Tag Archives: Rollie Hemsley

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.

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It Happened On This Day: December 6 – December 21

Marquee_On_This-DayDecember 6, 1925 – Today is the birthday of former Nashville player Rance Pless. A third baseman, Pless won the Southern Association batting championship in 1952 with the Vols with a .364 average

December 7, 1914 – Nashville Baseball Club president Clyde Shropshire announces he has scheduled exhibition games with various major league teams in the spring of 1915.  Among the games to be played are a three-game set with the Chicago Cubs April 4, 5 and 6, and the New York Giants April 7 and 8.  The Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox will also play games against the Vols but the dates have not been set

December 7, 1928 – Outfielder Blackie Carter and left-handed pitcher George Milstead are purchased by Nashville from Toledo. Nashville also sells catcher Leo Mackey to Mobile and trades left-handed pitcher Oscar Fuhr to New Orleans for outfielder-first baseman Beans Minor

December 8, 1948 – Rollie Hemsley is named manager of the Nashville Vols, succeeding Larry Gilbert who moves to the front office

December 9, 1930 – Today is the birthday of Nashville outfielder Bob Hazle who batted for .314 during 1955 for the Vols. Hazle played briefly for the Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Braves, and Detroit Tigers but spent most of his career in the minors

December 10, 1957 – Pitcher Hal Kleine, who earned a 4-4 record during the 1949 season with Nashville, passes away in St. Louis. Kleine appeared in fourteen major league games with Cleveland in 1944-45 but had a 10-year minor league career until retiring after the 1950 season

December 11, 1888 – Fred Toney is born in Nashville. As one of the outstanding pitchers in the National League from 1915 to 1921, Toney led the league in saves in 1918 and won 20 games in 1917 and 1920

December 12, 1947 – Larry Gilbert announces that the Vols will spend spring training in Pensacola, Florida in 1948

December 13, 1923 – Vols catcher Paul Eiffert is traded to London, Ontario of the Michigan-Ontario League for catcher Leo Mackey

December 14, 2004 – Rod Kanehl, former Nashville Vol player, passes away in Palm Springs, California. Kanehl was the first New York Mets player to hit a grand slam home run when he accomplished the feat on July 6, 1962. Kanehl was the only former Mets player to attend the funeral of Casey Stengel

December 15, 1860 – Today is the birthday of Abner Powell, who along with Nashville’s Newt Fisher and Memphis’ Charlie Frank organized the Southern Association that began play in 1901. Powell had played and managed New Orleans in 1888 and played for Nashville’s Southern League team for eighteen games in 1894. Managing New Orleans in 1901 and 1902 and Atlanta’s entry in the new league in 1903 and 1904, he sold his interest in his team and purchased a share of the Nashville club in 1905. Powell is credited for introducing rain checks, knothole gangs, and ladies days to baseball, and innovated the covering of the playing field with a tarpaulin to keep the surface dry

December 15, 1920 – Former Nashville pitcher and future Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt is traded by the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees. During the next 10 years Hoyt will win 157 games for the Yankees

December 16, 1934 – Today is the birthday of Jim Bailey, southpaw pitcher for Nashville in 1958 (10-11), 1959 (10-6), and 1960 (7-10). He pitched in three games for the Cincinnati Reds in 1959. Born in Strawberry Plains, Tennessee, he is the brother of major league catcher Ed Bailey

December 17, 1975 – Kerby Farrell passes away in Nashville. In 1943 he played in 85 games for the Boston Braves and returned to the majors with the Chicago White Sox in 1945. He managed one season in the majors for Cleveland during 1957

December 18, 1897 – Nashville Vols manager and player Lance Richbourg is born in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. Richbourg spent six seasons with Nashville, managing from 1934-1937

December 19, 2003 – Former Nashville outfielder Carmen Mauro passes away in Carmichael, California. In his only season at Sulphur Dell in 1948 he accumulated a .284 batting average in 85 games

December 20, 1915 – Nashville acquires 3 players from the Quincy club of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (III) League: outfielder Roy Sherer, catcher George Boelzle, and pitcher Louis Tretter. All are secured under optional agreement

December 21, 1925 – Bob Rush, who had a 13-season career in the majors and spent part of one season with Nashville, is born in Battle Creek, Michigan. Called up mid-season after posting a 6-1 record for Des Moines in the Western League, Rush was 9-7 with the Vols in 1947 and ended the season with a 3.40 ERA

© 2014 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Nashville Held a Prominent Postion in the Southern Association

Newt FisherThe Southern Association of Baseball Clubs was organized at the Morris Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama on October 20, 1900 by Abner Powell, Charley Frank and Newt Fisher. Franchises were granted to six cities: Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis, Shreveport, New Orleans, and Birmingham. Powell would become an owner in New Orleans along with Isidore Newman, Fisher would have a stake in the Nashville club, and Frank would own Memphis, further setting in motion the importance of the main founders.

Applications were also received from Atlanta, Montgomery, Little Rock, and Mobile. Later Little Rock and Atlanta are named as the two remaining clubs for the inaugural season. Meeting in Memphis on February 28, 1901, the Southern Association franchise originally awarded to Atlanta is transferred to Selma. The league’s schedule is also finalized.

Nashville’s team was off and running in the new league, winning the first two regular season pennants in 1901 and 1902.

After attempts to form a new league fail by disgruntled owners, on September 8, 1902 an agreement is signed in Memphis that the 1903 Southern League cities will include New Orleans, Mobile, Birmingham, Montgomery, Savannah, Memphis, Atlanta, and Nashville, with Little Rock, Shreveport, and Chattanooga eliminated.

1908 Nashville Vols FB

1908 Nashville Vols

In 1908 the Volunteers won their third Southern Association crown, followed by another in 1916. On July 11th of the Vols fourth championship season, Tom Rogers pitched a perfect game against Chattanooga, striking out 4. The game time was one hour and 25 minutes.

In 1918 many of the Southern Association teams were struggling as World War I impacted commerce and fan attendance, a shortened season was played and the directors of the league considered shutting down. Nashville’s attendance that season was 24,119, down from 79,018 the previous year. Ironically, 79,014 attended Nashville games at Sulphur Dell in 1918.

Sunday games had not been allowed in Tennessee well into the second decade of the Southern Association, creating an obstacle to scheduling. On March 28, 1919 John D. Martin, president of the Southern Association, arrived in Nashville to urge the State Supreme Court to render an early decision in allowing Sunday baseball games.

The Tennessee Supreme Court announced its decision on April 12, 1919 to permit baseball to be played on Sunday. The Court held that the blue laws of 1893 did not apply to baseball, as the game was not then being played.

In 1920 league attendance passed 1 million for the first time since teams began keeping accurate records in 1915. The league drew a total of 1,215,367 fans; Nashville’s home attendance was 102,529.

In 1931 Fay L. Murray, part-owner of the American Association Minneapolis Millers, purchased the Nashville Volunteers. In November of 1938 Murray would lure New Orleans manager Larry Gilbert to Nashville to become manager and general manager. Gilbert would also become a part-owner of the Vols.

Larry Gilbert

Larry Gilbert

In 1940 Gilbert’s Nashville club won the Southern Association pennant, followed up with the top spot again in 1943and 1948, Gilbert’s final season as a manager.

Larry Gilbert had an upstanding reputation. He was often called upon to meet with major league representatives during National Association meetings and was named one of the coaches for a game in Cooperstown, New York to commemorate the 100th anniversary of baseball. He also made out the Southern Association schedule.

On August 25, 1941, Southern Association president Trammell Scott postponed Nashville’s home contest against Little Rock out of respect to the family of Larry Gilbert, Jr., son of the Vols manager. The younger Gilbert had passed away the previous day from heart failure.

Led by manager Rollie Hemsley the Vols captured another regular season league crown in 1949.

Into the 1950s, Nashville was just one of many minor league clubs experiencing poor attendance. From a club record 269,893 in 1948 down to 92,199 in 1958, without fan support the league would not survive.

The New Orleans Pelicans owners announced on March 15, 1960 that the team was folding and would not field a team in the Southern Association. A charter member of the league, New Orleans would become the largest city in the US without a professional baseball team.

On August 29, 1960, Cincinnati Reds vice-president and general manager Gabe Paul announced that the Reds six-year working agreement would not be renewed with Nashville, effective December 15.  The reason given by Paul was because the Southern Association “does not allow the use of Negro players”.

RIPThe Southern Association suspended operations on January 24, 1962 due to “a lack of enough major league working agreements”; however, during the 1961 season average attendance for all games is less than 1,000 fans.

Nashville had drawn just over 500 fans per game during the 1961 and had been unable to secure a major league affiliation. With the announcement, organized minor league baseball is reduced to only 19 leagues for the 1962 season, from a high of 59 leagues in 1949.

Nashville was without baseball in 1962. Although the Vols were resurrected in the South Atlantic League for the 1963 season, poor attendance and a deficit of almost $22,000 forced the ownership group to surrender their South Atlantic League franchise without a dissenting vote from its board of directors.

© 2014 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Managing the Nashville Baseball Club, 1901-1961

JT1960

Jim Turner

Nashville joined seven cities as a member of the Southern Association when it was formed beginning with the 1901 season. Newt Fisher was instrumental in bringing professional baseball back to his hometown as a team organizer, owner, and manager. Fisher led his team to the first two Southern Association championships.

Here is a list of Nashville managers during the league’s existence, from 1901 through 1961:

1901 – 1904   Newt Fisher

1905 – 1906   Mike Finn

1907                  Johnny Dobbs

1908 – 1910   Bill Bernhard

1911 – 1915     Bill Schwartz

1916 – 1920    Roy Ellam

1921                   Hub Perdue

1922                   Larry Doyle

1923 – 1928   Jimmy Hamilton

1928 – 1930   Clarence Rowland

1931 – 1932    Joe Klugman

1933 – 1934    Charles Dressen

1934 – 1937     Lance Richbourg

1935                   Frank Brazill

1935                   Johnny Butler

1938                  Charles Dressen

1939 – 1948    Larry Gilbert

1949                   Rollie Hemsley

1950 – 1951    Don Osborne

1952 – 1954    Hugh Poland

1955                   Joe Schultz

1956                   Ernie White

1957 – 1959    Dick Sisler

1960                   Jim Turner

1961                    Spencer Robbins

Larry Gilbert’s Vols won four regular season championships (1940-1943-1944-1948), Newt Fisher won two (1901-1902), and Bill Bernhard (1908), Roy Ellam (1916), and Rollie Hemlsey (1949) won one each.

© 2013 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Following the Larry Gilbert Legend: Rollie Hemsley’s One Season in Nashville

On December 8, 1948, Rollie Hemsley was named manager of the Nashville Vols.  Larry Gilbert had announced in September that this season would be his last as manager.  In giving up the on-field reins to the club, Gilbert moved to the front office and continued as vice-president and general manager.

Gilbert did not finish his career without fanfare.  The 1948 club won the Southern Association pennant with a 95-58 record, although Nashville faltered in the Southern Association playoffs.

Perhaps the post-WWII resurgence in attendance was an appropriate way for Gilbert to go out: the 1948 Vols drew a club record of 269,893 fans to Sulphur Dell.

But new manager Hemsley nearly matched it. RollieH

Hemsley had spent 19 years in the major leagues, and in 1947 spent the season as a backup catcher and coach for Seattle in the Pacific Coast League.

The move by team owner Ted Murray and Gilbert in selecting Hemsley was not a popular decision. It was well-publicized that he had been dropped from major league teams on four occasions due to his drinking problem.

But he had joined Alcoholics Anonymous and considered himself a recovered alcoholic. During the off-season Hemsley would speak about the perils of alcohol addiction. The newspapers were fair in assessing his hiring in Nashville, but fans would only be forgiving should Larry Gilbert’s successes be matched.

In 1949 Hemsley’s squad once again won the Southern Association championship. He even played in 56 games as a catcher, outfielder, or pinch hitter and rapped 40 hits.

The team’s record? 95-57, losing one less game than the previous season. And to boot, the club drew a home crowd of 228,034. That in itself was not necessarily impressive, but at least it was respectable.

It was 600 less fans per game than the previous season, but it was a time when attendance would begin to decline throughout all of minor league baseball. One of the influences was the threat of a potential conflict in Korea.

Hemsley would only remain at the Nashville helm for one season before moving to Columbus, Ohio, to manage the Red Birds where he was named The Sporting News Minor League Manager of the Year for 1950.

He managed for parts of six more seasons and coached in the major leagues for the Philadelphia Athletics and Washington Senators. Hemsley passed away in 1972 at the age of 65.

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