Nashville had been the winner of four Southern Association pennants in the first 16 years of the league’s existence: 1901, 1902, 1908, and 1916. It would be a long drought, over two decades long, before another championship would occur.
Fay Murray and Jimmy Hamilton purchased the club in 1931. From 1931 – 1938 the team finished second three times with an overall record of 686 -674. Nashville finished in second place in the Southern Association for 1938 and Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail added Vols manager Chuck Dressen to Leo Durocher’s staff for the 1939 season.
The move paved the way for Vols owner Fay Murray to offer Larry Gilbert the managerial position and an ownership stake in the Nashville club if he would leave New Orleans. In 18 seasons Gilbert’s teams had won 1,392 and lost 1,035 (.574).
1939: The Coup
During negotiations in Montgomery, Alabama on November 4, 1938 Larry Gilbert, veteran manager of New Orleans, was promised that if he would leave the Pelicans and his hometown, he would be given one-half share of the Nashville club. Full reign of daily operations would be his at a salary of $10,000. On November 8 owner Fay Murray announced that Gilbert was the new Nashville Vols manager. Jimmy Hamilton’s share of the Vols had been purchased by Murray to make possible the deal offered to Gilbert. On November 9, Gilbert began his first day on the job.
In his first season he lead Nashville to third place behind Chattanooga and Memphis. First baseman Bert Haas won the batting title (.365). Nashville became the Southern Association’s representative in the Dixie Playoffs by defeating Atlanta four games to three in the playoffs, and in the Dixie Series, Ft. Worth won over Nashville four games to three.
1940: Dream Season
On March 2 Baron “Boots” Poffenberger was purchased by Nashville from the Brooklyn Dodgers. Proving his eye for talent, Larry Gilbert took a chance on the bad boy pitcher who once had been suspended. No manager really knew how to handle him, but in 1940, Poffenberger would lead the league with a 26-9 record; no pitcher equaled his win total in the history of the Southern Association.
Gilbert knew how to handle him.
With the weather around 39 degrees, the Vols took a 6-0 lead and coast to a 12-8 opening day victory on April 12 over the Atlanta Crackers before a Sulphur Dell crowd of 8,206 chilly fans. The team never fell out of first place the entire season, and the starting lineup remained intact throughout the season with only two roster changes to the pitching staff in mid-season.
Nashville finished the season with a 101-47 (.682) record as Arnold Moser lead the league in hits (216), Bob Boken and Gus Dugas tied with 118 RBI, Dugas has 22 home runs, and Ace Adams strikes out 122. For the second year in a row, seven starters hit over .300.
In the first round of the playoffs Nashville shut out Chattanooga three games to none, and on September 10, Nashville pitcher George Jeffcoat struck out seven consecutive Lookouts on his way to tallying a league record of eighteen.
Trouncing Atlanta four games to two to take the Southern Association Shaughnessy Playoffs title, Nashville won its first Dixie Series over Texas League champion Houston four games to one.
1941: Tragedy, Loss, and Victory
The laurels that surrounded the previous season changed to apprehension at the beginning of 1941, as beloved team owner Fay Murray passed away on March 4 just before spring training. Manager Gilbert faced a completely revamped lineup and injuries to key players Gus Dugas, Les Fleming, and John Mihalic during the season.
Boots Poffenberger was suspended by the league for throwing a ball at an umpire on June 24, and in August personal tragedy occurred for Larry Gilbert in the death of one of his sons, Larry Gilbert, Jr.
A multitude of rainouts resulted in an unkind twin-bill schedule to end the season. The brutal series of double-headers began on August 17 and ended on September 7. Fourteen double-headers were played during the last twenty-two days of the regular season, including seven twin-tilts in a row. Nashville won 18 games during the spree.
Gilbert piloted his charges to a second-place regular-season finish at 83-70 (.542), 15 ½ games behind Atlanta as Les Fleming lead the league with a .414 season batting average. Oris Hockett at .359 and Tommy Tatum at .347 finish second and third; only two starters hit below .300.
Nashville won the Southern Association Shaughnessy Playoffs by beating the New Orleans Pelicans three games to one, and ousted regular season champion Atlanta Crackers four games to three. In the Dixie Series, Nashville had little trouble taking the Texas League champion Dallas Rebels in four straight games. The Vols’ pitching staff had three complete games, with only one reliever being used the entire series. It was the Vols’ second straight Dixie title.
1942: Three for Three
In the first inning of the second game of a double-header in Knoxville on April 19, the first nine Nashville batters each got on base with a hit, a walk, or an error, The same nine scored in succession: Roy Marion, Jim Shilling, Legrant Scott, Gus Dugas, Charley English, Charley Workman, Mickey Kreitner, Johnny Mihalic, and Dutch McCall pulled off the exploit.
On August 17 Nashville scored ten runs in the first inning before the Lookouts can retire a batter. Final score: Nashville 21, Chattanooga 6. Three Vols batter each has 5 hits: Charley Workman, Charles Brewster, and Roy Marion.
Nashville ended the year four-and-a-half games behind first-place Little Rock. Charlie Workman lead the league in home runs with 29, and Charlie English in hits (201), RBI (139), doubles (50), and batting average (.341) as George Jeffcoat lead in strikeouts with 146.
Winning over Birmingham three games to one in the first round, the Vols upended Little Rock four to none to take the playoffs. In the Dixie Series, Nashville won over the Texas League champion Shreveport Sports in six games. It was Nashville’s third consecutive Dixie Series title, the only team in the title series history to accomplish the feat.
1943: Back in First Place
In a 26-13 win over Atlanta on August 18, every Nashville player in the game got at least one hit, scored at least one run, and all except Charles Brewster knocked in at least one run. Charlie Gilbert batted eight times in the game as the entire team totaled 58 plate appearances and 29 base hits.
With a split-season format, Nashville finished atop the standings in the first half (75-49). In the second half the Vols finished second (34-29) with an overall record of 83-55 (.601), best in the league. Only one starter hit below .300 as Ed Sauer won the batting title (.368) and pitcher Mack Stewart lead in pitching percentage (18-5, .783).
With a 12-hit barrage on September 13, the Vols roughed up four Pelicans pitchers to win the Southern Association championship in New Orleans, 7-0. A crowd of 6,437 attended the game, including 1,975 military personnel. The series ended 4 games to 1.
With World War II raging in Europe and the Pacific, there is no Dixie Series for the first time in 24 years.
1944: The Last of Six Straight
On March 3, Charles Fred “Red” Lucas, sold to the New York Giants in 1922 by the Vols, returned to Nashville as pitcher, pinch-hitter, and coach. It would be key to success of the team as the experienced Lucas would become Larry Gilbert’s chief assistant during the season.
In the second year of a split-season, Nashville finished 32-36 in the first half, and 47-25 (79-61 combined), taking the second half crown on the last day of the season.
Mel Hicks lead the league in home runs with 16, pitcher Boyd Teplar lead in winning percentage (12-2, .857) and strikeouts with 147. Seven starters batted over .300.
In the seventh game of the Southern Association playoffs, Nashville won over Memphis 11-10 for the championship.
The Larry Gilbert Legend
On September 8, 1948, in his final game as manager, Gilbert was honored for 25 years as a manager in the Southern Association. 6,509 fans gathered at Sulphur Dell as Gilbert was awarded a Chrysler New Yorker, a television set, and 12-place silver setting. Friends and dignitaries attending the event included Commissioner A. B. Chandler, George M. Trautman, president of the National Association, and Southern Association president Charlie Hurth, calling testament to Gilbert’s reputation among his baseball brethren.
By winning win one more regular season championship in 1948 with a 95-58 (.621) record, Gilbert’s tutelage in Nashville would include league titles in 1940, 1943, 1948, 1949, and 1953. Dixie Playoff titles were won in 1940, 1941, 1942, and 1949.
He finished with a 736 – 592 (.554) career record with Nashville. Overall he was 2,128-1,627 (.567) in 25 seasons. Gilbert maintained ownership in the Nashville Vols until 1955 when in May he sold his share of the club and moved back to New Orleans. He passed away February 17, 1965 and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans.
The 1940 team was honored as the 47th best minor league team of all time in celebration of the 100th season of Minor League Baseball in 2001.
© Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.
Davidson County/Metro Nashville Archives
The Sporting News
Wright, Marshall D. The Southern Association in Baseball, 1885-1961. Jefferson, NC, United States: McFarland & Co. 2002.
Author’s note: Nashville’s Larry Gilbert and Six Seasons of Glory, 1939-1944 was presented at the 13th Annual Southern Association Conference at Rickwood Field on March 5, 2016. Special thanks goes to Rickwood Field Executive Director David Brewer, Clarence Watkins and the Friends of Rickwood. Additional thanks to Bill Traughber, Derby Gisclair, and Tony Roberts.