Tag Archives: Kansas City Monarchs

Under the (Temporary) Lights

J. L. Wilkinson’s Kansas City Monarchs won the Negro National League pennant in 1929, and when the Stock Market crashed on October 24, it did not bode well for his team. The league had just had the lowest gate receipts in the league’s history.[1]

The white team owner considered abandoning the league and making his club a touring independent team. But a radical idea was soon born, as he devised a plan to not only allow players to play night games, but perhaps pique the interest of fans so they would come to his team’s games out of curiosity.

He purchased a lighting system portable enough that it could be taken to ballparks across the country.

Wilkinson took on Thomas Baird as a partner, and mortgaged nearly every asset he had to fund the venture. Giant Manufacturing Company in Omaha, Nebraska, constructed the towers, floodlights, and generator at a cost of between $50,000-$100,000.[2] The telescoping poles had five or six lights, and when fully extended were only 50 feet high. The generator used 15 gallons of gasoline an hour[3] and was very noisy.

Before the Monarchs began their travel schedule, the lights were rented to the touring House of David team.[4] The first night game played by the Monarchs took place in Enid, Oklahoma, when they played Phillips University on April 28, 1930.[5] The system was introduced in Monarchs games all across the south. Wilkinson even rented the lights to Shreveport in the first night game in the history of the Cotton States leagues[6].

Nashville’s Wilson Park, located at the end of Second Ave., South near the Nashville & St. Louis railway track, was one of the earliest ballparks for the unique lighting to be used. The home ballpark of the Nashville Elite Giants, Wilkinson’s Monarchs played a two-game series on May 14 and 15.

The Nashville Tennessean announced the event in a May 13 article.

“The baseball fans of Nashville as well as the idly curious will have a chance to see what night baseball is like when Nashville Elite Giants meets the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the most famous negro teams. Wednesday night at 8 o’clock out in Wilson Park. The Monarchs, owned by J. Leslie Wilkinson of Kansas City, Mo., are pioneers in his field, having created a mild sensation in baseball circles all over the country with their undertaking.”[7]

The next day, increased space described the game to take place that night, probably just as Wilkinson presented it to the newspaper.

“The equipment used in this event is of a new creation, designed by several of the leading engineers in the United States. The lighting equipment, with its contributaries [sic], when assembled, is a systematic mammoth affair of its own. The 90 kilowat [sic] generator and 240 horsepower marine gas engine, which is of special design and made to order, is said to be positively the largest Electric power plant in the world on wheels.

“The giant flood lights, which encircle the entire baseball park, are designed expressly [sic] for this type of outdoor amusement, illuminating each and every part of the baseball park. The series of poles and towers, that support the giant flood lights are similar in construction to a jack knife or a fire department with its extension ladders. They have telescoped poles and towers that extend 40 to 50 feet in the air, elevating the giant flood lights so they light the playing ground as well as the sky.”[8]

With no game detail or report of the score the following day, the trial of night play was generally acceptable.

“Although only about a thousand fans, numbering many white persons, turned out for the game, those present got a big kick out of the contest. Many went away from the park amazed at the lighting system which made it possible for an outfielder to see the ball as good as if he was playing in the day time.”[9]

On May 16, the newspaper gave a final score of the second game, 8-1 in favor of Kansas City. It included a reference to a future Hall of Famer, “Bullet Joe” Rogan, who was a pitcher-outfielder for the club.

“”…Rogan, hard-hitting centerfielder of the Monarchs, did most of the hitting for the Kansas City aggregation, getting two two-baggers out of the four times he was at bat.”[10]

Nashville’s club included two home-town products, 44-year-old shortstop-second baseman-outfielder  Joe Hewitt, and Leroy Stratton. Hewitt was born in Nashville in 1885, had played Negro League baseball since 1914, and managed the 1923 St. Louis Stars[11], a team which included future Hall of Fame member “Cool Papa” Bell. Stratton was born in Nashville in 1895 and would become manager of the Elite Giants in 1931.[12]

The Monarchs would continue to Hopkinsville, Kentucky with their lighting system, while the Elites would be hosting Memphis in a four-game series in Nashville.

Although the illumination experiment would continue, temporary stadium lighting would soon be a thing of the past. Lights were added to Nashville’s Sulphur Dell in 1931, and major league clubs would soon follow as Cincinnati’s Crosley Field was the first to add lights in 1935.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

 

Sources

Baseball-reference.com

Newspapers.com

Paperofrecord.com

Sabr.org

[1] John Horner, “Know Your KC History: The Monarchs Shine a Light on Baseball’, https://www.kclibrary.org/blog/kc-unbound/know-your-kc-history-monarchs-shine-light-baseball, retrieved May 15, 2017.

[2] Earl Nash, “Negro League Team Used Lights Years before MLB”, http://bosoxinjection.com/2013/12/18/illuminating-past/, retrieved May 15, 2017

[4] Horner.

[4] Horner.

[5] Rives, Bob (2004). Baseball in Wichita. Arcadia Publishing, p. 27.

[6] Joe R. Carter, “Baton Rouge Wins From Reds of Alexandria in First Night Ball Game in Shreveport”, (Shreveport) Times, May 9, 1930: 15.

[7] “Nashville Elite Giants in First Night Game,” Nashville Tennessean, May 13, 1930: 10.

[8] “Negro Diamond Teams To Battle Here Tonight: Nashvillians to See Their First Night Game”, Nashville Tennessean, May 14, 1930: 10.

[9] “Night Baseball Game Here Gives Fans Big Thrill,” Nashville Tennessean, May 15, 1930: 15.

[10]“Elite Giants Bow To Monarchs in Second Night Tilt,” Nashville Tennessean, May 16, 1930: 19.

[11] Peterson, Robert (1970). Only The Ball Was White. Gramercy, p. 347.

[12] Plott, William J., The Negro Southern League: A Baseball History, 1920-1951. McFarland & Co., p. 81.

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Hank Aaron’s Professional Debut Was in Sulphur Dell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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

References

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

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

Online Sources

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

http://www.baseball-reference.com

http://www.baseballhall.org

http://www.crossroadstofreedom.org

http://www.georgiaencyclopeia.org

http://www.newspapers.com

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Ernie Banks: Remembering Sulphur Dell

During Hall of Famer Ernie Banks’ recent visit to Nashville, he recalled playing at Sulphur Dell for the Kansas City Monarchs. Banks was on the Negro League team during the 1950 and 1953 seasons (he served in the military during 1951-1952).

“Do you remember the date?” I asked him.

“I believe it would have been 1953, but I can’t tell you what month. I do remember hitting a fly ball up on the hill in right field,” he responded.

Knowing that it would not have been entirely unusual for there to be an announcement about a Negro League game in one of Nashville’s mainstream newspapers, previous research told me that it would be unusual for the game to have been reported in the sports section.

Nor would there be a chance of a box score or any other information to have been printed.

“I’d like to find a box score or some other reference to the game”, I said. “Any thing you could remember about playing here would be helpful.”

I did not want Banks to think he was being interrogated, but experience told me that it might be helpful if he could remember which team was the Monarchs’ opponent for the game.

“Do you remember what team you were playing?” I asked.

Banks thought for a moment, looking straight at me as if he was really wanting to remember any clue he had about the game.

“I believe we were playing the Indianapolis Clowns,” he said. “If you find anything, let me know.”

Hoping I could find some reference to Ernie Banks playing with the Monarchs in Nashville, another research quest was added to my list. Perhaps some reference to a Monarchs game at Sulphur Dell could be found.

I found it. At least, I believe I did. After searching various resources I found a reference to the Kansas City Monarchs playing the Indianapolis Clowns in Nashville. It is only a small write-up and line score of a Negro League game played on August 7 – Banks is not mentioned – but nevertheless there it was. It is from the Kansas City Times, August 8, 1953:

Kansas City Times, August 8, 1953

Often it only takes a tidbit of information (and a little bit of diligence, too) to find that hidden gem. To me, it is about connecting our present to our past, and any tip, hint, or clue whets my appetite for helping to make that connection.

Since Ernie Banks recalled that the Monarchs played the Clowns, it made the difference. I hope to contact him and with the information in the article and perhaps it will produce new memories about his visit to Nashville’s Sulphur Dell.

© 2014 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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