Tag Archives: Larry Schmittou

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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Yogi in Nashville

It wasn’t him they came to see.

Mickey Mantle had left the New York Yankees and returned home to Commerce, Oklahoma to treat a skin rash. His last time to the plate was as a pinch hitter on March 29, and manager Casey Stengel was not very happy when it was reported that Mantle had been spending time fishing near his home town.

But all was well when Mantle rejoined his team in Nashville on April 7, 1953 to face the Vols. He made up for lost time by slugging a 420-foot, 2-run double in the seventh inning. New York won the game 9-1 before 2,693 Sulphur Dell fans.

Yankee pitching coach Jim Turner, a Nashville native, was honored at home plate before the game by Governor Frank G. Clement who appointed Turner a Tennessee Colonel on the Governor’s staff.

As was often the case, Yogi Berra crouched silently behind the plate that day. His contribution to the Yankee cause include participating in one double play with Phil Rizzuto and adding a single and scoring a run. He was later spelled by utility catcher Charlie Silvera and the box score and news articles tell of no further heroics by the 1951 American League Most Valuable Player that day:

New York Yankees vs Nashville Vols 04-07-1953 Yogi Berra

On the season Berra would hit for a .296 average, drive in 108 runs, have 27 home runs and 161 hits, and finish second to Cleveland’s Al Rosen for the 1953 MVP award. In 1954 and 1955 he would add the MVP trophies to his book case.

Berra retired as an active player in 1965, but returned to the Yankees in 1976 as a member of manager Billy Martin’s staff. When the Nashville Sounds and New York began their major-minor league affiliation in 1980 the two teams were scheduled to play an exhibition before the regular season began. Those plans were thwarted when an eight-game strike delayed the remainder of the spring training season.

On April 16, 1981 the Yankees did return to Nashville to play an exhibition game versus the Sounds. A standing room crowd of 17,318 fans attended the game as the major league team won by a score of 10-1.

“You couldn’t have put another fan in Greer Stadium with a shoe horn,” says Farrell Owens, general manager of the local club on that day.

In June of 1981 another strike occurred and caused the loss of scheduled games between June 12 and August 9. During that time owner George Steinbrenner sent his coaches to various minor league affiliates to scout and instruct players at those locations.

Owens remembers those days, too. “Yogi Berra came to Nashville for about 10 days. He wore his Yankees uniform and sat in the dugout during the games. I even had my picture taken with Yogi down on the field.

FO_Yogi

“He didn’t say a “Yogi-ism” or anything out of the ordinary as he was known to do.

“But I wish he had.”

In Berra’s last season as a coach for New York, the Yankees invaded Nashville once again. On April 28, 1983 New York had a four-run lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning, but a five-run rally with two outs pushed the Nashville Sounds to a 5–4 victory. The attendance was 13,641.

Yogi would become the manager for a second time in 1984.

Fast forward to about 2012. I was called to the home of another collector to view a box of Yankees memorabilia he was selling. I saw a few things I wanted: a few World Series tickets, a Joe DiMaggio mini-bat, and some programs. After agreeing on a price, I placed the box in my car and headed home.

Yogi_BallLater that day I found an autographed baseball at the bottom of the box, and it was a real treasure. Inscribed on the side was “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over” and signed “Yogi Berra”. As a life-long New York Yankee fan, I proudly added the ball to my collection.

Today we have learned of the death of Yogi Berra. We are familiar with many of his famous quotes, and whether he actually ever uttered all of them is no matter. We lost a living, breathing treasure; one for the Yankees, for baseball, and for adoring fans.

For all those great things you said and all those great plays you made, Yogi, you can now rest in peace. And it will never be over.

© 2015 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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Farrell Owens: Nashville’s Baseball Celebrant

Tonight the final game of baseball at Nashville’s Herschel Greer Stadium will be played. Fortunate to have seen Don Mattingly, Steve “Bye-Bye” Balboni, Otis Nixon, Jack Armstrong, Prince Fielder and so many others, I would have a hard time recalling a favorite moment.

It is not hard to remember who I shared those memories with: my dad, my sons and other members of my family. I am grateful for “Baseball talk” memories with Vic Coode, Butch McCord, and members of the Sounds staff, too.

But I would be greatly remiss if I did not thank a very special friend, Farrell Owens. One only has to mention “Nashville Sounds” and immediately Farrell’s name is thought of. As the first general manager of the Nashville Sounds, his ability to tell first-hand accounts of baseball in Music City are resources for sports talk show hosts, to sports writers, and to me.

Farrell Owens, Rickwood 2013A man whose life is rooted in the local sandlots, Farrell Owens fondly relates a gesture from his father which begins his baseball story, “In the summer of ’56, my dad bought me a first baseman’s mitt at Friedman’s on Charlotte Avenue after I did not make the team I had tried out for.  It was my first year to try to play organized amateur baseball and I was really down.”

“That new mitt really picked me up.  I played all summer in the neighborhood with that glove”, says Farrell.

Farrell’s playing career began in Junior Knothole baseball playing for the West Side Parts team as a twelve-year-old in the summer of 1957.  The next year, his team was Holder-Northern Lumber Company in the Senior Knothole League.  In 1959 he played for them again, and in 1960 the team was sponsored by Pettus-Owen-Wood Funeral Home.

He did not play the next summer of 1961.  As a sixteen-year-old he had been a member of the Cohn High School team, but he chose to help his father coach the Cohn Men’s Club team in Senior Knothole ball.  That team won the city’s league championship.

However, he played for two teams during the summer of 1962 at the age of seventeen: for Green Hills Merchants in the Larry Gilbert League and for Post 5 in American Legion ball.   Farrell was selected as a Gilbert League All Star in 1963; the All Star game was played at Sulphur Dell.  At the age of 19 he played for the Lipscomb College entry in the City League.

While at Cohn, Farrell was named to the first team of Nashville’s All-City baseball team.  Upon graduation in 1963, he went to Lipscomb to play baseball, becoming a starter on the 1964 team but transferred to Austin Peay in the fall.

Realizing he had made a mistake in transferring, Farrell made the move back to Lipscomb with the blessing of legendary head baseball coach Ken Dugan who told Farrell, “I would be happy to have you back”.

Dugan was a mentor to Farrell.  “While at Lipscomb, he was certainly the most influential on me, ahead of his time as a baseball coach. I took pride in learning as much as I could from him and used his techniques and management in my own coaching career.”

In 1966 Lipscomb won the District championship, the first school team to qualify for the Regional tournament.  Farrell was center fielder on that team.  As a senior in 1968 Farrell gained national notoriety by pulling an unassisted double play as an outfielder against arch-rival Belmont.

In 1992 Farrell was inducted into the Lipscomb University Athletic Hall of Fame.

During his college career, Farrell played during the summer for the Coursey’s BBQ team in the Tri-State League.  The team competed as a member of the 19-and-over Stan Musial Division, a part of the American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC).

Coursey’s qualified for the Stan Musial World Series in Battle Creek, Michigan.  The team won one and lost two in the tournament and Farrell led the tournament with a .397 average.

By 1969 Farrell was coaching high school baseball and continuing to play in sandlot baseball in the Tri-State League but this time for a new team, Tennessee Pride Eggs, sponsored by the company’s owner, Herman Bullock.  Farrell was Tri-State League Player of the Year in 1969, batting .456.  His last year to play was 1972.

He began to manage the Haury & Smith Construction team in 1973 and led the team to the state championship in Knoxville.  Farrell relates the story:

“One of the happiest moments of my baseball life happened to me when I was a 29-year-old manager for Haury & Smith.  We were playing the Knoxville team in their hometown Bill Meyer Stadium for the Stan Musial state championship.”

“The score was tied 0-0 after nine innings, but we scored two runs in the top of the tenth inning.  In the bottom of the tenth, with men on first and third and no outs, pitcher Butch Stinson gets the next hitter to fly out to the outfield.  The runner on third scores, but the runner on first is held.”

“After the next batter strikes out, a ball is sharply-hit to shortstop Ricky Wheeler who throws to Donnie Polk, covering second base for the final out.  Butch had pitched a 10-inning complete game, and we won the State Championship 2-1!”

“I can remember us celebrating at the Andrew Johnson Hotel after the game and I was so happy I yelled out, ‘Bingo!  One for the roses!’”

In 1974 the team won the league title once again but lost in the Stan Musial state tournament in Memphis.

In 1975 and 1976 Haury & Smith played in the National Baseball Congress (NBC) World Series in Wichita, Kansas after winning the state and regional tournaments.  Mike Wright, Steve Burger, and Jerry Bell were members of that team.

It was in the fall of 1976 when Larry Schmittou called upon Farrell to begin organizing what would become the Nashville Sounds professional minor league team.

In 1977 while at Pearl High School where he had become head baseball coach in 1972, Farrell wrote an article on base running that was published in the prestigious “Athletic Journal”. That year Farrell was inducted into the Nashville Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame by the Nashville Old Timers Baseball Association and he helped to establish a new amateur league in Nashville, the Kerby Farrell League.

Leaving teaching and coaching in 1978 to help found the Nashville Sounds, he served as Vice President and General Manager for five years.  The new venture became a member of the Southern League (AA) and an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.  At one time Farrell owned a part of four minor league teams.

In 1989 Farrell began an amateur baseball newspaper, “The Sandlotter”, covering play in the Greater Nashville Amateur Baseball Association (GNABA).  No longer a publication, his venture became an internet source in 1997 and is now accessed online atwww.sandlotter.com.  It covers the SANDLOTT Mid-State League.

A lifelong Nashvillian, Farrell became a baseball player, coach, instructor, mentor, teacher, and former professional baseball executive.  He served as president of the Nashville Old Timers during 1987-1988 and continues to serve on the board of directors and executive committee.

His life has impacted many other players and friends.  His counsel continues to guide and mold lives today as an authority on Nashville’s baseball history.

“I have learned that there is a romantic aspect to teaching and talking about baseball.  Everyone lends an ear to it”, he says.

Farrell has two daughters, Paige and Ashley, and one granddaughter Charlotte who was born in February of 2012.

Thank you Farrell, for telling me those stories, for reliving your past, for sharing your treasures of baseball, not only with me but with so many others. You have always been giving of what you know, your wealth of knowledge. It has been a great run at Greer, but we want to know more.

See you at the new ballpark.

© 2014 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Kerby Farrell, “Hot Stove” Farmer

On December 17, 1975, Kerby Farrell passed away in Nashville. Beginning in 1932 his minor league career would span 19 seasons, mostly as an outfielder although he tried his hand at pitching in the later years. In 1943 he played in 85 games for the Boston Braves and returned to the majors with the Chicago White Sox in 1945.

KerbFarrell was also a minor league manager at Erie, Spartanburg, Cedar Rapids, Reading, Indianapolis, Miami, Buffalo, Salinas, Lynchburg, and Tacoma. He was named Manager of the Year three times.

Farrell liked aggressive, running teams.

“I believe”, he once told a reporter, “that if you have good speed you have a fine offensive weapon.

“And with better speed you also have a better defensive club.

Farrell managed one season in the majors for Cleveland during the 1957 American League season when he led the Indians to a 76-77 record. On May 17th Gil McDougald hit a line drive that struck rising star Herb Score above the eye and was a crucial event that diminished the potential of the promising pitcher. Farrell was the first person to the mound to assist Score.

In the off season Farrell would raise ash timber and cotton on his farm in Henderson, Tennessee. He often referred to himself as a “hot stove” farmer, and liked to be referred to as “Kerb”.

Farrell was main speaker at two Old Timers banquets in Nashville, in 1957 and again in 1960. He was elected to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 1975.

Born in Leapwood, Tennessee in McNairyCounty in 1913, he assisted Larry Schmittou as a Vanderbilt baseball coach after his retirement. Farrell is buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Nashville.

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Greer Stadium Legacy to End

In 1959 Herschel Lynn Greer, Sr. was instrumental in forming Vols, Inc. and served as the first president of the organization, established to keep professional baseball in Nashville as support of the historic Nashville Vols club was waning.

When Nashville’s baseball stadium was built to house the Southern League Nashville Sounds in 1978, Larry Schmittou and the Sounds ownership posthumously honored Greer by naming the facility after him. An avid baseball fan, Herschel Greer, Sr. passed away in 1976.

Greer_Stadium_View_From_CenterThe ballpark has been home to the Nashville Sounds, Nashville Xpress, Belmont University, and numerous amateur and high school games.  Stadium capacity is 10,139.

The Nashville Sounds have continued the heritage begun by the Nashville Vols, Nashville Elite Giants, and Nashville Xpress, and although Greer Stadium has served baseball fans well, those fans can look forward to a convenient state-of-the-art ballpark that will give the hometown team an exciting place to play.

When the 2015 season begins Nashville will celebrate a new downtown ballpark at the old Sulphur Dell site and will be a footprint to development of Jefferson Street beginning at the Cumberland River.

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Herschel Greer Stadium

Greer Stadium was built in 1978 as the home park of the Nashville Sounds and named for local businessman Herschel Lynn Greer, Sr. whose family donated $25,000 to begin stadium construction. Herschel Greer was on the board of Vols, Inc., serving as president.  Vols, Inc. was formed to keep the Nashville Vols intact during the late 1950s when attendance and interest in Nashville was waning.

Greer StadiumBuilt at the foot of St. Cloud Hll near Fort Negley, a Civil War battle encampment site, the stadium has a seating capacity of 10,700. In early years of the ball club it was not unusual for a section of the outfield to be roped off to allow overflow crowds to enjoy a game.

In 1992 and 1993 when the Nashville Xpress, a Double-A team in the Southern League which had no home, Larry Schmittou and the Sounds owners allowed the team to call Nashville its home.  The Xpress played home games at Greer Stadium when the Sounds were on the road, which meant there was minor league baseball for nearly 144 consecutive games during two seasons.

The Sounds now plan to leave Greer Stadium after the completion of the 2014 season as a new stadium is to be constructed downtown at the old Sulphur Dell location.  It should be ready for Opening Day in 2015. With a new stadium becoming a reality, an interesting question arises: What will become of Greer?

What do you think?

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