Tag Archives: Memphis

1904 Baseball Banter, Southern Style

Southern Association moguls met at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis on March 8, 1904 to discuss league matters, analyze the previous seasons attendance figures, and approve the season schedule for the year ahead. Those attending, and city represented, included M. J. Finn, Little Rock; Newt Fisher and J. M. Palmer, Nashville; Charles Frank, New Orleans; Lew Whistler and Caruthers Ewing, Memphis, Abner Powell, Atlanta; Coffee Jackson and Thomas O’Brien, Birmingham, James M. Foster and Robert E. Gilks, Shreveport; and Barry Holt and William Stickney, Montgomery.[1]

After approving league president and treasurer Judge W. M. Kavanaugh’s financial accounts, the group heard the executive committee’s report that confirmed the sound economic status of the organization. The report included a final tally of 627,602 fans who had attended games the previous season. Only four leagues (out of 21 across the nation[2]) had higher attendance: the National League, American League, American Association, and Eastern League.

The schedule was approved as drawn up by a special committee that had met in Memphis on January 22 and 23[3]. The 1904 playing calendar included 140 games, an additional 14 contests per club from 1903, and opening day would be held April 21.[4] There was some slight protest by Nashville’s Newt Fisher, as his club would host no holiday games, but “… utmost good feeling prevailed, and it was the consensus of opinion with baseball magnates and managers that the season soon to open would be the best and most prosperous in the history of Southern baseball.”[5]

But there was banter between sports writers. Newspapers often included articles of pre-season predictions, but those prognostications were not always about the teams in the newspaper’s own city; whether in jest or otherwise, there was often a quick retort from the newspaper of the offended city. With no claim by a particular sports writer, the Nashville Daily American published a story on March 10 that answered Birmingham’s razzing.

“The sage of Slagtown (see author’s note below), alias the baseball writer of the Birmingham Ledger who has a penchant for dealing out groggy dope, has bobbed up again as foolish and unmuzzled [sic] as ever. This time he comes forth with the bold bad delf (author’s note: abbreviation for deflection?) that New Orleans is “the strongest team in the league and Nashville about the weakest.” They ought to fix up a pension and a padded cell and keep them in readiness.

“The strangest thing of all is that nobody outside of Birmingham has ever figured the slag caters as being other than a tailender [sic]. The fact is, Birmingham is about the best team in the Southern League, except seven (there were eight teams in the league).

And then, it got a little personal.

“The Hams would be stars on the Red Onion Circuit, but they are useful by the Southern League principally to fill in and make up the necessary number of teams to keep the league going.”

When asked to respond, at first Nashville’s Fisher took the high road.

“What’s the use? It is actually wasting time to stop their howling. They do it every year before the season opens, and it takes about one swing around the circuit to get them quiet.”

But the even-tempered Fisher did not let the opportunity to further provoke the matter go totally to waste.

“Birmingham has not only had the pennant won every year before the league season opened, but has packed the flag away in camphor balls for the following season. Results are what count. We won the pennant twice and finished fifth the third time. I am not ashamed of this record. I would just like to ask the young man on the Ledger where the Birmingham team finished those three years. It was below Nashville each time.”[6]

At season’s end, Fisher could not boast about his club; Nashville finished in fifth place (second baseman Justin Bennett led the league with 166 hits, and pitcher Wiley Piatt led with 22 losses and 44 appearances)[7]. The nemesis of his team and the Nashville Tennessean, Birmingham, finished in fourth place. The Barons were two games ahead in the final standings. But for the fourth year the pennant remained on Tennessee soil as the Memphis Egyptians defended their 1903 title.

Otherwise, Fisher would not consider it a bad year. It had been reported he had cleared $10,000 profit on the ball club the previous year, and it was estimated that he would pocket $4,000 for the 1904 season.

It was a favorable year for the Southern Association, with Nashville, Birmingham, New Orleans, Memphis, and Atlanta all making money. Little Rock was reported to have shown a small profit, but things were less positive in Montgomery and Shreveport.[8] Even those clubs may have made some money.[9]

Soothed by profits of a successful season, the bosses of southern baseball saved their banter for another year of razzing.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Author’s Note: ”Slagtown” is in reference to Birmingham’s steel-making industry. Beyond the outfield walls of West End Park, often called the “Slag Pile”, was a hill of slag, a by-product of making steel.[10]

[1] New Orleans Times-Democrat, March 9, 1904, p. 12.

[2] Atlanta Constitution, March 9, 1904, p. 2.

[3] New Orleans Times-Democrat, March 9, 1904, p. 12.

[4] Nashville American, March 9, 1904, p. 7.

[5] New Orleans Times-Democrat, March 9, 1904, p. 12.

[6] Nashville American, March 10, 1904, p. 7.

[7] Wright, Marshall D. (2002). The Southern Association in Baseball, 1885-1961. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co.

[8] Atlanta Constitution, September 19, 1904, p. 7.

[9] Ibid., September 26, 1904, p. 9.

[10] Watkins, Clarence (2010). Baseball in Birmingham. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing.

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14th Annual Southern Association Conference at Rickwood Field

scan0001Yesterday, I attended the 14th annual Southern Association Conference in Birmingham, and want to take this time to encourage you to be a part of this event next year. The Rickwood Field SABR chapter put on quite a conference, led by David Brewer and Clarence Watkins; but the opportunity to visit Rickwood Field is great in itself – it is truly one of America’s historic ballparks.

To be able to hear presentations about baseball in the South, among friends in a casual setting, was great. To wax poetic: Baseball was literally “in the air”.  Attendees came from Mobile, Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Atlanta; we heard presentations about baseball in Montgomery (and pitcher Roy “Goat” Walker), Selma, the Southern Association, and vintage player A. T. Pearsall, but sidebar conversations were ongoing beyond.

An added treat was lunch with former Montgomery Rebels player and minor league manager Ted Brazell. One could literally hear and feel the passion Ted has with his love of the game of baseball. It was inspiring.

More than anything, the friendships rekindled and friendships made were more than worth the trip. The date could change, but put the first Saturday of March, 2018 on your calendar. You won’t be disappointed.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Too Little, Too Late

Integration did not come to the Southern Association until a 1954 experiment by Atlanta Crackers owner Earl Mann, when Nat Peeples was inserted as a pinch hitter in the Crackers’ season opener in Mobile. A week later, he was sent down to Jacksonville after appearing in two games and coming to the plate four times.

Reportedly, Mann considered the same action the previous season with a different negro player who was playing in Jacksonville: Henry Aaron. For whatever reason, the future Hall of Famer was not selected and had an outstanding season with the South Atlantic League club.

There was no Southern Association rule that kept rosters segregated. But with teams in New Orleans (the franchise would cease to exist after 1959, replaced by Little Rock), Nashville, Memphis (replaced by Macon after 1960), Birmingham, Atlanta, Shreveport, Mobile, and Chattanooga, civil rights issues were just coming to the forefront of American culture, and integration never occurred.

However, a Birmingham city ordinance prohibited integrated games from taking place on city-owned fields, and Louisiana state law did not allow different races to participate in sporting events together.

One occurence brought attention to the situation: in August of 1960, after six years as the parent organization of the Nashville Volunteers, Cincinnati withdrew its affiliation. Without negro players, said Reds GM Gabe Paul, development of potential players could not properly take place.

In his August 30, 1960 Sports Showcase column, Nashville Tennessean sports writer F. M. Williams quotes Paul on the issue:

“Having a team in the farm system, at Double A level, where Negro players cannot perform creates a void that hinders the entire player development program, he says. Player development is expensive at best, and it becomes even more so when there is one link in the chain that does not help the best young players.”

Williams’ opening lines in his column predict a dim future for the trouble league, emphasizing a rule (unwritten or not) of segregation and acknowledging the tension in race relations:

“If Gabe Paul’s thinking is in line with that of other major league executives, time is running out on Double A baseball.

“Paul took a public stand against the Southern league’s policy of not using Negro players. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that any big league executive has used the racial issue to establish farm policy.

“Eventually it could lead to a Southern boycott.”

On August 31, the Tennessean published an Associated Press story that the American League announced plans to expand to 10 teams by 1962.[1] The National League had previously agreed to absorb up to four teams of the proposed Continental League, but followed suit with an announcement during the World Series that Houston and New York would become members of the league.[2]

nashville-tennessean-08-30-1960-gabe-paul-quote-cincinnati-reds-nashville-vols-08-29-1960If Gabe Paul knew of the plans, which certainly would change the course of developing players, it appears he did not let the directors of the Nashville club know.

Minnesota Twins* farm director Sherry Robertson offered an affiliation proposal to Vols general manager Bill Harbour on January 20, 1961. The agreement was ratified by Nashville board members on February 9.

Vice-President Lyndon Johnson was invited to throw out the first pitch at Sulphur Dell on April 8, and the Southern Association began its final season. Team owners did nothing to integrate the storied league, but waning attendance was the final culprit in its demise.

By season’s end, one of Williams’ predictions had come true, as time ran out on Double A baseball. Nashville drew only 64,450 for the entire season.

Attempts to revive the league went for naught, even though on October 31 a federal judge ruled that Birmingham, Alabama, laws against integrated playing fields were illegal, eliminating the last barrier against integration in the Southern Association.

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

*The original Washington Senators, now relocated to Minneapolis-St. Paul; a new expansion team was set in Washington as a replacement.

[1] Corrigan, Ed. Associated Press. “AL Votes to Expand to 10 Teams by ’62”. Nashville Tennessean, August 31, 1960

[2] McCue, Andy and Thompson, Eric. “Mis-Management 101: The American League Expansion for 1961”. Published in The National Pastime: Endless Seasons: Baseball in Southern California, 2011. Phoenix: Society for American Baseball Research, 42

SOURCES

baseball-reference.com

Nashville Tennessean

newspapers.com

Paper of Record

sabr.org

© 2016 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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(Rain) Check, Please

Abner Powell, along with Nashville’s Newt Fisher and Memphis’ Charlie Frank, organized the Southern Association that began play in 1901. Powell had played and managed New Orleans beginning in 1888 and played for Nashville’s Southern League team for eighteen games in 1894.

He managed New Orleans in 1901 and 1902 and Atlanta’s entry in the new league in 1903 and 1904, and in 1905 sold his interest in his team and purchased a share of the Nashville club. In those days, loyalty to a particular team, especially when a player, was often trumped by investment power.

Powell is credited for introducing knothole gangs and ladies’ days to boost attendance at baseball games during his early years in New Orleans. And he invented one key item that became known as the “rain check”, the detachable stub on printed tickets.[1]

RaincheckRain outs have been the bane of team owners, players, and fans across the nation. Long before concessions and attendance added to the bottom line, paid attendance paid the bills.

Sulphur Springs Bottom was Nashville’s area for recreation and games were played at Athletic Park, later known as Sulphur Dell. It was a low-lying area just north of the city center, prone to flooding especially during spring rains. There have been many rain outs in Nashville, and the phrase “Rain, rain, go away” has been sounded for years, especially during baseball season.

Teams organized in the 19th Century and were at the mercy of the skies. On July 6, 1875 as W. T. Lincks and Morgans played to a 2-2 tie at Sulphur Springs Bottom before being rained out and the May 4, 1879 game between the Memphis club and a team from Nashville is rained out and postponed indefinitely.

Suspended games, postponements, and cancellations were the result. On June 26, 1895 Nashville played an unusual number of games in one day, three games against Little Rock due to the previous day’s double header being rained out. The first game is scheduled for 10 AM when only two opposing players show up and umpire Cline calls a forfeit in favor of Nashville as manager Dick Gorman explains that his team refuses to play three games in one day. The afternoon games are won by Nashville 17-7 and 8-5, and the Seraphs and manager George Stallings are credited with three Southern League wins.

More than 2,500 fans stood in line for nearly an hour on May 1, 1945 before Nashville’s home opener was called due to rain, and the next year on April 8 the exhibition game between the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers was cancelled due to morning rains and a downpour which came 45 minutes before the scheduled start. The outlook for the game had called for 7,500 fans to turn out, as all reserved seats were sold out and 4,000 fans were turned away.

Rain checks came in handy without rain on April 23, 1956 in a 12-8 loss to New Orleans when only 438 Nashville fans show up in 46-degree weather. Each was rewarded by general manager Bill McCarthy who announced the club would honor their rain checks for any future Vols game during the season. There was no rain, but the detachable ticket gave loyal rooters a way to attend another game free of charge.

Abner Powell was a visionary who gave many things to baseball that continue today: the rain check, ladies’ day, and knothole gangs. But his greatest invention may have been one that today’s players and fans take for granted: He innovated the covering of the playing field with a tarpaulin to keep the surface dry.

Team owners probably do not take that one for granted.

[1] Taggart, Caroline. Right as Rain: The Meaning and Origins of Popular Expressions. Great Britain: Michael O’Mara, 2013

© Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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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

Retrosheet.org

Baseball-Reference.com

 

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“Steamboat” Johnson: Umpire of Power and Authority

SJohnson

Steamboat Johnson

Umpire Harry Samuel Johnson had a reputation among players that even his whisper was as loud as the sound of a steamboat’s whistle. “Steamboat” Johnson also became famous in the annals of the Southern Association as one of the most colorful characters to ever don umpire’s gear.

Born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania on March 26, 1880 where his father owned a saloon, the family soon relocated to Elmira, New York where Harry played first base for his school team. His family moved to Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania after graduation and he continued to play and manage in the sandlots.

As co-owner and manager of a team in 1909, Harry realized that the umpires he had been hiring were less than adequate. He decided that he could do a better job and began umpiring games in the fall.

Being an umpire came naturally, as Harry was not only a student of the game but honored impartiality in his judgments while knowing the rules inside-and-out. No matter that his voice was boisterous; his quick interpretations and honest decisions gave him a reputation that helped him to earn the trust of managers and players.

After a season in Pittsburgh semi-pro leagues he was hired by the Ohio and Pennsylvania League for 1911 and his professional umpiring career was off and running.

Moving up to the Western League in 1912 and the Three-I League in 1913, he found himself in the National League during the 1914 season. He worked 54 games as an extra umpire.  Disappointed that he was not retained for the next season, Steamboat was not deterred and worked in the New York State League from 1915 – 1917.

After one season in the International League in 1918, he saw his first tenure in the Southern Association for two years in 1919 and 1920. It was during the 1919 season, working a game in Atlanta, where the sports editor of the Atlanta Georgian wrote,

“None of us know where John D. Martin (president of the Southern Association) got this Umpire Johnson, but he has a voice like a Mississippi River steamboat. From now he is ‘Steamboat’ Johnson to Atlantans.”

The South Atlantic League president W. W. Walsh asked Johnson to umpire in 1921, as the league was known for rough players who felt they could frighten all umpires. Successful in bringing stability to the umpire corps, Johnson had a clause in his contract that he could return to the Southern Association and his second tenure there lasted from 1922 – 1946.

In 1935 his book Standing the Gaff was published. It documented much of Johnson’s professional life for 25 years. Harry determined that he had umpired over 4,000 games and made 1,000,000 decisions. A chapter of umpiring questions and answers was a guide for his readers, and gives testament to his authority on the game he loved. He held power in his knowledge of the game and throughout his career he was often called on to speak to umpire organizations.

Once his book was published, Harry would hire youngsters to sell copies before games in the southern ballparks in which he was umpiring. If his game decisions were not popular with local fans, they would often throw his own book at him.

Harry would simply gather up the books around him and resell them before the next game.

Johnson was extremely proud that he had never used tobacco or alcohol, and fans recall that after the final out of the final game of the season he would turn to the crowd and say, “God bless you.”

Between 1947 through 1949 Johnson became supervisor of umpires in the Southern Association. In 1950 he opened an umpiring school which lasted for one season before falling ill. A resident of Memphis, Johnson died on February 20, 1951 at the age of 70.

© 2014 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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