By Ron Wynn
“Nashville Baseball History: From Sulphur Dell To The Sounds” by Bill Traughber
Nashville journalist and sports historian Bill Traughber has enjoyed a prolific and distinguished career that extends nearly two decades. In addition to having won multiple awards for feature writing, he has the added distinction of being the oldest former Brentwood High football player, having played on three of the earliest squads led by legendary coach Carlton Flatt. Traughber has interviewed many famous people in sports and politics while doing numerous stories and articles on the Nashville Sounds, Tennessee Titans and Vanderbilt sports among other subjects.
His fifth book “Nashville Baseball History: From Sulphur Dell To The Sounds” (Summer Game) was published last month. It combines essays, profiles and statistical analysis to provide a comprehensive overview of the city’s baseball history. He makes a strong case for Nashville as the ultimate big league city despite the absence of a major league franchise. Traughber recently took time from his busy schedule to answer some questions for The Tribune via e-mail about his latest volume.
(1) When did baseball begin in Nashville?
“After the Civil War baseball began to spread in the Nashville area with documentation in 1866. However, baseball was played in Nashville before the Civil War. There is newspaper documentation in 1857 and 1860. Games were played at Sulphur Spring Bottom where a ballpark was built. The park was named Athletic Park and later Sulphur Dell by Grantland Rice.
Blacks were very much equally interested in playing baseball as reported in the Nashville newspaper Union and Dispatch on Dec. 21, 1866: “The colored young men of the city took base ball fever sometime ago, and organized a club from the choicest material on hand, calling it the Excelsiors. Having a high estimate of their skill in the national game, the Exclesiors have challenged every other club in the city, but unfortunately without any response.”
(2) What role did Sulphur Dell play helping popularize the sport locally?
“Sulphur Dell was home to the Nashville Vols from 1901-61, 1963. Nashville fielded several teams pre-1900. My favorite part of the book is the chapter about Hall of Famers playing in Nashville. It starts in 1885, when Cap Anson brought his Chicago White Stockings to Nashville for a three-week training period. When the major league teams were in the deep south for spring training, they would stop along their northern trip home and stop by train at cities along the way for exhibition games.
I’ve documented dozens of Hall of Famers in Nashville such as Cy Young pitching for the Cleveland Spiders. Others were Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, the famous double-play combination of Evers-to-Tinker-to-Chance, manager Connie Mack and his Philadelphia A’s, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron, just to name a few. I have a chapter on the visits Babe Ruth made to Nashville.
I also discovered that in 1914 Rube Foster and his Chicago American Giants played an exhibition game at Sulphur Dell against a collection of all-stars from the Nashville Capital League (a league for Black players). Foster was a pioneer of Black baseball, organizing the Negro National League, and became a member of the Hall of Fame. He was a player, manager and executive.”
(3) What are some other aspects of Nashville’s involvement in the Negro Leagues that aren’t as well known as they should be?
“My chapter on Nashville entrepreneur Tom Wilson is important. He was the first Black to own a baseball park in the South, and the second one nationwide. His park seated 4, 000, and drew whites as well as Blacks. He formed Black professional teams like the Nashville Elite Giants. His ball park was located near the fairgrounds. Near the site of Wilson Park stands a Nashville historical marker about Tom Wilson. Wilson was a pioneer of Black Nashville baseball.
My book mentions so many other Blacks who were not able to play in the major leagues due to segregation, but certainly had the talent. Norman “Turkey” Stearnes was born in Nashville, and is the only player selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame due to his contribution to Black baseball. I have a chapter in the book listing several Nashville Blacks not making to the major leagues who could have. Once I interviewed Butch McCord and visited him at his home where his baseball memorabilia was gathered in a corner. He won two Silver Gloves for being the top defensive player in the minor leagues. He could have played in the majors. He was very proud of what he accomplished. Bruce Petway, Henry Kimbro, Wesley “Doc” Dennis and Jim Zapp were others from Nashville who had the talent.
Greenwood Park, the first Nashville park established for Blacks, was home to a Black team, the Greenwood Giants. They were a semipro team. They played games within the state and in Kentucky. The Bloomer Girls consisted of Black women who also played baseball at Greenwood Park. Something that has been frustrating to me as a sports historian is the sparse coverage Nashville newspapers gave Black sports in the early part of the 20th century.”
(4) What is Tennessee State University’s role in baseball history?
TSU has not fielded a baseball team in about 20 years, but “Butch McCord Field” is named for Butch because he was a TSU player who wanted baseball back at the school. There have been eight TSU players to play Major League Baseball – George Altman, Fred Valentine, Nate Smith, Roy Johnson, Nate Snell, Terry Blocker and Everett Stull. I remember Butch telling me he thought Blacks were influenced by Michael Jordan, and they wanted to be like Mike and play basketball, not baseball. I believe there is something to that.”
(5) Who do you consider the finest baseball player in Nashville history?
In my opinion Junior Gilliam is the best baseball player from Nashville-Black or white. It was such an honor for the Sounds to rename the street in front of First Tennessee Park “19 Junior Gilliam Way.” He played in several World Series for the Dodgers and his number is retired by the team. Though I know others believe Stearnes is the best from Nashville.
I believe the recent movie about Jackie Robinson “42” was historically accurate. After seeing that movie I have a greater appreciation for what he sacrificed, with the abuse he took to integrate major league baseball. He was quite a man to endure such deplorable behavior on and off the field.
(6) Do you think the new park has helped the Sounds gain more fans?
There is no question that First Tennessee Park has attracted more fans. I can’t recall so many sellouts as compared to Greer Stadium. I know that the new ball was designed for expansion in case major league baseball came to Nashville. It would be along the way of Fenway Park with 35, 000 seats.
(7)Do you feel that Nashville could support a Major League franchise?
Nashville has supported the Titans and the Predators ,so I believe Nashville would support a MLB team since the greatest players in professional baseball would be in Nashville for the summer. But I believe football will always be the top sport in Nashville. It is talked about year round especailly with the Titans and Vols. Plus Vanderbilt is on an upswing. High school football in Middle Tennesee is producing top college talent.
(“Nashville Baseball History: From Sulphur Dell To The Sounds” can be purchased at Parnassus Books (Green Hills), Barnes and Noble, Amazon and other local bookstores).