Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
In the 60-year history of the Southern Association, only a bare handful of clubs crossed the 100-win barrier. One of these select few played in 1940. This team, located in the league’s northernmost city, had the benefit of being piloted by the greatest manager in the annals of Southern Association history.
The city of Nashville, located in the middle of Tennessee, enjoys a baseball lineage that goes back to the 1860s. In the years following the Civil War, an amateur entity called the Nashville club entertained other area clubs, including a visit from the famed Lone Star club of New Orleans in 1870. Fifteen years later, Nashville entered a team in the brand new Southern League, the first year in a six-season 19th century stay. The team generally did not fare well and dropped out after a close second in 1895.
In 1901, Nashville joined with seven other cities to revive the dormant Southern League, which would now be called the Southern Association. In addition to Nashville, the circuit included clubs in Memphis, New Orleans, Chattanooga, Birmingham, Selma, Shreveport and Little Rock. The team got off to a quick start, winning flags in their first two seasons. Another trip to the top happened in 1908 when the Vols (short for Volunteers--Tennessee was known as the “Volunteer State”) edged New Orleans by a single game. Nashville won another pennant in 1916. In 1934, they won the first half, but lost the playoff to New Orleans.
The home of the Vols was historic Sulphur Dell Park, the site on which baseball in Nashville had been played since shortly after the Civil War. The park was first known as Athletic Park. Famed sportswriter Grantland Rice, a graduate of Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, is credited with giving the park the name Sulphur Dell. The area had been a sulphur springs and picnic spot in pioneer days. The original stands were torn down and a new park built in 1927. The left field fence was 365 feet from home plate and deep center a distant 420 feet. However, the park always had its infamous steep right field embankment and the fence was only 282 feet from home plate. Nashville’s professional teams played there through 1963. When the city returned to Organized Baseball in 1978, it was to the new Herschel Greer Stadium.
In 1938, the Vols became affiliated with the Brooklyn Dodgers. At that time, for clubs in the high minors, being a farm club was somewhat different from what it is today. Unless the team was owned outright by a major league club, it still owned many, if not most, of its players. The major league club furnished the rest of the roster and generally had first rights to purchase the contracts of any players the minor league team wished to sell.
The relationship with the Dodgers resulted in a second place finish in the first year followed by an even closer third in 1939. After the regular season, the Vols, who had finished a mere 1.5 games in arrears, whitewashed Memphis, three games to none before edging Atlanta, four games to three, to win the championship. In the following campaign, the team would vault to the top.
In 1940 Nashville became only the third team in Southern Association history to be in first place wire-to-wire. Their total of 101 wins was surpassed only by the 1921 and 1924 Memphis Chicks. After finishing 9-½ games ahead of second-place Atlanta, the Vols dispatched Chattanooga, three games to none in the first round of the playoffs before polishing off Atlanta, four games to two, to win league honors. As a team, Nashville led the league in seven statistical categories including average (.311), runs (961) and home runs (89). They also led in team fielding (.970) and set a league record for most double plays (208) that stood for 12 years until it was broken by another Nashville team. The team was managed by Larry Gilbert, a Southern Association legend. Gilbert was born in New Orleans in 1891 and at the age of five any thoughts of an athletic career almost ended. His right foot was caught in the wheel of an ox cart and was so badly torn that doctors wanted to amputate. His mother refused to agree to the surgery and after a year of nursing, Larry was able to walk again. His first baseball connection was as scoreboard boy at Athletic Park in New Orleans. Later he pitched batting practice for the Pelicans. He was signed as a pitcher by San Antonio in 1910, switched to the outfield with Battle Creek the next year, then played two seasons with Milwaukee. Gilbert was drafted by the Boston Braves following the 1913 season and hit .268 for the Miracle Braves championship team in 1914. After service with Toronto and Kansas City, Larry was purchased by New Orleans in 1917, beginning a 39-year career in the Southern Association.
In 1919, Gilbert led the Southern Association in batting (.349), hits (171), total bases (237) and stolen bases (42). After the season, the Pels sold him to Cleveland, but he refused to report saying he wanted to stay in New Orleans. In 1923, Pelicans owner A.J. Heinemann, who always liked Gilbert, appointed him manager. Many in baseball doubted he would make a good manager because he would be too “soft,” but he won the pennant in his first season. He stayed at the New Orleans helm through 1931, left the field for the front office in 1932, then returned as manager in 1933. (His 1932 manager was another minor league legend, Jake Atz.) Gilbert’s last season as an active player was 1925. He became business manager as well as field manager in 1935. Following the 1938 season came the surprising news that Gilbert was moving to Nashville. Vols president Fay Murray offered Larry not only the positions of executive vice-president, business manager and field manager, but half-ownership of the club. That was too good an offer to refuse. Gilbert managed the Vols from 1939 through 1948 and went out as he came in, with a pennant winner. He was named The Sporting News Minor League Manager of the Year in 1940. Gilbert remained as an executive of the club until his retirement after the 1955 season. He set Southern Association records for most championships (nine, 5 with New Orleans, 4 with Nashville), most years managed (25), most wins (2,128), most Dixie Series won (5) and most times to win 90 or more games in a season (7). Starting in 1939, Nashville won four consecutive Shaughnessy Playoffs and captured three straight Dixie Series titles, 1940-41-42, with the loss of only three games. Two of Larry’s sons, both of whom played for him, reached the majors. Charlie, like his father a center fielder, was with the Dodgers, Cubs and Phillies from 1940-46 and Harold, Known as Tookie, was a New York Giants first baseman in 1950 and 1953. In their book “Vol feats, 1901-1950,” Fred Russell and George Leonard state, “It is said that Larry Gilbert has no enemies and the statement does not seem to overshoot the mark. Business associates, umpires, even players who have been released by him, hail the manager’s fairness, honesty and everlasting faith in humanity.”
The 1940 Vols were unique in that the starting lineup remained intact for the entire season. Each of the four infielders played a minimum of 148 of the club’s 153 games, the regular outfielders played 149, 146 and 130 games and the number one catcher was behind the plate in 120 games. Five pitchers were with the team all season and there were only two mid-season changes in the staff. Only one of the Vols, right-hander Leo Twardy, 17-11 with a team-leading 3.45 ERA, never played in the majors, but only one, reliever Johnny Sain, ever achieved big league stardom. Several of the players had their careers interrupted or shortened by World War II.
Outfielder Oris Hockett (.363-14-68) led Nashville in batting and was third in the league, eight points behind the leader. He played seven seasons in the majors, 1938-39, 1941-45, including four full seasons with Cleveland, batting .276, and was selected to play in the 1944 Major League All-Star Game. Outfielder Arnie Moser (.347-5-104) led the league in hits (216). The third outfielder, 33-year-old Gus Dugas hit .336-22-118 and tied for the league lead in homers and RBI. He had played for the Pirates, Phillies and Senators between 1930 and 1934, batting .206, but had a .327 career minor league average. Dugas was one of the few players born in Quebec (St. Jean-de-Matha) to reach the majors. 32-year-old third baseman Bob Boken (.302-13-118) also tied for the RBI title. He had hit .247 for the Senators and White Sox in 1933-34. Second baseman Johnny Mihalic (.317-3-70) was the Vols’ leadoff batter and set what was then a league record with 127 walks. He was second in the league in runs (133) and third in doubles (54), and set a league record for double plays by a second baseman, 143. He was with Washington in 1935-36-37, batting .244. Mihalic spent ten years in the Southern Association, four with Chattanooga and six with Nashville, setting career records at second base for most assists, 3,418, and total chances, 6,231. Mickey Rocco (.305-21-101) set a league record, later broken, for double plays by a first baseman, 179. Rocco played for 18 years including four seasons with Cleveland, 1943-46, where he batted .258. In 1944 he led the American League in times at bat, 653. Dick Culler (.277-1-73) set a league mark for most double plays by a shortstop. Culler, who broke into pro ball at the top, playing 9 games for the A’s in 1936, also was with the White Sox, Braves, Cubs and Giants from 1943-49, batting .244. He was Boston’s regular shortstop in 1945-46.
Charley (Greek) George not only batted .335-9-109, he set a record for catchers that stood until the Southern Association went out of business after the 1961 season. George had a .998 fielding percentage, making only one error in 612 chances and was charged with only two passed balls. A 27-year-old native of Waycross, GA, George became known through the years as Larry Gilbert’s “meal ticket.” While at New Orleans, Gilbert sold George’s contract to Cleveland in June, 1935. After the 1936 season, the Indians released George back to New Orleans. In 1938, Gilbert sold the catcher to Brooklyn, but got him back the next year, this time for Nashville. After the 1940 season, Larry again sold George, to the Chicago Cubs. George never was able to solve major league pitching, batting only .177 in 118 games spread over parts of five seasons. He popped up in the majors one more time, in June, 1945, when the Athletics bought his contract from Toronto. He had hit .174 in 51 games when his big league career came to an abrupt halt September 3. In the bottom of the 11th and last inning of a 7-6 loss to the Yankees, George was involved in an argument with plate umpire Joe Rue and belted the arbiter in the nose, earning himself a one-year suspension. He never played another major league game.
Nashville’s big winner was the incomparable Cletus Elwood (Boots) Poffenberger (26-9), who led the league in victories by a wide margin (no other pitcher had more than 18) and in percentage (.743). He received outstanding support from his teammates as evidenced by the fact he was next to last on the team in ERA (4.58) and put 397 batters on base (296 hits, 98 walks, three hit batsmen) in 238 innings; his opponents batting average was .307. Before joining the Vols in 1940, Boots had pitched for Detroit in 1937-38 and briefly for Brooklyn in 1939. Poffenberger was a stocky right-hander who bore a striking resemblance to the comedian Lou Costello of Abbott-and-Costello “Who’s on first” fame. He started 1937 with Detroit’s Beaumont (Texas League) farm club, going 9-1, 2.52 before the Tigers brought him up just before his 22nd birthday. In his book “The Tigers”, Joe Falls says “Poffenberger aroused great expectations with a 10-5 season as a rookie in 1937, but his performance never approached the heights of his antics…He was blinded by the bright lights of major league baseball. He loved to live it up. In fact, some days he did not show up for work. He became known as the ‘Duke of Duckout.’ Poffenberger never tried to hide his penchant for fun and after a night on the town, he would call room service and ask if they would send up ‘The Breakfast of Champions’ - two fried eggs and a beer.” The next year he fell off to 6-7, 4.82 and the Tigers shipped him to Toledo in July. They placed him on waivers in 1939 and he was claimed by Brooklyn. He pitched only five innings for the Dodgers before they sent him to Montreal, but he refused to report and was placed on the Ineligible List. One observer wondered why, of all places, Boots declined to go to a city with a reputation as a great town in which to have a good time. After two seasons at Nashville, Poffenberger moved on to San Diego. He pitched for the Padres in 1942 (9-10, 3.86) and again in 1946 (5-6, 3.86) after three years in the Marines. In Bill Swank’s “Echoes from Lane Field,” ex-Padres infielder Mel Skelley called Boots “the best roommate I ever had. When we were on the road, he’d spend everything he had the first couple of nights and then he had nothing. Guys were always borrowing your stuff, but he would never touch anything of mine. He’d never make any noise coming in late at night. When Boots was with Detroit, they had a detective follow him. He told them that they should give him the money they were giving the detective and he’d tell them where to go. All they’d have to do was go to the beer joint closest to the ballpark.”
The 1940 Nashville player who went the farthest in baseball was 22-year-old right-handed reliever Johnny Sain (8-4, 4.45). Sain was signed by Larry Gilbert on June 30. He had toiled for four years in the Class D Northeast Arkansas League before being made a free agent by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis on January 14, 1940, one of 91 players whose contracts had been mishandled by the Detroit Tigers. Sain was purchased by the Boston Braves following the 1941 season and went 4-7, 3.90 in relief in 1942. After three years in the service, Sain became a starting pitcher in 1946. He was a 20-game winner (20-14) with a 2.21 ERA, second lowest in the National League, and led the league in complete games (24). In 1947 he went 21-12, 3.52 and hit .346, highest average by a major league pitcher that season. 1948 was Sain’s year. He went 24-15, 2.60, leading the league in wins, complete games (28) and innings pitched (315), and was third in ERA. Sain was named to The Sporting News Major League All-Star Team and was voted National League Pitcher of the Year. He led Boston to the pennant and in the World Series went 1-1, 1.06 in two complete-game starts, not walking a batter in 17 innings. In the Series opener at Boston, he bested Bob Feller 1-0, pitching a four-hitter with no Cleveland runner advancing past second base. Sain fell to 10-17, 4.81 in 1949, but bounced back for his fourth and final 20-win season in 1950 (20-13, 3.95). He was traded to the Yankees in August, 1951, and pitched in relief in three more World Series, 1951-52-53. He was traded to Kansas City in May, 1955, his last active season. Sain had a 139-116, 3.49 major league career record. From 1959-1986 he was a pitching coach for Kansas City, the New York Yankees, Minnesota, Detroit, California, the Chicago White Sox and Atlanta. As a coach he tutored 16 20-game winners including Whitey Ford, Jim Kaat, Earl Wilson, Ralph Terry and Mudcat Grant.
Ace Adams, a 28-year-old right-hander, had a 13-5, 4.06 ERA and led the league in strikeouts (122). Ace was his given name, not a nickname. He was a reliever for the New York Giants for six years, 1941-46, with a 41-33, 3.47 record and led the National League in appearances in 1942-43-44 and in saves in 1944-45. Right-hander George Jeffcoat (14-6, 3.78) was second in strikeouts (121). On September 11, 1940, in the opening round of the playoffs, Jeffcoat struck out 18 batters in a 6-1 victory over Chattanooga. At one stage, he set a league record by striking out seven Lookouts in a row. From the third through the seventh, he fanned 14 of the 19 batters he faced. In 1936, when he was 22, Jeffcoat made the jump all the way from Class D Leeksville-Spray-Draper in the Bi State League to Brooklyn, going 5-6, 4.50 for the Dodgers. He pitched for Brooklyn in 1936-37 and for the Boston Braves in 1943. George was an older brother of Hal Jeffcoat, outfielder-pitcher for the Cubs, Reds and Cardinals for 12 years, 1948-59.
After 1940, Nashville went on to post playoff victories in the next four seasons. After another regular season crown in 1948, the Vols won playoff champions the next two years. Following another flag in 1953, the city left baseball when the Southern Association ceased operations after the 1961 season. Except for a one-year experiment in the South Atlantic League in 1963, Nashville was without a team until 1978 when they joined the new Southern League. Here, their stay was marked with success as their pennant winning club in 1980 found a place on the list of the top 100 Great Minor League Teams. After seven years in the Southern, Nashville moved up a rank in 1985, joining the AAA American Association. When the Association was divided following the 1997 campaign, Nashville moved to the Pacific Coast League where they remain today.
In looking at Southern Association teams that reached the century mark, the 1940 Vols rank at the top in one important category. Of all the 100-win teams to perform in the Southern Association, Nashville’s .682 winning percentage reigns supreme.
|1940 Southern Association Standings|
|1940 Nashville Vols batting statistics|
|Lee Rogers (L. Rock)||P||35||61||8||15||4||1||0||0||4||13||1||.246|
|Tom Drake (Atlanta)||P||31||63||6||11||3||2||0||0||1||26||0||.175|
|1940 Nashville Vols pitching statistics|
|Tom Drake (Atlanta)||8||8||.500||30||23||9||0||165||187||83||103||4.69|
|Lee Rogers (L. Rock)||8||8||.500||33||23||10||0||169||198||81||60||5.91|