Tag Archives: Nashville Sounds

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current, History, Research

Nashville Baseball Documentary: A Work in Progress

Over a year ago I was approached by Joshua Maxwell about my interest in producing a documentary about Nashville baseball history, centered on the city’s historic ballpark, Sulphur Dell. He had produced “The Kitty League: Hometown Heroes” in 2015, an excellent documentary about the heroes of the class D minor league that spanned four states, and their very unique stories from as far back as the early 1900s.

We agreed to co-produce, combining his skills in the techniques of audio and video recording with my love for research and collecting.

A Kickstarter campaign was begun to allow Joshua to purchase the appropriate equipment and assorted needs to get the project off on the right foot. 45 backers pledged $5,790, along with our own support, to help bring this project to life.

Since then, we have accumulated over nine hours of video footage from interviews, Nashville Sounds and Tennessee Vintage Baseball game footage, and scoured image files at Metro Archives and Tennessee State Library & Archives along with personal collections.

We had been hopeful of premiering our collaboration last year, but there was so much more to do. Besides, producing a film to fit in an hour time  slot was a bit overwhelming, so we decided to postpone our project until July, 2017.

We have learned that mid-summer is not the best time to release a baseball movie.

We are asking for your patience once again, as it is imperative that the quality of our documentary is well-worth the telling of the story. Our investors and fans have been very patient, but today we are announcing that in April, 2018, our joint effort will be released.

Be looking for continued updates here, and should anyone have information deemed important to include, please email me at skip@sulphurdell.com or Joshua at westkyvideo@gmail.com.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

1 Comment

Filed under Current, Opinion

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current, History, Research

You Did It, Frank. You Did It.

I never thought we’d get to this point, but here we are. Fifteen years ago it wasn’t on the mind of most people, only a very few, and now we are putting a lid on one of the most storied years in the history of Nashville baseball.

Truly, it ranks right up there with 1901 when Newt Fisher organized the first Nashville ball club in the inaugural Southern Association season. It compliments the building of the new concrete-and-steel grandstand at Sulphur Dell in 1927.

Tonight is the final home game for the 2015 Nashville Sounds season. The team had a tough year but the Oakland A’s hook-up provided top-notch talent and the games have been exciting. This is our team.1stTnPark

First Tennessee Park is our ballpark, too. And it passed the test. It is a feel-good facility for Old Timers, Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, Millennials, and everyone’s kids and grandkids. The stadium is nestled into the spot it was designed for, and the inside allows for gentle flow before, during, and after games.

Everyone can munch, walk, talk, watch, and cheer without standing in line or getting pushed around. We can even watch the game when we choose to stand in line, and when we are elbows-to-elbows it’s because we want to be.

It wasn’t a trial run season, either. From Opening Day when the Sounds hit the ground running to provide fans the best possible baseball experience possible to now, everyone is happy. I’ll bet there’s more to come over the winter, more improvements. I’m excited about 2016 already and everyone else should be, too.

Couldn’t you just see how the Sounds staff evolved? From just getting by at an old delapidated facilty to really enjoying their workplace haven, the difference was evident. Smiles got a whole lot more conversation going than blank stares, all adding to a great atmosphere as Booster and those staff members have become the game-day face of the franchise inside the stadium.

Frank_Ward.fwI doubt any of them wishes they were back at Greer Stadium. First-class fans needed a first-class ballpark, the one we deserved.

Co-owner Frank Ward delivered it and deserves a thunderous applause for that. The full-time face of the franchise quieted a whole bunch of disparaging citizens who said it couldn’t be done, that it wouldn’t measure up, that parking would be a mess, and that it wouldn’t be worth it.

Those folks probably came to see a game or two. And loved it.

Frank, thanks. A lot. We knew it could be done, and you did it. And you did it right where it belonged all the time.

See you at the ballpark, where tonight I will enjoy the Game on more time.

Until next year.

© 2015 Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current, Opinion

Documentary: Sulphur Dell

Sulphur Dell was Nashville’s storied ballpark, but the claim of its significance went far beyond local fans’ love for baseball. Its bis3wide-ranging notoriety was asserted on the famous marquee’ atop the entrance: “Baseball’s Most Historic Park Since 1870”.

For 100 years the ballpark hosted ballgames, concerts, circuses, and rodeos. When it was demolished in 1969, the memories remained through photos and other images; many recollections remained in the hearts and minds of those who witnessed the events that took place.

A few months ago I met Joshua R. Maxwell, and over lunch we began to discuss the possibility of producing a documentary about Sulphur Dell. Joshua is co-author with Kevin D. McCann of The Kitty League (2012, Arcadia Publishing). He also wrote, directed, and produced a recent documentary about the league, The KITTY League: Hometown Heroes.

Hopper-Kitty-PosterThe movie premiered at the Alhambra Theatre in Hopkinsville, Kentucky on May 29. It is an impressive film from an impressive young man.

A second meeting led us to a concept that will result in a documentary about Sulphur Dell. Together we have the research capability, knowledge, and experience that will produce an impressive story in a format for generations to come. We have already begun to accumulate our interview list, images library, and scripts.

The Nashville Sounds have agreed to assist us as we frame the old ballpark with the new First Tennessee Park.

A Kickstarter campaign has been developed for funding to get us up and running (click here to access). There are pledge levels that include various premiums in exchange for monetary support. Our goal is to raise $5,500.00 and we have 30 days to do it.

If you would join us in our endeavor, we would greatly appreciate your support. There is a brief summary on the funding site, but we know you may have additional questions. We are willing to answer any questions you may have:

Skip Nipper                         skip@sulphurdell.com

Joshua Maxwell                westkyvideo@gmail.com

© Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current, History, Research

Pete Rose and a Baseball Stain

One of my great memories as a father is having played catch with my kids. One particular day my youngest son Chris wanted to throw and went to his room to get a baseball. He was playing in Little League and was a strong, hard throwing left-hander. His throws could more aptly be called “scorchers” instead of “tosses”.

As we separated about 40 feet from each other, he hummed his first pitch to me but it took a couple of hops (“worm burners” my dad used to call them) and went under my reach. I turned and retrieved the ball and took a look at the grass stain on it. It had an autograph on it.

grass stained baseball“Pete Rose” was clearly legible as the grass stain had not perpetrated the autograph. Pete’s signature was clear as a bell.

I said, “Chris, you brought a ball that has Pete Rose’s autograph. Don’t you want to hold on to it?” He shrugged, as it was more important that we have a ball to catch than not.

I examined the ball for more autographs, and found another: “Bill Boner”. The Nashville mayor’s signature was not as legible since a green smear came over the “er”.

A decision had to be made. Do I rescue the icon of baseball lovers everywhere by stopping our backyard encounter with the National Pastime, or do I continue to play catch?

Impatient during the delay, Chris finally yelled, “C’mon dad, throw it!” Our throwing to each other continued.

In 1987 Greer Stadium hosted a two-game exhibition series between the Montreal Expos and the Cincinnati Reds, the parent club of the Nashville Sounds. As my uncle Walter Nipper was a member of the ownership group of the Nashville club, he invited my dad, me, and my children onto the field to watch batting practice and shake hands with players.

Uncle Nip gave each of my boys a baseball to collect autographs. My oldest son Doug was able to get the signatures of a couple of the Reds players, most notably Barry Larkin (who would be named to the Hall of Fame in 2012) and Chris had to settle for Pete Rose and the mayor (I specifically remember Chris asking Ron Dibble to sign his ball, but Dibble told him “no”, that Chris didn’t even know who he was).

All this leads me to yesterday’s announcement that evidence had been found that Pete Rose had gambled on baseball games (including his own team, the Cincinnati Reds) while he was a player. Since then mainstream media, radio talk shows, and social medial posts have been rampant both critically and in support of Rose’s potential reinstatement to Baseball by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. I have bantered back and forth with Facebook friends today, and here is my take on it.

Is Rose eligible for reinstatement because he finally confessed?

No. He knew the rule. It’s Rule 21 under the heading “Misconduct”, instituted for good reason: to keep players from taking payouts to affect the outcome of a game and ruining the nature of The Game. Rose knew the rule but chose to ignore it.

Many people compare Rose’s gambling issue to the Chicago Black Sox scandal (which lead to Rule 21), but there was no such rule in 1919 when the Black Sox scandal occurred. Chicago player Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball in 1921 by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was a great player who Babe Ruth patterned his hitting stance on. Jackson often has been mentioned in the same sequences of support as for Rose.

Another contention questions whether Rose’s actions are as bad as PED users including Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriquez, Ryan Braun and others, along with questions of the character of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Mickey Mantle.

Really? Aren’t these entirely different sets of circumstances?

To put anything into one’s body to enhance athletic performance has long been considered “against the rules”. No matter that former MLB commissioner Bud Selig took so long to address the issue (remember, Sosa and McGwire were swatting long home runs, and lots of them, while “juiced”), the PED issue became a distraction and subsequent steroid use has been banned.

That banishment has left many fans with a bad taste in their mouth, including me. I see no reason to include known steroid-users from Hall of Fame selection. And the argument that other moral issues should keep outstanding players out of Cooperstown should hold no bearing, either, if there was no rule against it.

Otherwise, does Joe Jackson get tossed into the A-Rod, Ryan Braun, etc. category?

When Cobb and Ruth were playing there was no National Baseball Hall of Fame and I doubt they were too worried about what people thought of their lives beyond the ball field. When Mantle was playing, he thought he was going to die at a young age and did some things that may have been morally wrong but I don’t believe were against baseball rules.

Even if Rose were to be reinstated, which he won’t, he will never be elected to the Hall of Fame. That conversation, his appeals, and consideration for anything but being a proven liar over and over, should end.

Hall of Fame selection is an honor. A great player? Yes. Charlie Hustle? You bet. But according to the rules for voting on players by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for Hall of Fame membership, there is one glaring rule that can never be overlooked:

5. Voting: Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

I suppose three out of six ain’t bad.

Pete does not need the money that Hall of Fame membership brings. He makes plenty of money right now signing baseballs and memorabilia. Let him ponder his own flaws that will keep him from Hall of Fame selection forever.

If he can only be honest with himself.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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