Tag Archives: Wilson Park

Under the (Temporary) Lights

J. L. Wilkinson’s Kansas City Monarchs won the Negro National League pennant in 1929, and when the Stock Market crashed on October 24, it did not bode well for his team. The league had just had the lowest gate receipts in the league’s history.[1]

The white team owner considered abandoning the league and making his club a touring independent team. But a radical idea was soon born, as he devised a plan to not only allow players to play night games, but perhaps pique the interest of fans so they would come to his team’s games out of curiosity.

He purchased a lighting system portable enough that it could be taken to ballparks across the country.

Wilkinson took on Thomas Baird as a partner, and mortgaged nearly every asset he had to fund the venture. Giant Manufacturing Company in Omaha, Nebraska, constructed the towers, floodlights, and generator at a cost of between $50,000-$100,000.[2] The telescoping poles had five or six lights, and when fully extended were only 50 feet high. The generator used 15 gallons of gasoline an hour[3] and was very noisy.

Before the Monarchs began their travel schedule, the lights were rented to the touring House of David team.[4] The first night game played by the Monarchs took place in Enid, Oklahoma, when they played Phillips University on April 28, 1930.[5] The system was introduced in Monarchs games all across the south. Wilkinson even rented the lights to Shreveport in the first night game in the history of the Cotton States leagues[6].

Nashville’s Wilson Park, located at the end of Second Ave., South near the Nashville & St. Louis railway track, was one of the earliest ballparks for the unique lighting to be used. The home ballpark of the Nashville Elite Giants, Wilkinson’s Monarchs played a two-game series on May 14 and 15.

The Nashville Tennessean announced the event in a May 13 article.

“The baseball fans of Nashville as well as the idly curious will have a chance to see what night baseball is like when Nashville Elite Giants meets the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the most famous negro teams. Wednesday night at 8 o’clock out in Wilson Park. The Monarchs, owned by J. Leslie Wilkinson of Kansas City, Mo., are pioneers in his field, having created a mild sensation in baseball circles all over the country with their undertaking.”[7]

The next day, increased space described the game to take place that night, probably just as Wilkinson presented it to the newspaper.

“The equipment used in this event is of a new creation, designed by several of the leading engineers in the United States. The lighting equipment, with its contributaries [sic], when assembled, is a systematic mammoth affair of its own. The 90 kilowat [sic] generator and 240 horsepower marine gas engine, which is of special design and made to order, is said to be positively the largest Electric power plant in the world on wheels.

“The giant flood lights, which encircle the entire baseball park, are designed expressly [sic] for this type of outdoor amusement, illuminating each and every part of the baseball park. The series of poles and towers, that support the giant flood lights are similar in construction to a jack knife or a fire department with its extension ladders. They have telescoped poles and towers that extend 40 to 50 feet in the air, elevating the giant flood lights so they light the playing ground as well as the sky.”[8]

With no game detail or report of the score the following day, the trial of night play was generally acceptable.

“Although only about a thousand fans, numbering many white persons, turned out for the game, those present got a big kick out of the contest. Many went away from the park amazed at the lighting system which made it possible for an outfielder to see the ball as good as if he was playing in the day time.”[9]

On May 16, the newspaper gave a final score of the second game, 8-1 in favor of Kansas City. It included a reference to a future Hall of Famer, “Bullet Joe” Rogan, who was a pitcher-outfielder for the club.

“”…Rogan, hard-hitting centerfielder of the Monarchs, did most of the hitting for the Kansas City aggregation, getting two two-baggers out of the four times he was at bat.”[10]

Nashville’s club included two home-town products, 44-year-old shortstop-second baseman-outfielder  Joe Hewitt, and Leroy Stratton. Hewitt was born in Nashville in 1885, had played Negro League baseball since 1914, and managed the 1923 St. Louis Stars[11], a team which included future Hall of Fame member “Cool Papa” Bell. Stratton was born in Nashville in 1895 and would become manager of the Elite Giants in 1931.[12]

The Monarchs would continue to Hopkinsville, Kentucky with their lighting system, while the Elites would be hosting Memphis in a four-game series in Nashville.

Although the illumination experiment would continue, temporary stadium lighting would soon be a thing of the past. Lights were added to Nashville’s Sulphur Dell in 1931, and major league clubs would soon follow as Cincinnati’s Crosley Field was the first to add lights in 1935.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

 

Sources

Baseball-reference.com

Newspapers.com

Paperofrecord.com

Sabr.org

[1] John Horner, “Know Your KC History: The Monarchs Shine a Light on Baseball’, https://www.kclibrary.org/blog/kc-unbound/know-your-kc-history-monarchs-shine-light-baseball, retrieved May 15, 2017.

[2] Earl Nash, “Negro League Team Used Lights Years before MLB”, http://bosoxinjection.com/2013/12/18/illuminating-past/, retrieved May 15, 2017

[4] Horner.

[4] Horner.

[5] Rives, Bob (2004). Baseball in Wichita. Arcadia Publishing, p. 27.

[6] Joe R. Carter, “Baton Rouge Wins From Reds of Alexandria in First Night Ball Game in Shreveport”, (Shreveport) Times, May 9, 1930: 15.

[7] “Nashville Elite Giants in First Night Game,” Nashville Tennessean, May 13, 1930: 10.

[8] “Negro Diamond Teams To Battle Here Tonight: Nashvillians to See Their First Night Game”, Nashville Tennessean, May 14, 1930: 10.

[9] “Night Baseball Game Here Gives Fans Big Thrill,” Nashville Tennessean, May 15, 1930: 15.

[10]“Elite Giants Bow To Monarchs in Second Night Tilt,” Nashville Tennessean, May 16, 1930: 19.

[11] Peterson, Robert (1970). Only The Ball Was White. Gramercy, p. 347.

[12] Plott, William J., The Negro Southern League: A Baseball History, 1920-1951. McFarland & Co., p. 81.

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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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Highlighting Nashville’s Negro Leagues

An early mention of African-American participation in a local baseball game was reported in the Nashville Daily Union and American on the September 18, 1866 with reference to “Brownlow’s Black Boys Base Ball Club” (probably a reference to Governor William Brownlow, who was a proponent of extending civil rights to African-Americans). Whether this was a real team or just a gathering of players from the black community, the game took place in Sulphur Spring Bottom.

Teams organized by the 1900s were the Baptist Printers, Maroons, Methodist Publishing House, North Nashville Tigers, and Nashville Standard Giants. Fisk and Pearl High School ball fields were hosting games on a regular basis, and often Negro League teams traveled to Nashville to challenge the best local teams.

On Tuesday, February 19, 1907, a meeting was held at the residence of J. W. White to organize the Standard Giants Base Ball club as reported in the February 22, 1907 edition of the Nashville Globe:

“Manager White called the house to order and Mr. C. B. Reaves was made President: Mr. J. W. White Manager, and W. G. Sublett, Secretary, and by unanimous voice of the house Mr. Howard Petway who did stunts for one of the professional teams of Chicago last season, was elected captain…

“…Standards will travel extensively, having arranged games with Memphis, Hot Springs, Little Rock…playing all the leading teams, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Birmingham, Macon, New Orleans, and Beaumont, Texas…One peculiarity is that every member claims Nashville as his home. It is composed exclusively of home talent, a characteristic no other team can boast of, and it is certain that every member will put up a fight for the glory of his home.”

NSG_By 1910 the Capital City League was the premier league for African-American teams, with the Standard Giants and other league members playing at Greenwood Park and Athletic Park. The Black Sox, Nationals, Baptist Hill Swifts, Athletics and Eclipse were established teams.

In 1918 the Standard Giants club was purchased by Thomas T. Wilson, a native of Atlanta who had moved with his family to Nashville where his parents studied medicine at Meharry Medical College. As a young man Wilson had accumulated wealth through his interests in entertainment, a local rail line, and ownership in local night clubs.

On March 26, 1920, Wilson and seven investors pooled $5,000.00 and chartered a Tennessee corporation, Nashville Negro Baseball Association and Amusement Company, for the purpose “of organizing base ball clubs and encouraging the art of playing the game of baseball according to high and honorable standards and of encouraging the establishment of a league of clubs in different section(s) of the state.”

Wilson contributed to the baseball success of his players, namely Eddie Noel, Walter Campbell, Henry O’Neal, Joe Bills, Haywood Rhodes, and Blaine Boyd. New teams continued to form and included the White Sox and Maroons; one of the prominent players in the 1917 Capital City League played for the Black Sox was Herbert T. “Hub” McGavock. Playing for the Standard Giants in 1920, after a stint in the Army he returned to play with a New Orleans club where he was a teammate of future Hall of Famer “Turkey” Stearnes.

A best-of-three Negro League “North vs. South” All Star series was held at Sulphur Dell in the fall of 1934. In the first game of a double header on Sunday, October 7, Norman “Turkey” Stearnes of the Kansas City Monarchs hit a home run in the 12th inning to seal the win for the North by a score of 2-1. The North All Stars also won the second game 8-1.

The South lineup came from Birmingham, Memphis, Monroe, and New Orleans; Nashville, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and House of David stars represented the North. Felton Snow, Sammie Hughes, Tommy Dukes, Jim Willis and Andy Porter were chosen from the Nashville Elite Giants.

Born in Nashville in 1901, Stearnes was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000. Future Hall of Fame members Willie Wells, Mule Suttles, Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige, and Josh Gibson were teammates on the North squad.

Wilson renamed the Negro League Nashville Elite Giants in 1921, and announced that manager J. A. Newton would play “all-comers” including white-only teams. In 1928 a new ballpark had been constructed by Wilson to hold 8,000 fans. Located in Trimble Bottom, the largest Negro community in Nashville, Wilson Park would not only host games but community events, both white and black.

TWP2Tom Wilson Park was often used by the Nashville Vols and many times pre-season games were held versus the Elite Giants.

The Elites played in the professional Negro Southern League until granted membership in the Negro National League for 1930. Just coming off the Great Depression several teams pulled out of the league, including the Birmingham Black Barons who sold one of their stars to Wilson as a drawing card. With Satchel Paige in the Elite Giants fold, however, Wilson moved his club to Cleveland (becoming the Cubs) but returned to Nashville for 1931 when the NNL folded.

Reorganizing the Negro Southern League in 1932, Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords were scheduled for the home opener, drawing a large crowd from throughout Nashville’s populace.

“In 1932 with Joe Hewitt as manager, the Elite Giants were second half champions and played Chicago American Giants in the World Series,” relates Bill Plott, a former sports writer whose book The Negro Southern League is an exhaustive research authority . “World Series is a very arbitrary designation by Chicago and Nashville newspapers; “Postseason Series” is probably more accurate. Chicago won 4 games to 3.”

For 1933 a new Negro National League was restructured and the Elite Giants remained a member of the league through 1947. Wilson moved the club to Columbus, Ohio in 1935, Washington, D. C. in 1936-37, and Baltimore in 1938-1950.

When the Elites relocated to Baltimore the team would still hold spring training in Nashville, and a minor league club was formed to feed the parent club with players. On April 6, 1947 the Nashville Cubs beat their parent Baltimore Elite Giants at Sulphur Dell 5-1 in the first exhibition game of the season.

Nashville’s Butch McCord is first baseman for the winning team. A bevy of successful players have connections to Nashville and the Elite Giants.

Norman Thomas “Turkey” Stearnes was a native Nashvillian who began his career in Nashville in 1920 after attending Pearl High. He later played 10 seasons for the Detroit Stars in the Negro National League and was noted as a prolific home run hitter; reportedly he slugged 144 home runs in 585 games. After joining the Chicago American Giants in 1932, Stearnes played in the inaugural East-West All Star Game in 1933.

Henry Kimbro was a member of the Elite Giants for 12 seasons beginning in 1937, playing in All-Star games from 1943-1947. Born in Nashville in 1912, he grew up on the sandlots of his hometown and played for 17 years in the Negro Leagues. Known for his strong outfield arm and speed around the bases, he retired following the 1953 season with the Birmingham Black Barons and owned a taxi service and a gas station in Nashville.

Born in Alabama in 1905, Felton Snow’s family moved to Louisville and by 1929 he was playing for several local teams. Known as a good fielder, baserunner, and hitter he eventually joined Tom Wilson’s Nashville Elites and became an outstanding third baseman.

Snow played in two Negro League All-Star games, batting .670 in the 1935 All-Star game. His team mates included Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell on the 1936 West All Star team.

Managing and playing for the Baltimore Elite Giants in the 1940s, Snow’s highest batting average in seven seasons as manager-player was .333. He became manager of the Nashville Cubs and retired from baseball in 1950 with over 21 seasons.

Catcher Bruce Petway was known as having superb arm strength during his Negro League career with the Leland Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Chicago American Giants, and Detroit Stars.

Born December 23, 1885 in Nashville, Petway was manager and a team mate of Turkey Stearnes in Detroit between 1923-1925.

Clinton “Butch” McCord began his baseball career in 1947 when he signed with his home town Nashville Cubs out of Tennessee State University. The next season McCord was with the Baltimore Elite Giants. Born in Nashville, Tennessee, the ball field at Tennessee State University is named in his honor.

Born in 1924 in Nashville, Jim Zapp played on Naval teams in Pearl Harbor and Staten Island during World War II. Upon discharge his professional career began with the Baltimore Elite Giants but had a notable season in 1948 as a member of the Birmingham Black Barons.

In Game 5 of the league playoffs Zapp hit a towering home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to tie the score before his team beat the Kansas City Monarchs.

Sidney Bunch began his career with the Baltimore Elite Giants, too, then signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers affiliate in Billings, Montana in 1951 and was expected to move up the ranks before his Marine unit was called up during the Korean War.

Hometown favorite Jim “Junior” Gilliam was an All Star for the Elite Giants in 1948-1950 before signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Gilliam was National League Rookie of the Year in 1953, became a coach with the Dodgers in 1965 and remained with the club until his death in 1978.

The street in front of Nashville’s First Tennessee Park was named Junior Gilliam Way in 2015 in his honor.

© 2016 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Author’s note: To assume the complete history of Black baseball in Nashville can be told is not the aim of this article. Attempts to reasonably research the subject can be frustrating and are often futile as information is often not there. Let’s assume there is more that lays hidden in someone’s journal, scrapbook, or trunk, waiting to be opened.

 

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Birth of the Elites

On March 26, 1920, Nashville’s Thomas T. Wilson and seven others took a bold step that set in motion the establishment of a Negro League team in Wilson’s home town.

With the assistance of investors T. Clay Moore, J. B. Boyd, Marshall Garrett, Walter Phillips, W. H. Pettis, J. L. Overton, and R. H. Tabor a corporation was chartered with the State of Tennessee named “Nashville Negro Baseball Association and Amusement Company”, “for the purpose “of organizing base ball clubs and encouraging the art of playing the game of baseball according to high and honorable standards and of encouraging the establishment of a league of clubs in different section(s) of the state; and also of furnishing such amusements as usually accompanying base ball games and entertainments. Said corporation to be located in Nashville, Tennessee, and shall have an authorized capital stock of $5,000.00”.

133052a_lgWilson had become owner of the local semi-pro team, the Standard Giants, which had been founded in 1907 as a member of the Capital City League by J. W. White, C. B. Reaves, and W. G. Sublett.

These organizations were the predecessors to what would become the Nashville Elite (pronounced ‘ee-light’) Giants. Ever the entrepreneur, Wilson dropped “Standard” from his team’s name in 1921, substituted it with “Elite”, and sought membership in the Negro National League. He built his own 8,000-seat ballpark in Nashville in 1928 and the team played in the Negro Southern League until 1930.

Granted membership in the Negro National  League Wilson signed Satchel Paige for his drawing power, but Wilson moved his club to Cleveland and renamed them the Cubs for one season before returning to Nashville. Eventually he would move club to Cleveland, Columbus, Washington, D. C., and finally to Baltimore.

Wilson would serve as president of the Negro National League from 1938-1946.

The illustrious history of the Elite Giants includes players from Nashville: Henry Kimbro, Jim Zapp, Sydney Bunch, Clinton “Butch” McCord, Jim “Junior” Gilliam. Sam Bankhead and Hall of Famer Ray Dandridge spent time with the Nashville club.

That same history beckons us to honor all those who played “The Game”. Tom Wilson’s dream for Negro League baseball evolved from a Nashville vision to a national treasure. Ninety-five years ago today, March 20, 1920, was a key date in that vision.

Hail to you, Tom T. Wilson, a visionary for the ages.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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