 in 1935 while splitting time with the Senators and the Red Sox. He led the America League in triples with 13 in 1934 while with the Yankees. Chapman became player-manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1945 and was known for opposing the presence of Jackie Robinson in the majors due to his race

December 26, 1984 – Johnny Gill passes away in his home town of Nashville. His major league career was short-lived, playing in only 118 games with the Indians, Senators, and Cubs, but his minor league career lasted for 23 years primarily as an outfielder. Known to his teammates as “Patcheye”, Gill’s best seasons were spent with Knoxville, Chattanooga, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Portland. His last professional season was in 1947 when at the age of 42 he played and managed for Fulton, Kentucky and Clarksville, Tennessee in the KITTY League. Born in Nashville on March 27, 1905, upon his death Gill was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Nashville

December 27, 1920 – Robert “Dutch” McCall is born in Columbia, Tennessee. In his first three seasons in organized ball he was mostly an outfielder, but after signing with the Nashville Vols, manager Larry Gilbert converted McCall to a pitcher. In 1942 and 1943 with Nashville, his combined pitching record was 15-11. But after a 2-year stint in military service, his 1946 season was exceptional. On April 30th, he tied the Southern Association record for strikeouts in a game with 17 and for the season he led the league in strikeouts with 179 as he finished 12-9. McCall earned a call-up to the Chicago Cubs for the 1948 season where he went 4-13 in his only year in the majors, retiring in 1954

December 28, 1906 – Local favorite Tommy Bridges, whose major league career spanned 16 seasons all with the Detroit Tigers, is born in Gordonsville, Tennessee

(c) 2014 Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Nat Peeples and the Feeble Attempt to Integrate the Southern Association

Nat Peeples

Nat Peeples


 

This is a special day in southern baseball history: In 1954 on this day, April 9th, Nat Peeples became the first and only black player in the Southern Association. It would become a token attempt to integrate the league.

Let’s quickly jump ahead a few years: In the Wednesday, September 7, 1960 edition of The Sporting News, Nashville Banner sportswriter George Leonard reported that Gabe Paul, Cincinnati Reds vice-president and general manager, had announced the Reds six-year working agreement with Nashville would not be renewed, effective December 15.

Why would an affiliation that had been amicable and proven to be positive for both clubs be negated? Was it because of low attendance at Sulphur Dell? Was it because the affable Gabe Paul could not get along with management of the Nashville club? Was it because Nashville was a city that did not give the Reds players an opportunity to play in a competitive league?

No, no, and no. The reason given by Paul is because the Southern Association “does not allow the use of Negro players”.

Gabe Paul’s explanation was profound. Whether there was a secret agreement between the clubs or whether no owner would take a stand against segregation is unknown.

On January 24, 1962, the Southern Association suspended operations due to a lack of enough major league working agreements.

The first year of play in the Southern Association was 1901. Nashville won the first two championships, following up with league titles in 1908 and 1916 and ruling the league with six straight championships from 1939–1944.

1948 and 1949 were championship seasons, too.

The Atlanta Crackers won thirteen Southern Association championships, more than any team in the 61 years of the storied league.

Earl Mann owned the Atlanta Crackers. The team had been a member of the league since 1902, and Mann was the face of the club. He scheduled an exhibition game in 1949 that brought in the Brooklyn Dodgers to play his Atlanta ballclub.

“The team and its ballpark were segregated, but in 1949 the Crackers made history when they played against Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers in a three-game exhibition series. The final game on April 10, 1949, drew an all-time Ponce de Leon crowd of 25,221, including 13,885 black fans. The Crackers won one of the three games, and the series marked the first time in Atlanta history that blacks and whites competed against each other in a professional sports event.” – Georgia Encylopedia, Atlanta Crackers Original entry by Tim Darnell, Atlanta, October 19, 2006

A few years later, Earl Mann would lead the charge in an attempt to integrate the Southern Association. The club had an affiliation with the Milwaukee Braves, and two Negro players were considered to play for the Crackers: Hank Aaron and Nat Peeples. The future Hall of Famer Aaron would be called up to the parent club, and Peeples remained with Atlanta after spring training.

On April 9, 1954, outfielder Nat Peeples is sent to the plate as a pinch-hitter for Atlanta in the season opener in Mobile, becoming the first black player in a Southern Association game. Peeples starts the next game and plays the entire nine innings.

“Nat Peeples, an outfielder for the Atlanta Crackers, made history as he broke the color line in the venerable, tradition-rich, class-AA Southern Association. In the Crackers’ opening game of the season against the Mobile Bears in Mobile, Alabama, Peeples batted in the fifth inning as a pinch hitter for pitcher Noel Oquendo. He took the first two offerings for balls and then tapped the third pitch weakly back to the pitcher for an easy out. In the second game of the season, played the next night, Peeples started in left field and batted in the important third spot in the lineup. In four plate appearances Peeples walked once and made routine groundouts in his other three at-bats.

“He did not play in the third and final game of the series in Mobile. The Crackers then returned to Atlanta to open their home season. Peeples had not played in Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon Park when, on April 17, the Crackers optioned him to the Jacksonville Braves of the class-A South Atlantic League. After appearing in only 2 games and without ever hitting the ball out of the infield, Peeples never again played in the Southern Association. He was the first and only Negro to play in the league.” – NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture, Volume 12, Number 2, Spring 2004 Earl Mann, Nat Peeples, and the Failed Attempt of Integration in the Southern Association by Kenneth R. Fenster

Peeples, who was born in Memphis, was sent down to Jacksonville within a week. Although he would play on integrated teams he never made it to the major leagues and would finish his career at Mexico City in the Mexican League after the 1960 season.

Peeples died on August 30, 2012 in Memphis at the age of 86.

© 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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Nashville’s Jim “Junior” Gilliam, 1953 Rookie of the Year

On this day in 1953, Nashville’s own Jim “Junior” Gilliam, second baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, is announced as the winner of the National League Rookie of the Year, awarded by The Sporting News.

12,059 fans had  turned out to see the Brooklyn Dodgers defeat the Milwaukee Braves 3-1 on April 6th, but mostly to see home town favorite Jim Gilliam in his return to Nashville as a professional player.  Gilliams went 2-4 to lead the Dodgers. Warren Spahn is the losing pitcher as the Braves muster only one run on catcher Ebba St. Claire’s home run over the high right field wall. The Dodgers’ Dick Williams doubles off the left field wall and drives in two runs.

Jim_Gilliam_1A product of Pearl High School, Gilliam would lead the league with 17 triples, have 168 hits, 23 stolen bases, and a .278 average after taking over second base from Jackie Robinson who moved to third base and the outfield for the 1953 season.

On April 4, 1954 a sell-out crowd of 12,006 fans at Sulphur Dell watched the Milwaukee Braves defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers 18-14 with Gilliam anchoring third base.  Nine ground-rule doubles are 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 worked the last inning behind the plate and Jackie Robinson played first base.

A two-time All Star, Gilliam’s career lasted 14 years as he remained with the Dodgers during their move to Los Angeles and retired as an active player after the 1966 season.

One of the first African-American coaches in the major leagues as he continued with the Dodgers, Gilliam’s number 19 was retired prior to Game 1 of the 1978 World Series after he suffered a brain hemorrhage and passed away on September 17th.

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Jackie Robinson Signs

Sixty-eight years ago today on October 23, 1945, Branch Rickey announced that Jackie Robinson had signed a contract to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It paved the way for the integration of baseball and gave Robinson the opportunity to become the first black player in the major leagues.

Rickey has been given much credit for signing Robinson that day, and it is well-deserved for his fortitude and foresight of things to come. But it was Jackie Robinson’s decision, not Branch Rickey’s, that integrated baseball.

Robinson had to sign on the dotted line.

One can only imagine what advice Robinson had been given or what was going through his mind before he made the decision to sign.  He and his wife Rachel must have resolved that he would succeed no matter the cost, and his brave hand signed the contract.JackieRobinsonDay

Robinson’s decision may have been the most historical event in the history of the game.  It certainly was one of the most significant – perhaps it was one of the most significant events in the history of our country, too.

He took on a great responsibility, one that was an opportunity for success but was also a peril for failure.  Robinson took a great leap of faith and accepted that responsibility.

On April 15, 1947, he would take the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first of his race to play in a major league game. His career would last through the 1956 season; he was on Dodgers teams which played spring exhibition games at Sulphur Dell between 1953 – 1956, too.

Most importantly, during his illustrious career Robinson succeeded in proving a new concept: persons of different skin colors could participate together in America’s favorite pastime. Because of Jackie Robinson’s resolve, Americans began to learn that they could also participate together in everyday life.

It took a will and a signature – and Robinson and all of us, were on our way.

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