Tag Archives: Ted Murray

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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Nashville’s Larry Gilbert: Baseball Honors A Legend

Metro Archives Photo

On Sunday afternoon, July 27, 1941, Larry Gilbert was honored as Sporting News “1940 Minor League Manager of the Year” before his team’s double header against Chattanooga at Sulphur Dell in Nashville.

It was the second ceremony of the year honoring Gilbert, the first having been held May 7, recognizing him for his 25 years in the Southern Association[1]. He was given various gifts, including a gold lifetime pass by league president Trammell Scott, a silver set from Vols team owner Ted Murray and treasurer Jack Flanagan, and his players presented him with a silver service.[2]

Gilbert began his career in local sandlots of his hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana, but found his way to the majors as a member of the famous “Miracle Braves” of 1914, which had a 26-40 record in July but managed to win the National League pennant by winning 68 of its next 87 games[3]. Gilbert was a seldom-used outfielder and appeared in 72 games, hitting .268. His only appearance in the World Series was as a pinch hitter,  drawing a walk from  Philadelphia Athletics ace Bill James.

As a 23-year-old the next season, Larry was used very little and batted a paltry .151. His career would resume in Toronto (International League – Class AA) and Kansas City (American Association – Class AA) before he joined New Orleans (Southern Association – Class A). He would remain there for nine years, becoming manager of the club in 1923, leading the club to the league pennant that season, and remained there through 1938 (he moved to the front office in 1932, but returned to the dugout in 1933).

When Nashville owner Fay Murray was looking for a manager after the 1938 season, he convinced Larry to become part-owner, general manager, and manager of the Vols. He remained as field leader through 1948, moving to the front office until 1955, when he sold his shares in the club.

Larry Gilbert’s rise to fame as the best manager in the minor leagues culminated in 1940, when his Nashville ball club led the Southern Association from opening day until the end of the season. His team won 101 games with a combined batting average of .311, pitcher Boots Poffenberger won 26 games, and reliever Ace Adams struck out 122 rival batters.

In the league playoffs, the Vols eliminated Chattanooga, three games to none, and won the playoff championship against Atlanta by winning four games to two for the Crackers, sending Nashville to the Dixie Playoffs to face Texas League champion. They polished off the Houston Buffaloes in five games, ending a remarkable season. That club was selected as the 47th best minor league of all time in 2001 in celebration of Minor League baseball’s 100th anniversary[4].

His two-year record at Nashville was 186-115, and included a Southern Association regular-season pennant, two playoff championships, and one Dixie Series title. He had previously led New Orleans to four pennants, two playoff championships, and two Dixie Series crowns.

On September 8, 1948, in his final game as manager, Gilbert was honored once again, this time for 25 years as a manager in the Southern Association, beginning with his first entering the league in 1923.  6,509 Nashville fans, Baseball Commissioner A. B. Chandler, George M. Trautman, president of the National Association, and Southern Association president Charlie Hurth, were there to bestow recognition to Larry Gilbert, the most successful manager in the history of the Southern Association.

With eight league championships, including six consecutive titles with Nashville between 1939-1944, his final record as manager for the Vols and New Orleans was 2,128 – 1,627. It was an impressive record for an equally impressive manager.

From the honors bestowed upon him, it was easy to tell that Baseball loved Larry Gilbert.

To view Gilbert’s entire managerial record, click here: http://www.southernassociationbaseball.com/managers/larrygilbert.php

Sources 

Baseball-reference.com

Newspapers.com

Paper of Record 

Retrosheet.org

Sabr.org

Southernassociationbaseball.com

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

[1] Raymond Johnson. “Fourth Celebration Due,” One Man’s Opinion column, Nashville Tennessean, July 28, 1941, 8.

[2] Sporting News, May 15, 1941, 12.

[3] “1914 The Miracle Braves”, http://www.thisgreatgame.com/1914-baseball-history.html, accessed July 27, 2017.

[4] Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, “Top 100 Teams: 47. 1940 Nashville Vols,” http://www.milb.com/milb/history/top100.jsp?idx=47, July 27, 2017

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The Twins to the (Short-lived) Rescue

In 1961 the Southern Association was on its last leg. The failure to integrate (except for a token appearance by Nat Peeples in two games for the Atlanta Crackers at Mobile in 1954 – but that’s another story) spelled doom for the 60-year-old league.  Major League clubs would not feed players down to a league which was not integrated.

Nashville was on its last leg as a team in the storied Southern Association, too.  In an attempt to keep the franchise going, a corporation had been formed in the fall of 1958 to acquire the floundering Nashville club to keep professional baseball alive. Vols, Inc. was formed and 4,876 shares were sold at $5.00 each to build the treasury and pay T. L. Murray for his ownership in the Nashville Vols and the ballpark, Sulphur Dell. Curiously, Murray bought shares in Vols, Inc., too.

New York Yankees pitching coach and Nashvillian Jim Turner was coaxed to become general manager and field manager of the Vols for the 1960 season to replace Dick Sisler.  Both managers were considered to be the saviors of local baseball, but neither was successful. Sisler left for Seattle after three years at the helm and Turner was brought in to become the next hero to save baseball in the city. When club attendance and field performance failed, Turner bailed and became the Cincinnati Reds pitching coach beginning in 1961.

The Nashville franchise was on the brink of extinction when Vols, Inc. directors agreed to a working agreement with the Minnesota Twins. Recently relocated to Minneapolis-St. Paul from Washington, the Twins organization agreed to provide the following for Nashville’s club:

  • Spring training in Fernandina Beach, Florida alongside the TwinsTwins
  • To pay spring training expenses for Nashville’s players, including housing, food, and instruction
  • To pay all above $500.00 a month in salaries of optioned players
  • To pay all above $650.00 a month in salaries of players assigned outright to the Vols
  • To pay part of the unnamed field manager’s salary, as long as the Twins assign him from within their organization

Doom was inevitable even before the season began, however. New Orleans was not a member of the league for the first time since the Southern Association was formed in 1901 and Macon had been brought in to replace the Pelicans. Attendance continued to decline across the league and at the end of the season the Southern Association folded.

The decline in attendance, the failure to integrate, and the hesitation of major league teams to participate more equitably in the paying of players and minor league expenses all contributed to the dissolution of the storied league at the end of the 1961 season.

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The Decline of 1954

Poor attendance at Sulphur Dell began to plague the Nashville Vols in 1954, the third year of a three-year affiliation with the New York Giants. The team was well-stocked with power hitting slugger Bob Lennon (64 home runs, 210 hits, 161 runs batted in)  and steady first baseman Larry DiPippo (.298, 132 hits, 20 homers), but the pitching staff would have only one starter to finish the season with a winning record, Joe Margoneri (14-10).

Buster Boguskie would play 50 games at second base, 17 at shortstop, and 24 games at third as manager Hugh Poland attempted to find the infield combination that set a record for double plays in a season with 202 just two years prior.

Nothing was going right at the gate, either. After eighteen home games attendance was 21,626, compared to 23,762 in 1953. It was a downward trend that would continue throughout the season. Minor league baseball would suffer the worst overall attendance since 1945.

Mini-BallAs a way of boosting attendance, at the June 3, 1954 game at Sulphur Dell, the Nashville baseball club gave away 1,000 miniature baseballs; 700 of those ‘small balls’ bore the signatures of major league players, and 300 of them had the autographs of Vols players.

Through June 3rd, Nashville was in fifth place with a 20-24 record, 8 ½ games behind Atlanta.

A few days later in the June 8, 1954 edition of the Birmingham Post-Herald, sports editor Naylor Stone wrote that Knoxville will replace Nashville in the Southern Association in 1955. Stone stated that the deal was done and Knoxville was assured a berth in the league even “before it erected its new $500,000 Municipal Stadium.”

“This season Knoxville re-enterd the Class B Tri-State League with the understanding it would be released from Tri-State territory if a Southern Association franchise became available,” Stone wrote.

Knoxville had been a member of the Southern between 1932 and 1944 when the franchise was given to Mobile.

On June 11, 1954, Nashville club general manager and vice-president Larry Gilbert declared that rumors of the team being sold to Knoxville interests for $200,000 were untrue, stating that should the club be sold a Nashville investor would be the first consideration. He further stated that any sale would be a package deal to include the team and ballpark.

Nashville would end the 1954 season with a total attendance tally of 89,470 fans. On January 22, 1955 Ted Murray and Larry Gilbert, co-owners of Nashville, confirmed that they faced the loss of their franchise that the city had held since the league was organized in 1901. A 30-day option for the purchase of Sulphur Dell, the city’s ball park, had been obtained from them by a syndicate in Nashville.

Reportedly, the plan of the syndicate was to sell the property for business purposes and demolish the grandstand. It was rumored that interested parties in Knoxville, Tampa, and Jacksonville were anxious to obtain the franchise.

None of those things materialized, although Gilbert sold his interest in the club and moved back to New Orleans where he had maintained a home.

The decline of the Nashville franchise, however, would continue until 1961 when the Southern Association closed up shop. A new franchise was resurrected for one season in 1963 in the South Atlantic (SALLY) League, but the attempt was fruitless and Nashville had no professional baseball for fifteen years when the Nashville Sounds were formed for the 1978 season.

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