Team History (1896-Present)
The history of the Tennessee Smokies dates back to the year 1896. A year that saw the crowning of the last Czar of Russia, the discovery of gold in both the Klondike and in Alabama, and the first Intercollegiate basketball game. 1896 also gave East Tennessean's their first chance to taste professional baseball.
The Knoxville Indians took up residence at Baldwin Park for a period of two years, starting what would become a lengthy and rich baseball tradition in the Knoxville area. The original Knoxville professional baseball team packed the stands, drawing upwards of 3,000 cheering spectators, who paid roughly 75 cents to watch the games.
The Reds followed the Indians into the upper-eastern third of the state after a four-year baseball drought that began in 1898 and ended when play resumed in 1902. The Reds remained in place, providing the early baseball fans in Knoxville for four seasons with some thrilling baseball. No records for this team are available, but it is interesting to note that the squad played in three different associations over its four-year existence, including the Appalachian League for two seasons (1902-03), the Tennessee-Alabama League (1904) and the Tennessee-Alabama-Georgia League (1905). Once again, however, the sport that would become known as America's 'National Pastime' wasn't able to flourish in East Tennessee. The Reds ceased playing in 1906, leaving the Knoxville area without a baseball team until the 1909 season.
In 1909 the game returned to Knoxville as the Appalachians of the South Atlantic League would call Chilhowee Park home for the next six seasons. The 1909 team recorded a 52-60 mark, finishing fifth in the league. In 1910 the team moved into the Southeastern Association and in 1911, the team changed both its name (back to the Reds) and its league affiliation (now the Appalachian League) and play through the 1914 season. In 1915, baseball once again disappeared from the Knoxville area and would stay away for the next five years.
The team returned for the 1921 season with a new team name (Pioneers) and new venue (Caswell Park). Another switch of the team's name in 1925 saw the introduction of the moniker "Smokies" for the team, a name the team now carries. During this time the team tasted quite a bit of success with first-place finishes in 1923, 1924 (both in the Appalachian League) and 1929 ("Sally" League). The 1929 team, led by the likes of pitchers John Walker and L. Bates, and hitters Elwood Smith, Boob McNair and Frank Waddey, took home the league title.
Baseball went on hiatus in the Knoxville area in 1930 due to the Great Depression, but the team returned to the area the following year with a new home. Smithson Stadium, named after the man who brought the team back, W.N. Smithson, would be the home for the Smokies through the 1944 season, when the Smokies and many other teams folded due to the manpower needed for World War II.
With the Allies victory finally secure in 1945, baseball resumed in the States. Knoxville saw a renaissance with the Smokies collecting four first-place finishes in the Tri-State League under new manager and Knoxville native Bill Meyer. A member of the Appalachians back in 1910, Meyer was instrumental in bringing back winning baseball to the East Tennessee region.
Meyer's role with the identity of the team would stretch beyond management of the team in the coming years. After Smithson Stadium burned to the ground in 1953, a new stadium was constructed on the same grounds. The new $500,000 venue was initially named Municipal Stadium, but re-named Bill Meyer Stadium after Meyer's passing in 1957.
The Smokies continued to play in the South Atlantic League, or the "Sally" League until 1964, when it changed names and became the Southern League. The "Sally" League moved up to Double-A in 1963, which prompted the league's name change (the league members wanted to distance themselves from Class A ball). The team's first few runs through the Southern League as a Reds affiliate were rough though, as the Smokies never finished above fourth place and twice finished lower than sixth place.
Following another short hiatus that lasted through the 1971 season, baseball returned to the Knoxville area in 1972. The now Knoxville White Sox were back in the Southern League and won league titles in both 1972 and 1974. During the stretch the team compiled a 218-196 record (.694 winning percentage). The team also took home the pennant in '74, the team's first title in 45 years. The '74 team was led by Nyls Nyman, a very talented outfielder that led the Southern League in four offensive categories: batting average, hits, runs and triples. Manager Jim Napier captured manager of the year honors that same year, leading the team to a 3-2 title series win over Jacksonville.
The White Sox tasted title success again four years later, as the team won its second Southern League pennant with an 86-56 record and 2-1 title series win over Savannah. The team stormed out to a first-half 49-21 record and West Division title under the direction of manager Tony LaRussa. When LaRussa left in the middle of the '78 season, he was replaced by Joe Jones, would lead the Smokies to a second-half West Division title as well. Winning was contagious, as the team drew more than 81,000 fans to Bill Meyer Stadium (the largest yearly total since 1962).
In 1980, the Knoxville club began a long relationship with the Toronto Blue Jays. The now K-Jays would start off the new decade in the Southern League cellar, finishing the 1980 and '81 seasons with the worst record in the 10-team league. The '82 squad rebounded though to make the playoffs, falling to Nashville in the first round of the playoffs. The squad's turnaround though planted the seed for a nice three-year playoff run in the mid-'80s, which included a title appearance in 1984 against Charlotte. The K-Jays wound fall in that series, 3-0, and then in first-round match-ups against Huntsville in '85 and '86.
The 1990s were a turbulent time for the team. Changes began in 1993 when the team changed its moniker from the Blue Jays back to the Smokies. The team saw ownership change in 1994 with Don Beaver purchasing the team from the Toronto Blue Jays. And in the late part of the decade, the team began search of a new stadium as Bill Meyer Stadium was showing its age. The search would take the team beyond the city limits of Knoxville and Knox County, and into Sevierville, where in 1999 it was announced the Smokies would be moving to Sevier County and into a brand new, state-of-the-art $19.4 million facility.
This facility was called Smokies Park, and welcomed in a new era of Smokies baseball. Opening Night 2000 saw the inaugural game at Smokies Park and with it, a 10-7 win over the Chattanooga Lookouts. Two years later, the team would welcome in a new parent club, the St. Louis Cardinals, after a 22-year relationship with the Toronto Blue Jays. In year two of the it's relationship with the Cardinals, the Smokies won their first Southern League title since 1978, a co-championship with the Mobile Bay Bears. The teams split the title due to Hurricane Ivan.
2005 brought about a new parent club affiliation with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The team struggled in '05 with a 64-76 record, but in 2006 rebounded with a 70-69 record. The partnership with the D-Backs would be short-lived though, as in September 2006 it was announced the Smokies would now be under the affiliation of the Chicago Cubs.
The Smokies scored a wildcard berth in 2007 and almost pulled out a divisional series win against Huntsville. The team, 73-65 on the year, however couldn't hold onto a 2-1 series lead and fell, 3-games-to-2 to the Stars. The team was unable to continue its success in 2008 and missed the playoffs.
Last season was one of the most memorable in team history. Chicago Cubs great and Hall of Fame player Ryne Sandberg was named manager of the team in December 2008 and led the Smokies to a Southern League North Division title and playoff series win over Huntsville. Sandberg led the Smokies back from a 12-game losing streak in the first half of the season and all the way to a date in the Southern League Championship Series against the Jacksonville Suns, where the Smokies fell 3-1 to the eventual champion Suns.
The Smokies once again found themselves on top of the North Division, with an 86-53 overall record. Led by Southern League Manger of the Year Bill Dancy, the Smokies won both halves of the regular season and a playoff series win over West Tenn. Unfortunately, the Smokies ran into the Jacksonville Suns in the Southern League Championship Series for the second straight season. The Smokies once again fell to the champion Suns 3-1.
2011 promises to be an exciting season as a handful of top Cubs prospects will be under the tutelage of first-year Smokies manager Brian Harper. Here's hoping the team will defend its North Division crown and take home the Southern League crown!