Baseball is a game of lore and superstition, and of legends as hoary as old wives’ tales. Each game deepens the slow accretion of records assigned to each player, but anyone who studies the game knows that no records can truly map baseball’s quirky and unpredictable course. The most anyone can be sure about is baseball’s rich anecdotal history, and Nashville is blessed with plenty of it. The Nashville Public Library’s collection of the city’s baseball memorabilia is currently on display at Metro Archives. It’s extraordinary.
According to the official legend cooked up by Major League Baseball, the game was invented in 1839 in Cooperstown, N.Y., by a West Point cadet named Abner Doubleday. Virtually no one believes that account anymore, but it’s clear that Doubleday, by then a general, was stationed briefly in Nashville during the Civil War and that Union soldiers played baseball, or something approximating it, next to the old sulphur springs in north Nashville. The exhibit’s newspaper clippings, in fact, place cricket and “rounders” at the springs as early as 1857. The spot was to play host to baseball for the next 100 years.
Fully professional baseball began here with the Nashville Vols in 1901 and continued unabated (with the exception of one year) until 1963. Nashville played in the highly competitive Southern Association with teams like the Birmingham Barons, the Memphis Chicks, the New Orleans Pelicans, and the Mobile Bears, and drew huge crowds. The barnstorming Yankees frequently came through Nashville after the completion of spring training, and the legislature even adjourned in 1927 to allow everyone to go to the park to see Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the rest of Murderers’ Row play the Vols.
But the real star of the show was the ballpark itself. Set on an oddly shaped rectangle of land near the old springs, the park was christened “Sulphur Dell” by the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, himself a former baseball player at Vanderbilt. Because of the stadium’s cramped dimensions, the right field fence was located only 262 feet from home plate and featured a steeply inclined bank rising to the wall. After seeing it for the first time, Babe Ruth commented that it would take a mountain goat to play right field. The Dell served as a ballpark until 1963, then as country legend Faron Young’s racetrack, until the late 1960s when it was torn down.
The exhibit also spotlights our entry in the old negro leagues, the Nashville Elite Giants (pronounced “Eee-light”). The only native Nashvillian ever named to the Baseball Hall of Fame was an African American player named Norman “Turkey” Stearns, who played for the Elites, the Montgomery Grey Sox, and finally with the Detroit Black Sox. A photograph in the collection shows Stearns as a quietly dignified man with the strong features and level eyes of Roberto Clemente. The Elites played in the old Wilson Park on the south side of town until they too began playing their games at the Dell. Seating for Vols games was strictly segregated, but when the Elites played at Sulphur Dell people sat wherever they pleased. The Vols remained segregated until their final year of existence in 1963, 15 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line with the Dodgers. The Vols’ first black players, Henry Mitchell and Eddie Crawford, are represented in two grainy photographs in the collection but are otherwise lost to history.
Nashville had a presence in the women’s leagues too. A novelty team, the “Bloomer Girls,” played for one year in 1913, and in later years Nashville sent one of its own, Lillian “Bird Dog” Jackson, to the Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Clippings in the collection tell of life in the women’s leagues, and in particular how Jackson’s manager made a “lady” out of her, teaching her rudimentary manners and makeup skills to make her seem more feminine.
The collection contains more than 100 items, including pictures, a vast quantity of newspapers and artifacts of every kind. The photographs depict the throngs that came to watch the Vols play, pictures of fans sitting in the outfield grass on overflow days, and children being admitted to the park for free after the seventh inning stretch. There are numerous team photographs too, dating back to the 1888 Nashville Maroons, including not just the Vols but a number of semi-pro teams like the Nashville Fire Department, Nashville Bridge Company and Holsum Bakers.
Perhaps the most striking picture in the collection is a 1901 photograph of Grantland Rice lounging in his Vanderbilt baseball uniform in the year Vandy won the Southern Conference championship. Rice wrote a regular column about sports for the old Nashville Daily News, and the exhibit includes not only his columns but the first poetry he ever published.
More than simply a display about baseball, though, the archive exhibit tells the story of an entire American era. The photographs alone are priceless mementoes of another time and of a lifestyle which is now largely forgotten. There is an unaffected innocence in the faces of those men who played a game without a clock, on sunny afternoons, for virtually no pay, for the sheer joy of it. With nicknames like Tex and Buckshot and Country, Bama, Smokey, and Boots, they were our hometown team.