Tag Archives: Piedmont League

Vandy was a Vol

Johnny Vander Meer was born on November 2, 1914 to Dutch parents in Prospect, New Jersey, and grew up in Midland Park. Baseball became his love and he found the attention of a Cincinnati Reds scout, signing with Dayton (Class C – Mid-Atlantic League).[1] The next two seasons were spent in Scranton (Class A – NYPL) where he was 18-18.

In his first three years in the Cincinnati Reds farm system he developed arm trouble. In 1936 he was sent to Nashville to consult with Dr. Lee Jensen, a noted sports doctor who determined there was an issue with a muscle in Vander Meer’s back. After therapy and exercises, he was being counted on as a starter for the Vols.

vander-meerIn two-game exhibition series against the St. Louis Browns at Nashville’s Wilson Park, he was starting pitcher on April 7 and appeared as a reliever on April 8. In the first game, a cold and windy affair, after one out he issued walks to four consecutive batters to force in a run before being relieved by Johnny Intlekofer. The Browns won 3-1.

The next day he relieved Junie Barnes in the seventh. Only giving up one hit, Vander Meer gave up five runs in the eighth; for the game, he struck out four, walked five, and hit batter Harlond Clift before being relieved by Ray Davis. Johnny was the losing pitcher.

On April 21, he faced the Atlanta Crackers in his first start for the Vols, another cold affair that was eventually called due to darkness that ended in a 4-4 tie. Continuing to relieve for manager Lance Richbourg, on May 3 Vander Meer was given his second start, this time in Birmingham. He allowed two runs in five innings before being yanked for Red Ahearn.

In Nashville’s Sulphur Dell on May 9, Johnny started against New Orleans, but did not finish in the Vols 15-8 trouncing of the Pelicans. Having appeared in 31 innings in eight games but with no wins, he started against the Travelers in Little Rock on May 19, but did not last the inning after walking the first three batters he faced. He was the losing pitcher.

With 25 bases on balls in 32 innings, his arm control was beginning to show. By June 1 he was gone, sent to Durham (Class B, Piedmont League). Still under contract to Nashville, Vander Meer found his curve ball under the tutelage of manager Johnny Gooch, and won 19 games while losing only 6 with a 2.65 ERA.

Most impressive were his 272 strikeouts in 194 innings. He struck out 20 in one game, 19 and 18 in two others. “Vandy” was named The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year for 1936.

Sold by the Vols to Cincinnati, he was invited to spring training and spent the season between the Reds where he was 3-4 with a 3.84 ERA, and Syracuse (Class AA – International League) where he was 5-11 with a 3.34 ERA.

He was an All Star for Cincinnati in 1938 and threw consecutive no-hitters, the only player to ever accomplish the feat. His first came against the Boston Bees on June 11 in Cincinnati and the second was accomplished against the Brooklyn Dodgers on June 15, the first night game ever played at Ebbets Field.

Four days later, on June 19 in Boston, he no-hit the Braves until one out in the fourth inning when Debs Garms hit a single. The streak ended at 21 1/3 innings, which included the batter Vander Meer retired in the game before his first no-hitter.[2]

Named The Sporting News Major League Player of the Year that season, Johnny was also named to the All Star team in 1939, 1942, and 1943.

His lifetime 119-121 record included 1,294 strikeouts, and he led the league in that category for three consecutive seasons; 1941 (202), 1942 (186), and 1943 (174).

Upon his release from the Cleveland Indians in 1951, he pitched in 24 games for Tulsa and won 11, losing 10. But on July 15, 1952, 14 years and one month after his record performance, he hurled a no-hitter in a Texas League game against Beaumont.

Oddly enough, Beaumont manager Harry Craft was centerfielder for the Reds and made the final putout in the second no-hitter by Vander Meer. The ball was hit by future Hall of Famer Leo Durocher of Brooklyn.

Upon retiring from active playing, he managed in the minors for 10 seasons where his teams won a total of 761 games and lost 719. Future major leaguers Jim Maloney, Vic Davalillo, Jack Baldschun, Lee May, Jim Wynn, Ed Kranepool, and Pete Rose played for “The Dutch Master”.

When his baseball career was over he worked for a brewing company and enjoyed fishing. Vander Meer passed away on October 6, 1997 in Tampa, Florida, and was buried with a baseball in his left hand.[3]

SOURCES

Ancestry.com

Baseball-reference.com

Nashville Tennessean

Newspapers.com

Retrosheet.org

Sabr.org

© 2016 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

 

[1] Johnson, James W. Johnny Vander Meer, SABR Baseball Biography Project. Retrieved from ww.sabr.org

[2] Goldstein, Richard. “Johnny Vander Meer, 82, No-Hit Master, Dies”, New York Times, October 7, 1997

[3] Johnson, James W. Ibid.

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Old/New Construction at Sulphur Dell (We’re Talking 1927)

In local baseball circles, I can attest to the fact that conversations are all about the new First Tennessee Park being built for the Nashville Sounds. Outside of those circles there is probably plenty of talk on the subject, too.

With an April 2015 opening planned, and construction at the site well on its way, there is but a smattering of talk about potential delays. But that was not the case in 1927, when old Sulphur Dell was turned around.

But why turn around a ballpark? It’s a little hard to put one’s finger on the real reason.

Some say that without lights (the first major league night game would not happen until 1935) the late afternoon sun was always in the batter’s face since the ballpark was facing the southwest. To make it easier on the home team, the park was relocated so the batter’s back was to the State Capitol. Problem eliminated.

Another reason for the reconfigured ballpark: new ownership. On October 1, 1926 four owners took over the Nashville Baseball Club and split 535 shares of stock:

Rogers Caldwell, a local horse breeder

J. H. “Jack” Whaley, co-publisher of Southern Lumberman, a regional publication

Stanley P. Horn, also co-publisher of Southern Lumberman

Jimmy Hamilton, manager of the Nashville Vols since 1923. In 1925 he had purchased the Raleigh club in the Piedmont League

With a season attendance of 178,000 in 1925, the team had generated $80,000 in profit. There is no published profit amount of 1926, but even with attendance down to 135,000 the reported amount was still “five figures” and ownership was lucrative.

The first week of December the new owners announced a new steel & concrete structure would be built – a little unusual, with two of the owners producing a publication about the wood industry in the southeast – and the new ballpark was expected to be one of the best ballpark facilities in baseball for its size.

J. B. Hanson Co. was awarded the construction contract. The architect was Marr & Holman.

Perhaps the new owners wanted to show local fans how committed they were to advancing the prestige of Nashville. They certainly allowed Jimmy Hamilton free reign on signing new players. He was a personal friend of Connie Mack, Wilbert Robinson, Ty Cobb, and other major league managers and sought their advice in bringing in a team built for the new ballpark.

While attending baseball’s winter meetings the past December, Hamilton scheduled major league squads to play in Nashville as they left their spring training locations, heading north to begin the regular season.

Then it happened, as it had happened nearly every other spring: the first week of January, rains poured and grounds were flooded under 16 feet of water, delaying progress of construction for three weeks.

In February, the contractor was offered a bonus of $5,000.00 to complete the structure for the March exhibition season. Spring exhibitions against big-league teams were important money-makers, and three construction shifts were utilized to speed the process. During this period, the Nashville Vols practiced at Vanderbilt’s baseball field and played a few games against the Commodores.

Was construction completed in time? You be the judge: the image below has a date of March 24, 1927. The first game was played on March 25 against the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. The Millers won 5-3 and Minneapolis right-fielder Dick Loftus hit the first home run in the new park.

Tennessee State Archives Image

Tennessee State Archives Image

The following day, Toledo visited Sulphur Dell and Casey Stengel hit a triple for the Mud Hens.

Additional games took place over the next weeks. On April 2, the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association came to town and the Cincinnati Reds played on April 3 and 4th. The team that would become known as “Murderers Row”, the New York Yankees, visited on April 7 and lost 10-8 to the 1926 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.

Nashville Vols fans celebrated the new ballpark on Opening Day, April 12 with an attendance of 7,536. Season attendance would finish at 176,000, a few thousand less than two years previous. For comparison’s sake, Sulphur Dell would have a record season attendance of 270,000 in 1948, manager Larry Gilbert’s final season.

With the quirky, colorful contour of Sulphur Dell’s confines, the ballpark became a storied home to the Nashville Vols and for a time, the Negro League’s Nashville Elite Giants.

© 2014 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Two Months in Nashville: Gene Davis

Born in 1934, Gene Davis played amateur baseball for the Jacksonville, Florida Post 9 Generals, one of the premier American Legion programs in the United States.  A third baseman, it was there he garnered attention from scouts for his playing abilities and in 1953 was offered a professional contract with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Upon signing his first contract at the age of 19, Davis was assigned by the parent club to play for Albany, the Cardinals’ Class D entry in the Georgia-Florida League.  It was the beginning of Gene’s minor league career that would last for nine seasons.

In his first professional game with Albany, Davis was hitless at the plate.  Undaunted, he proved his worth by hitting safely in his next 20 games until his streak was halted in a game against Waycross.  On May 19 Davis collected four hits as his team set a single-game Georgia-Florida League record for runs (21) and hits (23).

The 6’ 1”, 185 lb. Davis had minor league stops in Hamilton (PONY), Lynchburg (Piedmont), Peoria (I-I-I), Sioux City (Western), and Winston-Salem (Carolina), all in the Cardinals’ organization.  His best season was in 1954 at Hamilton (Ontario, Canada), where he built a .345 batting average on 173 hits, 62 extra-base hits with 12 home runs, and 270 total bases.

While playing with Hamilton on May 5th against Bradford, Davis’ first inning pop-up bunt was caught by pitcher Dave Zebley who tossed the ball to second base to double up the runner.  The subsequent throw to first caught another runner for the third out and secured the PONY League’s first triple play of the 1953 season.

On May 11, 1954, Gene’s lone hit was enough to break up a no-hit bid by Corning pitcher Bobby Adubato.

With Peoria in 1956, teammates Bob Bauer and Gene Davis both hit home runs in the seventh inning of game on July 15 to defeat Cedar Rapids.  Together again the next season with Winston-Salem, Davis and Bauer duplicated their feat by each socking a home run on June 21, 1957 against the High Point-Thomasville Hi-Toms.

After signing with Washington (AL) after the 1957 season, Davis was assigned to Charlotte (South Atlantic), playing there for two full seasons while splitting 1960 between Charlotte and Wilson (Carolina).

Davis’ debut on South Atlantic League soil got off to a terrific start.  On April 13, 1959 in Charleston, Davis had four hits in five plate appearances with three runs batted in to pace Charlotte to a 12-6 win in front of 2,727 chilly fans on Opening Night.  A few days later on April 17, right fielder Gene slammed two home runs to provide the margin of victory in Charlotte’s 10-9 win over Jacksonville.

A freak single by Davis on May 28 spoiled Asheville pitcher Jack Taylor’s attempt at a no-hitter.  His rap to the mound in the fifth inning struck the pitching rubber and shot into the air.  Before third baseman Don Le John could grab the ball and throw to first base, Davis had safely crossed the bag.  It was the only hit Taylor gave up in winning over Charlotte 4-0.

Davis was named to the 1959 All Star team which faced the Gastonia Pirates in the South Atlantic League All Star Game at Charlotte on July 21.  The 10-inning affair, won by the SALLY All Stars 8-7 with an attendance of 3,593 fans, had originally been scheduled for July 20 but was delayed until the next evening due to rain.

In 1961, the Senators moved to Minneapolis and became the Minnesota Twins, signing a minor league agreement with Nashville of the Southern Association as the Twins’ Class AA affiliate.  Gene joined the Vols as an outfielder and to play third base, his original position when signed by the Cardinals.

On Opening Day in Nashville, April 8th, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson was on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitch with 5,224 Sulphur Dell fans in attendance.  Senators Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore also attended the game.

Davis did not start, but batted as a pinch hitter for relief pitcher Leverette Spencer in the sixth inning, and reached first base on an error but was promptly lifted for pinch-runner Bill Felker.  Nashville lost the game, 5-3.

In the first game of a double header against Macon at Sulphur Dell on May 7, Macon southpaw Jim Bailey nearly tossed a no-hitter but Nashville ended up winning 2-0 despite Bailey’s gem.  A small crowd of 1,277 watched as Bailey held the Vols hitless for 8 and two-thirds innings before Nashville’s clean-up hitter Joe Christian slapped a curveball just beyond the reach of Macon second baseman George Holder to spoil the no-hit bid.

Still hopeful for a Macon win, Bailey’s efforts were further shattered when Gene poked a waist-high curve for a 280-foot home run over Nashville’s famous right-field fence to seal the 2-0 win for the home team.  Lefty Gene Host got the win by allowing only four hits against the Peaches.

SouAssnBallAlthough Davis had been a consistent mid-teens home run hitter, his statistics had never measured up to his year in Hamilton and during his later seasons his batting average remained close to his minor league career average of .283.

The May 31, 1961 issue of The Sporting News listed under the heading “Deals of the Week” that Gene Davis had been released by Nashville, along with pitchers Gene Host and Al Johnston.

During his two-month stint with the Vols, Davis appeared in 25 games, had 13 hits (including four doubles and two home runs) and a .228 batting average before being released.  At age 27, it was his last professional season.

© 2014 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Sources

Baseball-Reference.com.

The Sporting News, May 20, 1953, 35.

The Sporting News, May 27, 1953, 36.

The Sporting News, May 19, 1954, 36. 

The Sporting News, September 1, 1954, 11.

The Sporting News, July 25, 1956, 40.

The Sporting News, May 1, 1957, 39.

The Sporting News, April 22, 1959, 30.

The Sporting News, April 29, 1959, 37.

The Sporting News, June 10, 1959, 51.

The Sporting News, July 22, 1959, 40.

The Sporting News, April 19, 1961, 31.

The Sporting News, May 17, 1961, 31.

The Sporting News, May 31, 1961, 37.

Wright, Marshall.  The Southern Association in Baseball 1885-1961.  Jefferson, North Carolina, and London:  McFarland & Company, 2002

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