Talk of a new Sulphur Dell stadium stirs memories of Nashville's African-American baseball history 

When We Were Giants

When We Were Giants

In August 1932, Nashville's Sulphur Dell stadium became the center of the African-American baseball scene in the South.

Representatives from the Negro Southern League, as well as officials from the Worth Baseball Co. — the league's equipment supplier — gathered at the ballpark for the best-of-seven league championship series. It was a showdown between Cole's American Giants, the Chicago-based team regarded as the best in black baseball, and Tom Wilson's upstart Nashville Elite Giants, who were looking to upset the traditional power from the Windy City.

At stake were a large title pennant, 28 baseballs made of 14-karat gold, and one big silver cup. The national African-American press played up the drama to the hilt.

"There will be fireworks aplenty on the firing line when play is resumed here Sunday in the Southern League Championship Series," gushed Luther Carmichael, the Atlanta Daily World's Nashville correspondent. "Folks who have been yearning for thrilling entertainment have only to come down to dear old Sulphur Dell during this brief series and they certainly will not be disappointed."

Elite Giants fans couldn't say the same: The Chicago squad eventually won the series. But for the African-American community in Nashville, the event was nonetheless historic. The occasion was also representative of how large a role Sulphur Dell played in Music City's black sporting scene.

Now, as a public-private partnership pushes to build a new $80 million stadium project for the Triple-A Nashville Sounds at the site of the former Sulphur Dell park — which was built in 1870 and demolished nearly a century later — local baseball historians relish the prospect of a state-of-the-art facility that would allow the crack of bats to ring once again off the block bordered by Jackson Street, Fourth Avenue, Harrison Street and Fifth Avenue.

If those four streets could talk. The original Sulphur Dell stadium, which received its moniker from legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice (and the sobriquet "Suffer Hell" from irate pitchers), was unique in its quirkiness. Located at the site of a natural sulphur spring and featuring a famed sloping terrace that ringed the outfield, the stadium played host to the white Nashville Vols for decades.

But African-American teams, which often thrived during the era of segregation before the arrival of Jackie Robinson in 1947, also took the field at the Dell, creating countless memorable moments of their own. Similar scenes played out across the South, delivered by barnstorming heroes such as the Atlanta Black Crackers and the Birmingham Black Barons.

"It was very important. That's how we learned about professional baseball. That's where we went to see professional baseball," says TSU professor emeritus Bobby L. Lovett, who grew up in Memphis, home to the Negro American League's Red Sox. "It was a place where we could go and really enjoy ourselves. There was no other recreational or sports team in our community. It was the same way in Nashville."

Unfortunately, many of those moments have been lost to history, thanks to spotty record keeping and lack of mainstream press coverage.

"That's part of the problem with the Negro Leagues," says Skip Nipper, author of Baseball in Nashville and the creator of a website devoted to Sulphur Dell history, . "You just can't find any information about it."

One of the first times a major all-black team encountered Sulphur Dell came in 1913, an event Bill Traughber recounts in his book Nashville Sports History: Stories From the Stands. That spring, the Chicago American Giants — the precursor to Cole's American Giants, a franchise founded by Hall of Fame pitcher, owner and executive Andrew "Rube" Foster — arrived at the Dell for contests against squads from the Nashville Capitol League, a circuit of local industrial teams.

According to Traughber, the clashes between the Chicago aggregation and the Nashville units at Sulphur Dell "drew the largest attendance at that time for a Negro sporting event." They inspired local entrepreneur and baseball enthusiast Tom Wilson to embark on the most prominent chapter of Nashville's African-American hardball history — the Elite Giants, a franchise that existed as an independent venture before joining two versions of the Negro National League in addition to the Negro Southern League. The Elites (pronounced "ee-LIGHTS") used Sulphur Dell for several years, before Wilson eventually moved the squad to Baltimore in the late 1930s.

But it wasn't just big-time black ball teams that took to the Dell's diamond. In October 1934, the Capital City League — headed by a local sports impresario named Will Lathan — held a city championship tournament at Sulphur Dell. "The tournament has the endorsement of all the leading citizens of Nashville and its purpose is to encourage amateur baseball," stated a report by the Associated Negro Press.

Despite pre-event hurdles, about 1,000 fans attended the tourney, black and white, including the 200 who turned out for a North vs. South exhibition. One of the games included an exhibition featuring Lathan's own All-Stars, the Powder Plant Boys and the Old Hickory Black Caps, a popular local squad managed by Doc Brown that won 26 of 27 games in 1934.

But the successful tourney itself was won by the N.T. Tigers, a railroad company squad that received a coveted silver trophy for its triumph, despite unspecified issues with staging the event. The problems could have been related to the Nashville Vols and New Orleans Pelicans playing an all-white Southern Association championship series just weeks before the amateur tourney — a situation that could have created red tape with Vols and city officials.

"It is most unfortunate that the Capitol City League was forced to suffer because of the interference," the Atlanta Daily World reported, "but it's commendable that Will Lathan and his staunch supporters would not be defeated. The game was played. It was played at Sulphur Dell. The championship was decided. The cup was awarded. And all expenses were paid."

Nipper notes that African-American teams, from the professional Elite Giants down to amateur ventures, gradually decreased their use of Sulphur Dell after Tom Wilson constructed his own stadium, Tom Wilson Park, in 1929. But the Dell continued to host prominent black barnstorming teams and all-star exhibitions into the 1950s, events that sometimes included Junior Gilliam, a Nashville native, former Negro Leaguer and then-Brooklyn Dodger.

In September 1946, the Negro Southern League — which was based in Nashville at the time — held its first all-star game at Sulphur Dell, an event that had the local baseball community hopping with excitement. "Announcement that the game would be played in Nashville has aroused unusual interest among the sports lovers of these parts," the Pittsburgh Courier stated. "Nashville ... is expected to pack Sulphur Dell to capacity."

Even Wilson's Elite Giants frequently ventured from their new home in Baltimore to their original stomping grounds at the Dell for for spring training as well as exhibition and league contests. In addition, other big-time Negro League teams stopped at Sulphur Dell during tours of the South. In 1944, the Cincinnati Clowns swept a doubleheader from the Memphis Red Sox, while the Indianapolis Clowns and Philadelphia Stars clashed there in 1952 to launch that year's Negro American League slate. In Jackie Robinson's trailblazing wake, it served as an ad hoc major league audition for black players.

"The largest crowd ever to be seen in Sulphur Dell is expected to be on hand to support the Negro American League diamond stars that are graduating each year and going into the major leagues," the Baltimore Afro-American reported.

By the early 1950s, the Negro Leagues were quickly sliding toward their end — doomed, ironically, by the integration of major league teams, which pillaged African-American baseball organizations for hot talent. The same fate was looming for the Nashville Vols, the minor league team that served as the Dell's primary tenants for decades, but for the opposite reason. Along with the rest of its league, the whites-only Southern Association, the team stubbornly clung to segregation right up to its death in 1961.

The integration of black players into organized baseball — and the boycott of Southern Association contests by black fans — largely determined the Dell's eventual fate. After a century of segregation, the storied stadium at Sulphur Dell, with its sloping outfield and unique architecture, succumbed to the very forces that also killed the Negro Leagues. It was closed in 1963 and demolished six years later. Parking lots now serve as its tombstone.

But as baseball fans know, there's always another spring.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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