Tag Archives: Nashville Banner

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




Leave a comment

Filed under Biography, History, Research

It Happened On This Day in Nashville Baseball: April 24 – April 27

BaseballinNashvilleApril 24, 1885 – Nashville loses to Macon 13-4 as the Americans give up a wild pitch and three passed balls

April 24, 1897 – From today’s edition of the Nashville Banner:

“The Nashville fans will have a chance of securing a line on the players which will represent the city in the Central League next Monday, when they meet Vanderbilt at Athletic Park. It will be the first game of the local team, and the playing of Manager Work’s men will be closely watched. Vanderbilt has a fast team this season, and they promise to prove quite troublesome to the professionals. 

“Building Inspector Henry Klein has examined the repairs done on the stands, and he now pronounces them able to hold as many people as can be crowded into the space without the least danger. The old bleachers on the east side have been torn away and in their place will be erected a large number of seats such as are used in curcuses <sic>.” 

April 24, 1956 – Nashville general manager Bill McCarthy announces there will be incentives for various slugging feats during the season:  a steak dinner awarded for each home run, $25 for hitting a sign in right field, a set of tires for any drive going through a hole in a tire on another advertiser’s sign and another $25 for clearing a sign in left field

April 25, 1916 – With an Opening Day crowd of 7,000 in attendance at Sulphur Dell, Nashville falls to Chattanooga 3-0 on only three hits

April 25, 1948 – At Mobile, Buster Boguskie of Nashville and the Bears’ George Shuba are ejected for scuffling at second base after Shuba’s hard slide in an attempt to break up a double play.  As the two were rolling in the infield dirt, Mobile’s Stubby Greer, who had been at second, runs home. When Nashville coach George Hennessey protests umpire Red McCutcheon’s decision to count the run, Hennessey is tossed

April 25, 1952 – The start of today’s game in Nashville is delayed by twelve minutes due to the belated appearance of umpires Walt Welaj and Andy Mitchell, explaining they “were rubbing up baseballs”.  Nashville strands 17 runners and loses to Atlanta 8-6

April 25, 1958 – Nashville southpaw pitcher Gene Hayden is hit in the head when a line drive by Birmingham’s Don Griffin ricochets off his glove and knocks him to the ground.  The unconscious Hayden is transported to Baptist Hospital to undergo tests

April 26, 1897 – Nashville’s new entry in the Central League wins over Vanderbilt 7-4 at Athletic Park.

April 26, 1951 – In trouncing Chattanooga 14-4, eleven of Nashville’s seventeen hits are for extra bases.  Rube Novotney leads the charge with a triple, two doubles, and a single for the Vols

April 26, 1952 – Nashville manager Hugh Poland is ejected from his first game during an argument with umpire Andy Mitchell

April 26, 1978 – The Nashville Sounds play their first home game, a 12–4 victory, against the Savannah Braves in front of a sellout crowd of 8,156 fans

April 27, 1910 – Judge John Morrow passes away at his Nashville home at the age of 59. Morrow was a former president of the Southern League

April 27, 1956 – Nashville pitcher Rick Botelho goes 6-for-6 and hits two homers driving in eight runs to lead Nashville to a 23-6 slaughter of Mobile. The win halts a nine-game losing streak for the Vols

April 27, 1957 – Southpaw Jerry Davis of Nashville, attempting to win his third consecutive game, loses to Birmingham 4-3 on Dolph Camilli’s grand slam in the eighth inning

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Research

The Demise of a League: Fred Russell Explains

The demise of the Southern Association at the end of the 1961 season brought an end to one of the longest running leagues at the time. League president George M. Trautman faced the press in January of 1962 with painful words.

“I don’t like to be sentimental at a time like this. But it is tough to preside over a session that marks the exodus of a league as old and respected as the Southern.”

It was not unexpected. Total attendance across all minor leagues had dropped from 41,900,000 at the peak in 1949 to 10,900,000 in 1961, a 75% drop in only 12 years.

Fans picked up the pace near the end of World War II, but slowed rapidly as the new decade began. Nashville’s drop from 228,034 in 1949 to 64,460 in 1961 is telling in itself. That’s a 72% decline.

So where did the fans go? Nashville’s demise ran about even as other cities, and by 1961 two stalwart cities of the league, Atlanta and New Orleans, had already dropped out.

Russell-FBOnce again, we turn to dependable Fred Russell, sports editor of the Nashville Banner and contributor to The Sporting News. He wrote a series of articles that the national sports journal published between March 28 and April 11, 1962. In it, he explained the reasons given by those “in the know.”

It would be easy to surmise that the main reasons for declining visits to ballparks were television, air conditioning, and automobiles were the culprits. I have done that before. But is that really why?

Well, yes, and then some.

Russell begins his explanation by asking his readers a few questions in “Why Did Southern Go Under” in the March 28, 1962 edition of The Sporting News:

“Who killed the Southern? What killed the venerable league, referred to just a couple of years ago as the most stable in the minor league orbit? Could it have been avoided?

“Or was it inevitable?”

Adding to the banter of dissatisfied Southern Association members who questioned the leadership of the league, including owners who have used their long-term power to solve short-range problems, Russell gives a list of reasons:

“Apathetic fans, rising opportunity of outdoor participative sports (particularly boating), bowling’s boom, major league baseball telecasts, television itself, air-conditioning comfort, slower games, poorer teams, indifference of major league officials to a quickly deteriorating situation, too much dependence on the majors, inability to meet competition, refusal to accept Negro players (until too late), football’s gradual encroachment on the sports fan’s late-summer attention, unaggressive leadership, etc.”

There you have it. It was more than one, or two, or three things. It is striking that there was so much dissension, but one does not lose sight of explanations that could be used today in criticism of everything that is wrong with baseball.

However, Russell goes one step beyond.

“My own belief is that the biggest single reason for declining interest in minor league baseball is the lack of any continuing identity between clubs from one year to the next.

“It used to be you would attach yourself to some favorite. He might stay with your home-town club for several years, and with him, maybe a bunch of other players you felt close to. It was fun to watch their progress when they advanced to the big leagues.”

There you have it. Russell was warning owners and fans alike that things had changed, not for the better, and without teams having players that the fans could relate to it washed out the reason for loving one’s team.

In 1972 Curt Flood challenged the rule that allowed Major League Baseball to have antitrust exemptions regarding player contracts. Flood passed away in 1997 and did not live long enough to know legislation was passed in 1997 and 1998 that gave major league players antitrust protection.

Although Organized Baseball rebounded from early free-agent signing, multi-year contracts have kept players with the same team for longer periods than just a few years. The trade-off in most cases has been exorbitant salaries.

At the time of the Southern’s passing it was not known that Nashville and other cities would make valiant efforts to resurrect their teams. But the damage had been done, and after attempts to bring the glory days of minor league baseball back it would be 15 years or more for some cities to succeed.

Fred Russell explained the complications of baseball’s struggles and brought light to questions about minor league baseball of the day. This beloved sports writing sage had the answers then.

Funny thing, how wise he was about those same questions today.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Note: The Tennessean’s Nine-inning (part) series in conjunction with the Nashville Sounds’ new ballpark opening continues daily and may be viewed by clicking here: “Coming home to Sulphur Dell“.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current, History, Opinion, Research, Vintage

Fred Russell: Night Games or Day Games?

FRussell_FBPerhaps no sports writer had more insight to pass on to his readers than Nashville’s Fred Russell. The beloved journalist had a following who believed him, who relied on him for the inside story and insight that went beyond the box score and stats.

On more than one occasion the sports editor of the Nashville Banner ponders the future of baseball. In the 1950s and ’60s he would sorrowfully describe the fall of minor league’s baseball franchises. Ultimately he would lament the loss of the Southern Association after the 1961 season; two years later, the beloved Nashville Vols would disappear, too. And he would name the reasons (more to come).

It was a different story two decades earlier when night games were rapidly replacing  those being called in the afternoon. Nashville had seen attendance boom from 99,615 in 1932, 113,292 in 1934, to 138,602 in 1940 before the United States entered the fray across the oceans.

By 1942 the country was fully at war. But Russell felt there was more money flowing than for any period since the Great Depression.

Quoted in the January 15, 1942 edition of The Sporting News, the prudent scribe said, “There’s more employment. Factories are running night shifts. Many men are looking for afternoon recreation. We still have the 40-hour week in most occupations. That means plenty of time for relaxation.

Night baseball had been added to minor league team’s schedules, and there was some conversation about reducing the number of them while the country was fighting overseas. Russell seems to struggle with his reasoning for day games or night games.

He had sensed a new interest with positive results. As more games were played at night, fans depended on radio broadcasts when they could not get to the ballpark. He felt that fact alone gained interest from a new fan: women.

Lights had been added to Sulphur Dell in 1931 and the first regular season night game on May 18 drew approximately 7,000 fans to the contest against Mobile. Nashville lost 8-1.

But as he names reasons for playing games after dark, he questions whether there may be day games again.

Suppose night baseball is banned in the Southern Association and other leagues this summer, and they only play in the afternoons. Will enough people come to the parks to enable clubs to make expenses?

And with the rationing of automobiles and tires, there’ll be fewer motor trips, less partying, more of the old forms of amusement.

Maybe day baseball in the minors is gone. I’m not saying it isn’t. But remember the railroads – ten years ago. Did anyone forsee the booming business of 1941 and 1942, with not an idle car in the yards and freight trains a half-mile long?

“Of course, the war is mainly responsible. And that’s what I am getting around to, the matter of whether the war may be responsible for some other comebacks. In particular, day baseball.”

At the end of 1942 season attendance stood at 96,934, so there must be some truth to the reasons the Russell listed about what people were able to do. In 1944, with hopes that the war would soon be over, attendance skyrocketed to 146,945.

Russell’s thoughts from both sides of the day or night question only helped to prove that either way, he had it figured.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Note: The Tennessean’s Nine-inning (part) series in conjunction with the Nashville Sounds’ new ballpark opening continues daily and may be viewed by clicking here: “Coming home to Sulphur Dell“.


Leave a comment

Filed under History, Research

From My Bookshelf: Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell-Raiser

BootsBookArguably the most famous baseball team in the history of Nashville sports, the 1940 Nashville Volunteers were voted the 47th best minor league team of all time in the 100th celebration of Minor League baseball in 2001. Its heroic bad-boy pitcher, who finished the season in spectacular fashion with a 26-9 record, is celebrated by author Austin Gisriel in Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell-Raiser (2014, Summer Game Books), .

With the huge advantage of sorting through scrapbooks kept by Boots’ first wife Jo and made available by Poffenberger’s grandson Jeremy Knode, Gisriel thoroughly examines the life of one of baseball’s unruly children.

And this journey of Poffenberger’s life in baseball, even with his garish attitude, is a pleasurable one.

Gisriel describes the portly pitcher in easy fashion, allowing the reader a view into those well-kept scrapbooks. He thoroughly details Poffenberger’s life from his home town of Williamsport, Maryland through sandlot ball, military service, and ultimately professional baseball and retirement.

Having been declared ineligible after his antics perturb both the Detroit Tigers and Brooklyn Dodgers management, Boots’ three-season foray into his major league career ends. Nashville manager Larry Gilbert takes a chance on the affable Poffenberger, purchasing him from the Dodgers in March of 1940, when no one else would have him:

“The Vols were skippered by Larry Gilbert, who had become part owner of the club after managing New Orleans for 15 seasons.There, Gilbert developed a reputation as an effective handler of eccentrics, flakes, and trouble-makers…”

Poffenberger’s success culminates in Nashville. It was then and there that he found his best success with one of the best minor league teams of all time.

“Boot(s) Poffenberger, of course, lead the league in wins with 26 becoming the first Volunteer hurler to notch at least 25 in a season. Boots appeared in 37 games and remarkably, received a decision in all but two of them. His .743 win percentage was first in the league.”

At an end-of-season banquet held at a local supper club for the 1940 team, Nashville Banner sportswriter Fred Russell sings Boots’ praises for what he had meant to the team:

“I mean it with the utmost sincerity when I say that Poffenberger’s reputation is unfair to him, and, as this season has proved, he has been the victim of major league operators’ and managers’ own deficiencies in what should be a prime requisite of their job – handling men.

Model boy? No. Bad actor? I have known ten dozen ball players who were bigger problems than Poffenberger.”

But seven months removed from the glowing tribute given by Russell, the wrapping comes off of the package. Already facing questions about his drinking habits and game preparation, on June 25, 1941 Poffenberger is suspended for 90 days by League president Trammel Scott after throwing at umpire Ed “Dutch” Hoffman in the fifth inning of the previous night’s game. And Larry Gilbert, the well-respected molder of disorderly baseball men, gives up on him:

“I’m through with him”, Gilbert was quoted as saying in the Nashville papers the next day. “He won’t pitch for Nashville anymore.”

His time in Nashville parallels every aspect of Poffenberger’s baseball career. Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell-Raiser is a quality description of this up-and-down life. This account finds tempo in Boots’ visit to the major leagues and ends in some humility in his failings. Boots had become lost in baseball lore until Gisriel brings him out of his slide to obscurity.

I recommend adding it to one’s Nashville’s baseball and southern history library.

Disclaimer: Austin Gisriel provided a copy of his book in exchange for a Nashville/Sulphur Dell cap. That exchange had no influence on this review.

 © 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.


Filed under Biography, History, Opinion

Grantland Rice Named “Sulphur Dell” On This Day

From humble beginnings as Nashville’s city park, even P. T. Barnum pitched his city of tents on the grounds of Sulphur Spring Bottom in November of 1872. Throughout its history the proximity of this lovely piece of ground was not so beautiful after late-winter’s rainfalls filled the low-lying basin.

Escalating interest in the game of “base ball” led to the formation of Nashville’s first professional team to play in the inaugural Southern League season in 1885. The grounds at Athletic Park were often in such poor condition that games were postponed, moved to another ball field at Peabody or Vanderbilt, or cancelled.

The African-American community took to the emerging National Game and cheered on their local favorites. As early as June of 1907 the semi-professional Nashville Standard Giants played at Athletic Park; renamed the Negro League Nashville Elite Giants in 1920, Sulphur Dell was often the home playing field for the team.

Grantland_RiceIn his sports column published in the Nashville Tennessean on this day, January 14, 1908, Grantland Rice referred to the local ballpark as “Sulphur Spring Dell”. In later years Nashville Banner sports editor Fred Russell intimated that Rice couldn’t find anything to rhyme with “Sulphur Spring Bottom”, as the area had been known, thus the new moniker for Nashville’s baseball home.

In subsequent columns Rice shortened the name to “Sulphur Dell”, and fans and players adopted it when referring to their beloved ballpark. When Grantland Rice first typed out the words “Sulphur Dell”, how could he have known that time would etch the name into the minds of baseball folk, casual fans, players and sportswriters across the country.

After the 1926 season ended new ownership of the Southern Association’s Nashville Volunteers decided to turn the ballpark around so fans would not be squinting in the afternoon sun. One of the visitors to the new “turned around” Sulphur Dell was player-manager Casey Stengel and his Toledo Mud Hens; Stengel hit a triple in the exhibition game against Nashville.

A few weeks later on April 7, the 65th General Assembly of Tennessee adjourned early to see Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees play the St. Louis Cardinals at Sulphur Dell. The two teams had faced each other in the past World Series with the Cardinals winning four games to three.

A resolution had been adopted to invite Ruth to address the Senate the morning of the game, but he sent word that it would be impossible for him to appear because of a lack of time. Undoubtedly the Legislature had time and observed the Cardinals beat the Yankees that day 10-8.

The first night game was played at Sulphur Dell on May 18, 1931 as the Vols lost to Mobile 8-1.

On April 12, 1932 attendance was 14,502; with seating capacity of 8,000 in the grandstands the outfield was lined off with rope to accommodate the crowd. It was the largest crowd to see a game at Sulphur Dell.

After arriving from Memphis by team bus at 4 PM on May 8, 1946 the Racine Belles checked into the Noel Hotel then made their way to Sulphur Dell to play against the Muskegon Lassies. The Belles won 8-5.

On opening day April 17, 1951, Nashville’s Sulphur Dell celebrated 24 years of service to local citizens with a new look that included a remodeled façade, new turnstiles, brick walls, wider exits and other improvements.  Unchanged were the “dumps” in the outfield and the short right field fence.

The last professional baseball game was played at Sulphur Dell on September 8, 1963, as the Vols of the South Atlantic League faced Lynchburg in a double header.  Nashville outfielder Charlie Teuscher belted three home runs as the Vols won over Lynchburg 6-3 and 2-1.

It was the last hurrah of the famous park. Amateur baseball was played at Sulphur Dell in 1964 and in 1965 it was turned into a speedway. After becoming a tow-in lot for Metro Nashville, Sulphur Dell was demolished in 1969.

Today’s recollections of great players, games, and teams honor the memory of the hallowed grounds of Sulphur Dell thanks to the “Dean of American Sportswriters”, Grantland Rice.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Negro League, Research

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Negro League, Opinion