Tag Archives: Nashville Americans

The 1885 Nashville Americans. Or is it?

One evening in 2006 as I was typing away on my trusty keyboard adding captions to photographs I had collected for what would become Baseball in Nashville by Arcadia Publishing, I received an unexpected email that contained a digital image of the Nashville Americans from a person I knew vaguely.

I’d been hopeful to come across an image of the first local professional team in the newly-formed Southern League in 1885 (and would return for a second season in 1886). An image of the Americans team was really a perfect way to lead in to Nashville’s baseball history right from the beginning. I was elated when I first took a look at what I had received:

Nashville_Americans_1_FB

So, bingo, there it was, sent to me by Chris Catignani, who was aware of my research. He did not know that I was writing a book, but he wanted me to have it for my website www.sulphurdell.com. The image was an awesome piece of history, and I quickly added it to my line up of images for publication with Arcadia, holding off on adding it to the web site for a little while.

No matter that one guy had an “F” or an “E” on the front of his jersey. His dad probably was one of the owners and besides, he probably was the right-fielder. But into the book it went and when it came out in March of 2007, the image was published this with this caption:

NASHVILLE AMERICANS.  In 1885 the Southern League was formed, and Nashville’s entry into the new league for two seasons was the Americans.  The 1885 team was led by Charles Marr with 129 hits and a .327 batting average. The team finished in third place in the inaugural season.  (Courtesy Chris Catignani.)

Let me tell you a little bit about this historic team. It received its name from one of the local newspapers, as the Daily American took great delight in placing emphasis on the new ball club and dubbed them the “Americans” as way of adopting the team and probably to get a ‘leg up’ on the other newspapers in town. For example, in the Wednesday morning, March 25th 1885 edition of the paper, the following entry was published under the heading “THE SEASON’S SPORTS. Base-ball, Billiards and Prize Ring. Items of Local Interest”:

BASE-BALL. 

 “Manager Will C. Bryan yesterday signed an additional player for the American team, in the person of John J. Cullen, of last season’s Eastern League.  His special position is that of catcher, but he is considered a very fine general player. In batting, he stood last season eleventh out of 88 players, and in 49 games made 72 hits with an average of .314. In 30 games played as catcher he made 17 errors with 301 chances. He has just returned from Cuba, where he was signed, and will arrive in this city Friday morning.

“Tony Hellman, catcher, returned from Cincinnati yesterday morning and practiced with the team in the afternoon.

An extra force of workmen was put to work on the grounds of the new park yesterday, grading the field, laying off the diamond, etc. The fence will be completed by Thursday night and everything will be in good shape for the game with Indianapolis next Monday. The amphitheatre will not be fully completed by Monday, as the backs to the seats and cushions will not be arranged, but they will be in as good condition as were those at the fair grounds last season and no extra charge will be made for seats in the grand stand…

“…The new uniforms will be here in time for the team to appear in them next Monday afternoon in their game with the Indianapolis club (the uniforms were white with old gold trimmings).

“The American team is now composed of Hillery, Hellman, and Cullen, catchers and change players; Crowell and Alex Voss, pitchers; Werrick short stop; Bryan, first base; McKeon, second base; Diestel, third base; Rhue, left field, and Sowders, right field.”

The next day, the paper had this to say, once again under “THE SEASON’S SPORTS” column, with this sub-title: “The American Base-Ball Team Getting in Some Good Work”:

BASE-BALL. 

 “The Americans took advantage of the fine weather of yesterday to put in several hours good work in practice for the Indianapolis game here next Monday. The work at the park is being shoved as rapidly as possible. The fence will probably be up by to-night and the ground leveled and in good fix by the same time.”

With the first game scheduled for only four days away, there are similarities to the status announcement of the ball park in 1885 and the status of several ball parks today; Biloxi, Birmingham, and yes even Nashville come to mind. Some cities are better at cutting it close than others.

Are you with me, do you have some historic information about the 1885 Nashville Americans from what I have said? Good.

But I have to tell you something that should be filed under the “what’s wrong with this picture?” category. Literally. The picture was pretty historic, as no other Nashville historian had uncovered an image of the team. Or was it?

A few months after publication I was basking in my “I was once a novice journalist but now am a professional writer” mindset when I was jolted by something I hadn’t noticed before. Chris had the image because a member of his family was in it and what I failed to see was where he had typed the name and even the position of the players (left to right):

Lockhart (Pitcher), Searcy (Catcher), Sherlock (Outfield), Wall (Manager), Benning (Second Base), Glopper (First Base), Kidd (Outfield), Catignani (Shortstop), Britton (Outfield), Abernathy (Outfield)

What I found was that the image Catignani had sent to me was certainly the Nashville Americans. That part was correct, it says so on their jerseys. What I did not know at the time was the photograph was of the 1909 Nashville Americans, a local amateur team. Over the years I have learned that the process to print images in newspapers was not commonplace until celluloid photographs were invented in 1889. To have found an image from 1885 with this detail would have been an amazing stroke of luck. An almost impossible one.

I have also learned there are bountiful sources to verify information. One of the best baseball resources is the database at baseball-reference.com, and had I been aware at the time I would have confirmed each Nashville American player. Well, I did do that, but not until my book had been published. It was a disappointing moment, like from that time on I had forsaken “all that was good that could never be good again. And, oh, people will no longer trust you, Skip. People will most definitely never trust you again.”

But all is not lost: I have come across an image of the 1885 Nashville Americans, purchased at some forgotten auction house, Ebay, or simply handed to me one day. And here it is:

1885 Nashville Americans

How do I know it’s the real thing this time? Well, for a couple of reasons:

There are names placed over the front of each player. Not all can be read by the naked eye, but the names can be recognized when comparing to the 1885 Nashville Americans on http://baseball-reference.com. And it’s not the 1886 Americans as not all of the players in the image stuck around for the second season.

Even better: the back is a partial scorecard that is scored in pencil and has “1885” at the bottom. And all of the players in that day’s lineup can be confirmed:

Back

My next quest is to locate the box score for this game. So far, I’ve narrowed it down to between May 2nd and July 29th. And I’m going to find it. I’ve already found the Nashville Americans. Not once, but twice. Theirs is a great story that needs more research, reading, and writing.

I’ll finish it by adding that box score, too.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Early Modifications to Sulphur Dell

Nashville’s famous ball field began as Athletic Park in an area known as Sulphur Spring Bottom, where a grandstand was built in 1885 as a home for the Nashville Americans in the professional Southern League:

1SD

The stadium layout remained the same through 1908, when the ballpark was renamed Sulphur Dell. Upgrades to the bleachers and an expanded grandstand took place (street names where changed to numbered streets in 1904):

2SD

The most radical change occurred in 1927 when the wooden grandstand was demolished and a new steel-and-concrete structure was erected. However, it had been determined that the ballpark would be turned around so that batters would no longer face the sun to the southwest:

3SD

Although the 1927 home opener was a few weeks away, on March 25th the first contest was held in the new ‘turned-around’ Sulphur Dell, an exhibition game played between the Nashville Vols and Minneapolis Millers.

Sulphur Dell remained the same configuration until 1963 when it was longer used as a ballpark, and was demolished in 1969.

Images Courtesy Tennessee State Library & Archives (Note: Images not to scale)

Reference  http://nashvillehistory.blogspot.com by Debie Oeser Cox

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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12th Annual Southern Association Conference at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field

Rickwood Field, Birmingham’s historic ballpark, is preserved through the efforts of the Friends of Rickwood and maintains Rickwood, built in 1910 as home to the Barons and used by the Negro League Birmingham Black Barons.

Over 200 amateur games are still played there, and each year the AA Southern League’s Barons host a regular season turn-back-the-clock contest dubbed the “Rickwood Classic”; this year’s game will be played on Wednesday, May 27th, as the Barons host the Jacksonville Suns at 12:30 PM. Former New York Mets star Darryl Strawberry will be the featured guest.

2015 ProgramA visit to Rickwood should be on every baseball fan’s list of places to visit. The ballpark hails a time when Sunday doubleheaders were played in the sweltering heat and future major leaguers hoped to move up the ranks to the majors. Each time I visit I think of what it must have been like for Nashville Vols Buster Boguskie, Lance Richbourg, Tom Rogers, Phil Weintraub, Bill Rodda, Boots Poffenberger, and Babe Barna to have played there. And how proud they’d be that it is still there.

It is such an iconic picture of baseball’s past that Rickwood has been used for commercials and movies.

The movie about Jackie Robinson, “42” utilized the ballpark during filming.

Like baseball? Like history? Like the history of southern baseball? Then you’ll need to remember this for the future: the Friends of Rickwood group sponsors an annual conference dedicated to the history of the Southern League (1885-1899) and Southern Association (1901-1961). It is a gathering of historians, writers, fans, and players who are interested in sharing their research, stories, and memorabilia.

The 12th Annual Southern Association Conference was held this past Saturday on March 7 after an informal gathering the evening before.

P1011126What took place? Well, the usual shaking of hands, pats on the backs, and hugs from friendships gained over previous conferences. But that’s not all.

The 28 attendees were treated to presentations on the birth of the Southern League (1884-1885); a perspective on Atlanta’s Henry W. Grady, an integral leader in the formation of the 19th Century league; an image of the 1885 Nashville Americans; a summary of a new book on the horizon about the Negro Southern League; and images and film about the Birmingham Barons.

P1011127Of particular interest to me was film presented by Birmingham and Memphis historian Clarence “Skip” Watkins which included color footage of a game between the Memphis Chicks and Nashville Vols. In color. Wow.

During the all-day event, we were treated to viewings of memorabilia collections and discussions about the old ballparks, teams, and what the future holds for southern professional baseball.

David Brewer, director of Friends of Rickwood, and Watkins came up with the idea in 2003, and the program has been ongoing since that time. The setting has changed from time-to-time, too: Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Nashville have hosted the conference and there may be opportunity to be in New Orleans in 2016.

P1011129Which leads me back to my original questions: if you are interested, you cannot go wrong. New Orleans or Birmingham, the Rickwood Classic or just a visit to the grand old ballpark in Birmingham. If you get your chance, take it in.

You can always ride with me.

 © 2015 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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The Gloomy Side of Nashville Baseball

RIPAt some point the glory of playing the game of baseball takes a turn. Nashville has not been excluded from the realities of the gloomy side of baseball.

One of the earliest records includes a resolution passed on May 9, 1867 at a called meeting of the Nashville Baseball Club. Although there is no detail regarding his passing, the resolution of tribute is for James Maguire, a worthy and esteemed member of the club who had just died suddenly. Members voted to wear the usual badge of mourning at all matches in which their club is a party to during the current season.

The first on-field fatality involving a professional baseball club in Nashville occurred in the first season of the Nashville Americans.  On August 14, 1885, Louis Henke of the Atlanta baseball team hit a hard grounder towards Nashville’s first baseman Charles Marr. The players collided at the bag and Henke’s liver was ruptured from the force of Marr’s head hitting Henke in his abdomen.

Admitted to an Atlanta hospital, Henke died from his injuries the next day. Sadly, Marr and Henke were boyhood friends and Marr was greatly impacted by the death of his friend.

The semi-pro Nashville Maroons lost the team’s star pitcher on October 9, 1891 Pat Milliron when he was shot by well-known horse owner and trainer William Amacher. Amacher called Milliron to the stable door at West SidePark in Nashville and without warning, shot Milliron. Supposedly, the trouble occurred over a woman, and the day after the murder Amacher had not been captured.

On June 18, 1916, Nashville pitcher Tom Rogers hit Mobile third baseman Johnny Dodge with a pitch in the seventh inning of that day’s game, striking Dodge in the face, fracturing his skull.

A teammate of Rogers’ the previous season on the Nashville ball club, Dodge passed away the next day.

Another incident related to Nashville baseball occurred on September 7, 1925. Evelyn Burnette, niece of Nashville baseball club president J. A. G. Sloan, was killed when the car driven by her uncle overturned on a curve of the Dixie Highway in Tullahoma, Tennessee en route to Chattanooga for that day’s ball game.

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Salt and Sulphur

SDSignAt one time deer and buffalo searched out the area known by pioneers as French Lick Springs, and as the population began to grow, Nashville’s citizens made the former watering and trading spot their picnic and recreation grounds. Nearby was also a natural sulphur spring that people sought out, and residents filled their empty containers with the odorous liquid to use for its medicinal qualities or took a drink right from the spring at Sulphur Springs Bottom.

Eventually citizens met there for sports activities and baseball became their favorite diversion.  A portion of the grounds was designated as Athletic Park, as the need arose for a specific area to play the popular game. Interests in baseball grew throughout America and as the first professional baseball leagues flourished, the first local amateur and semi-pro teams in Nashville were formed.

The first Nashville professional team joined the newly-formed Southern League in 1885 and was known as the Nashville Americans.  Thus began Nashville’s history of organized baseball activity.

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