Tag Archives: Virgil Nipper

Babe Ruth, Explained

This image of me with one of my idols takes a little explaining, but I need to set the timeline in order.

The oldest existing ballpark in America, Rickwood Field, is in Birmingham, Alabama. Recently closed for repairs and scheduled to re-open in 2018, it has been in use by colleges and amateur teams for ages. The Birmingham Black Barons hosted Negro League games at Rickwood for many years.

Built in 1910, the first game hosted by the Birmingham Barons was on August 18 of that year. The Barons have called two newer ballparks as home field since leaving Rickwood after the 1987 season: Hoover Met and Regions Field. But there has been one game each season that allows players and fans another chance to visit the grandest ballpark in the South in all her glory.

Every year since 1995 the Barons have hosted a Southern League rival in a “Turn Back the Clock” game known as the Rickwood Classic.

“The Friends of Rickwood saved Rickwood Field from the wrecking ball way back in 1992[1],” states Gerald Watkins, Chairman of the organization on the group’s website. Over $2 million has been raised by the group to maintain “America’s Oldest Baseball Park”; but often, funds fall short of their intent as the ballpark has aged to a cautious degree.

Due to structural repairs at Rickwood, the 2017 Classic will be relocated to the Barons home ballpark, Regions Field in downtown Birmingham.[2] The game will be played on May 31, against the Chattanooga Lookouts.

“Rickwood Field is a significant part of the history of Birmingham and of baseball. We are thankful that we found the problem areas and can work to get them repaired and restored for the next generation of baseball fans,” says Mayor William Bell.[3]

I have attended many Classics since 2002, having made friendships with many Birmingham baseball “brothers” through the annual Southern Association conference held each March. It is a treat to visit the ballpark, rekindle our love for the beloved league and share research, photos, and documents. Having the conference and the Classic at a venue such as Rickwood is an added treat.

In 2010, I rekindled a friendship with Hall of Fame member Harmon Killebrew at that year’s Classic. I had met him in 2009 at our Old Timers Baseball Association banquet. He was a delightful guest, dynamite speaker, and even made friends with my dad, Virgil Nipper, at breakfast the next morning.

I was not surprised, in fact, when he saw me at the Classic that hot summer June day, when the first thing he said after we exchanged pleasantries was, “How’s your dad?”

Another Hall of Famer in attendance that day was Babe Ruth. Not really “The Babe”, but a near stand-in double for him. His name is Steve Folven. I had to look twice, as the similarity is quite stunning, although this Babe is several inches shorter than the Sultan of Swat, who stood 6’2”. The snapshot that was taken of us shows the difference: I am 6’0”.

Steve has a website, http://www.ImBabeRuth.com, where he can be booked for events, and where he states that his long-term goal is to be the honored guest at Yankee Stadium. Ironically, he grew up within a few blocks of Boston’s Fenway Park, and was born six weeks before Babe Ruth passed away on August 16, 1948.

One of the first events he attended was in 2005, at a Las Vegas minor league game at Cashman Field, but he also threw out the first ball at a Red Sox vs. Yankees fan charity softball game in May, 2007. He has attended card shows, dinners, and galas, and was even the honored guest at a Bar Mitzvah. He has returned to Birmingham on various occasions.

My day with Steven was a memorable one, planted in my love for the Yankees and “The Babe” himself. I cherish the photograph, the memories, and the joy that baseball has brought to me through my Birmingham “baseball buddies” and Rickwood Field. Thanks, Steven.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

[1] “The Rickwood Classic,” http://rickwoodclassic.com/, retrieved May 10, 2017.

[2] “May 31 Game Against Chattanooga To Be Played At 7:05 p.m.,” https://www.milb.com/barons/news/may-31-details/c-227071942/t-196093346, retrieved May 10, 2017

[3] “The Rickwood Classic.”

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Baseball Brotherhood

DadBoSkipOur family has always loved baseball. Our dad, Virgil Nipper, was always at the ballpark playing, coaching, or watching; one or all of us were usually with him. Mom said that when he was playing City League ball she was either at Shelby, Centennial, or Morgan Park watching him play nearly every Saturday and Sunday.

Mom didn’t stand a chance of not enjoying baseball. If she didn’t love baseball when she and dad met, she learned to love it. I understand dad was pretty good and was bound and determined to teach his boys how to play.

My brother Jim (“Jimbo”, to me, mostly shortened to just “Bo”) and I were taught everything there was to know about The Game: how to throw, certainly, and how to hit. I wasn’t that great at either one, but Jim had a strong arm and always could knock the ball out of the park. My shortcomings (“weak arm, average hitter” is bound to have been written on some scout’s notes) are blamed on my being left-handed.

Ahem.

Besides, I wore glasses. No, wait. Come to think of it, my brother did too, so I can’t use that excuse. He was just better.

There’s something else Bo is better at, too. He is pastor of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Johnson City, Tennessee and a blessing to not only his parishioners but to his family as well.

Have a theological question around the dinner table? For over thirty years discussions about religion have often been intermingled with baseball and other sports.

I admire his perception about life’s experiences; always have, always will. I suppose he enjoys our chats about baseball, too, and I am grateful that we have a relationship beyond those subjects.

A few weeks ago I came across a bat that was autographed by our grandfather, Jack Waddell, who was a sporting goods sales rep and another great influence on our lives. I posted an image of the bat on various social media outlets, and a few days later Jim sent me one of his unique perspectives of our lives at the ballpark.

To explain the setting for the content of his letter: Dad was one of the organizers of the Little League park that was built at the entrance to Shelby Park and sponsored by the Downtown Optimist Club back in the early 1960s. It was another time when our family was at the ballpark; not necessarily playing, but being there while dad and other Optimist Club members were installing fences, sowing grass seed, setting up irrigation, and building a concession stand.

We played there, too, and after our Little League days Dad coached both of us in amateur ball in games all around Nashville. Shelby Park, right next to the Cumberland River, was our “home” park. I’m sure there is still a bit of Nipper DNA in the dirt there.

Bo remembers many things much better than I do (remember, I’m left handed) and his letter helped me to recall an earlier, more peaceful time. I hope it does the same for you:

“I looked at the bat you had on Facebook, and, for the first time in many years, I really missed baseball…..

“Not baseball as it is today, but, as it was….

“Simpler.  No frills, just right…..

“Just dust and dirt and grass and heat on hazy Saturday mornings; and the lights at night time, with the bugs climbing up into the light, ascending then descending in an awkward, erratic way – like they don’t really know where to go, but didn’t ever want to leave.  The humid air from the Cumberland, made homers die and liners float, the sound of the bat connecting with that ball was a sound that still rings in the heart of my ears. The hard run to first, or, the slide into second, and a fresh dirt stain to match the one of grass I received robbing a kid of his double in his first at bat. The next time he stood in the box he gave me a stare of hate that only lasted until he swung a third strike and twisted and fell trying to kill that ol’ horsehide. Even his own teammates laughed him down from his anger, to where even he had to smile underneath that helmet that had slid down over his slightly freckled face, a toothy grin – wiped quickly away so as to not admit defeat or so that his daddy wouldn’t swat him once he got home.

“Those real dugouts, with steps down into that dirt, not like other ones just built in top of the ground.  Those dungeony, clammy holes in the ground, where we sat on benches of wood, splinters and all, telling jokes and losing interest when the team was out on the field, waking up from our stupor when a foul ball would rake across the screen of our dugout. Then – we ‘d sit up straight and acted like we had good sense and cared about what just happened!

“We were the coolest in our button-up uniforms and tight-hosed socks, with tightly tied shoelaces so that there weren’t any trips stretching a single into something else.

“The smell of those concessions: hotdogs, popcorn, the sound of the ice shaver making snow cones, and of course, the Double Bubble, gum that ended stuck to a Momma’s shoe more than staying in our mouths.  “Atta boy, Joe!” we’d yell as our buddy sliced a hit to right field-yelling as loud as we could, but, with such exuberance – We’d lose that gum, somewhere between the bleachers and the concession stand. Watch your step, especially on a hot Saturday morning, a gooey surprise that can only be removed with some ice and a used Popsicle stick….

“Those were the days of no worries, when we only went to show up and swing a bat, or, shag some flies. And we were always up for it – come heck or high water, come bright sultry sun or a downpour of rain. We stood willing and ready. Glove in hand, or, sometimes hanging from the barrel of that wooden bat–draped across our shoulder.  Drooping pants, disheveled shirts, hot woolen clothes with the name of some school or market in script across our chests. Sweating even before the game begins, only because a touch of wool acts that way.

“Yep, those were the days, simpler days. A time gone past. I welcome them back, only I can’t run any longer or even swing a mean bat without aggravating my rotator cuff or twist a knee or back muscle…

“They were heavenly, those days, but we didn’t know it. But we do now, and sadly, it is too late.

“Heaven can wait. We’ll find it again. I know we will, with legs that can fly, like wings on our heels, swift and true again. It will come, and I can’t wait; but wait I must.

“And patiently I will…

“Peace in this world can’t be any sweeter than the good ol’ days of baseball.

“Love, Bo”

Thank you brother. I love you too. Peace be with you.

© Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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This Ballpark Belongs to Us

1stTnParkToday marks a new day in the calendar of Nashville baseball history. Future timelines might read something like this:

April 17, 2015 – Nashville’s new ballpark, First Tennessee Park, opens in the vicinity of beloved Sulphur Dell. It marks the traditional locale of the city’s baseball history beginning in the 1860s through amateur and professional teams until 1963

Finally.

Junie McBride used to tell stories about growing up around Sulphur Dell. He was proud of having been able to warm up Hall of Famer Honus Wagner in the 20s when Pittsburgh came to town for an exhibition game heading north after spring training.

He joked and laughed about sneaking into Sulphur Dell through an ice chute as a youngster long before the ball park was turned around in the opposite direction following the 1926 season. He not only spoke of seeing games at Sulphur Dell and Greer Stadium, he hoped to live to see a new Nashville ballpark.

Negro Leaguer Butch McCord loved to tell his baseball stories, to relate what he experienced and how The Game impacted his life, expressing the pains and joys of baseball but then moving away from the bitterness it brought to him. The ballparks he played in were not always places of baseball glory.

He wanted to see a new ballpark for Nashville, too.

My dad Virgil Nipper gave a history lesson about Sulphur Dell seated next to me on an airplane as we returned from our first visit to Wrigley Field in 2002. The conversation sparked my interest in studying and writing about it. A website, a book, a blog and a renewed interest in the history of Nashville baseball were the result.

To Junie, Butch, and dad: I am grateful for your stories. Thank you.

There are two others who are owed a debt of gratitude.

A fan of baseball as well as being mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean has heard stories such as those told to me. Placing the city in a prominent position in the world of minor league baseball was a hard road, as the idea of a new ballpark has gone through a political process that seemed endless.

His vision for a ballpark was kick started when he responded to Nashville Sounds owner Frank Ward’s statement to him on Opening Day at Greer Stadium in 2013, “Let’s go build a ballpark at Sulphur Dell.

It took only a few words from Dean. “Let’s do it.

Frank Ward purchased the Nashville ball club in 2009. Herschel Greer Stadium was its home; the ballpark was outdated, rusty, and confined. A new place for his ball club was in order. Four years later he said those words to the mayor and the commitment was off and running.

Mayor Dean and Frank, thank you. My Nashville cap is off to you both, as by working together the ball began to roll towards the completion of the ballpark the citizens and fans deserve.

Today it will be known as the finest minor league ballpark in the land. That’s quite an accomplishment.

In attending tonight’s first game my thoughts will be about so many things. My dad. Junie McBride. Nashville Vols manager Larry Gilbert and Vols owner Fay Murray. Negro Leaguers Jim Zapp, Turkey Stearnes. Jim Gilliam. Larry Schmittou and Farrell Owens and the original owners from the Sounds. Nashville Elite Giants teams. Butch McCord. The Nashville Old Timers. Radio broadcaster Larry Munson. Sports writers Grantland Rice, Fred Russell, and George Leonard. Bat boys and scoreboard operators.

Former Vols Larry Taylor, Roy Pardue, Buddy Gilbert, and Bobby Durnbaugh will be attending, too. It must be a special night for them.

Sadly, Junie McBride and Butch McCord did not live to see this day. But I will take a look around more than once and observe those who are celebrating the most.

The fans.

We waited a long time for this. We hoped and prayed for this. We looked over the plans, attended meetings, heard the gossip, wondered when, watched the camera, and even held our breath. Through it all, we never gave up.

Frank Ward and Mayor Dean, for all you have done you deserve our thanks. You can claim this ballpark as part of your legacy.

But this ballpark is ours. And we are going to enjoy this for a long, long time.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Listening In With Butch and Me

After developing http://www.sulphurdell.com 13 years ago I was invited to participate in a panel discussion at the Metro Archives in Green Hills, “Play Ball: A Look at Nashville Baseball“. Others on the panel included former Negro Leaguers Jim Zapp, Sydney Bunch, and Butch McCord along with former Nashville Vols Larry Taylor, Roy Pardue and a few others. After some discussion visitors were able to ask questions and casually view the exhibit of photographs, documents, and information on display.

The discussion helped to kick off renewed interest in the history of Nashville’s illustrious baseball past including Sulphur Dell. I will always be grateful for Metro Archives director Ken Fieth for his direction, and archivists Debie Oeser Cox and Linda Center, both since retired, for their assistance in making the event happen.

My father Virgil and I had become members of the Nashville Old Timers Baseball Association about that time, and Butch McCord was a member of the organization, too. Butch and I seemed to hit it off at the Archives and our relationship grew at Old Timers board meetings and events.

ButchMcCordI was invited to his home where I met his lovely wife, Christine, and on that first visit he told story after story, shared his books and newspaper clippings about the Negro Leagues, and told about what Jackie Robinson did for the African-American community. Subsequent visits to his home brought more stories, more books, and more clippings, and more Jackie Robinson.

On returning from a trip I took to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City he told me how proud he was that I took an interest in Negro League history. I told him it began with him.

Often during the baseball season he would call me on Saturday mornings and we would continue our discussions. A Nashville Sounds season ticket holder, Butch would always mention something over the phone that had happened at a Sounds’ game during the week.

Butch loved to talk about the past, but his love of baseball allowed him to continue his interest in his hometown Nashville club.

If the Sounds had played an away game on Friday night, the first thing he would say when I answered my phone was, “Did you listen to the game last night?”

Saying I had, we would discuss the game; if I hadn’t we would still discuss the game, as Butch wanted to tell about it and use it as a lesson about baseball. That’s the kind of fan he was.

Listening to baseball broadcasts was something my dad, my brother Jim and I shared over the years. Television had pushed me  away from that, but Butch helped bring me back to it.

I listen to the radio every chance I get, and tonight as the Nashville Sounds new season kicks off in Colorado Springs, I get another chance to hear my hometown Nashville club’s game. I’m anxious to know more about this club, the new players, and the new West Coast affiliation with the Oakland Athletics.

Nashville Sounds games are broadcast live in Middle Tennessee on 102.5 The Game (WPRT-FM) and online at http://www.thegamenashville.com/.

Won’t you join me as I “root, root, root for the home team” by listening to Sounds play-by-play announcer Jeff Hem’s broadcast of our favorite club? Game time is 7:35 P.M.

Butch passed away on January 27, 2011. I’ll be listening and thinking of him a little bit, knowing he’d be proud of me.

He’d be proud of you, too. Won’t you join us?

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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