Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
The Nashville Sounds of 1980, one of only two modern Southern League entrants on the top 100 list, was led by a pair of future major league managers. During the campaign, one did his job from the bench while the other contributed from the plate. Ten years later, one succeeded the other as manager for the same big league club.
The city of Nashville, located in central Tennessee, can trace its baseball roots well back into the 19th century. In 1885, a team called the Americans became a charter member of the Southern League, Dixie’s premier league. During its stay in the league in the rest of the century, the club, known variously as the Blues, Tigers and Seraphs, never won a pennant. Their best showing came in 1895, when they finished second with a 69-38 record, one game off the lead.
In 1901, a team from Nashville once again became a charter member of an elite southern organization. This league, known as the Southern Association, lasted for 61 years with a team from Nashville on its roster of clubs every single season. The club was called the Volunteers, or Vols for short, after Tennessee’s moniker as the “Volunteer State”. The team started off quick by winning pennants in its first two years. Highlights of the rest of its lengthy stay in the league included pennants in 1908, 1916, 1934, 1940 and 1949. The 1940 winner was good enough to find a place on the list of the top 100 minor league teams.
After the Southern Association went dark following the 1961 season, Nashville waited a year before joining the South Atlantic League. After the Vols finished last with a 53-86 record, the league renamed itself the Southern League before the 1964 season, leaving Nashville out of the mix.
In 1978 the Southern League expanded to ten clubs, adding Nashville as a Cincinnati farm club. The team was nicknamed the Sounds, Nashville being the center of the Country Music business. Nashville’s President-General Manager was former Vanderbilt U. baseball coach Larry Schmittou. He had led the drive to build what became one of the first of this era’s new, large facilities, Herschel Greer Stadium, with a 10,700 seating capacity. The Sounds immediately began to set attendance records and their 1980 total of 575,676 still is the best in league history. Schmittou was named Southern League and The Sporting News Class AA Executive of the year for 1978. In 1980-81, under Schmittou’s direction, Nashville won the prestigious Larry MacPhail Trophy, presented annually to the Outstanding Minor League Promotional Club.
In its initial season, Nashville finished fourth in the Western Division standings. In 1979, the team moved to the top of the standings, culminating the campaign with a playoff victory. The next season, after switching affiliations to the Yankees, the team would take another step forward.
The 1980 Nashville Sounds lost a close battle for the first half crown, finishing 1-½ games behind Memphis with a 46-25, .648 record. In the second half, the Sounds blew away the competition, finishing 51-21, .708, fourteen games ahead of Montgomery. In the playoffs, the team was upset by Memphis, three games to one in the opening round. Overall, the club won 97 games while dropping only 46--good for a .678 percentage. The Sounds led the Southern League in three key statistical areas--batting average (.278), hits (1,345) and runs scored (753).
The Sounds were piloted by future Yankee manager, Carl (Stump) Merrill. The 36-year-old ex-minor league catcher started his managerial career with the Yankees’ Class AA West Haven club in the Eastern League in 1978, finishing second and being named the league’s Manager of the Year. In 1979, West Haven won both halves and the league championship. New York moved its AA affiliation to Nashville for 1980. Merrill became manager of the Yankees on June 6, 1990, succeeding Bucky Dent with the team in seventh place in the Eastern Division where they remained. Following a 71-91 fifth place finish in 1991, Stump was replaced by his 1980 Nashville designated hitter, Buck Showalter. Merrill remained in the Yankees’ organization and is currently manager of Norwich, the Yankees’ Eastern League affiliate.
| Buck Showalter|
(photo courtesy of Nashville Sounds)
Nashville’s best hitter in 1980 was its designated hitter. Showalter (.324) finished second in the batting race while collecting the most hits (178). He retired as a player after the 1983 season, becoming a coach at Fort Lauderdale in 1984. For the next five years he managed in the Yankees organization, winning three championships. In 1989, he was named Eastern League Manager-of-the-Year and Minor League Manager-of-the-Year by Baseball America. Showalter was a Yankee coach in 1990-91, becoming manager on October 29, 1991. His 1994 team had a 70-43, .619 record, in first place in the American League East by 6 ½ games over Baltimore, when the strike halted play. He was named American League Manager-of-the-Year by the Baseball Writers Association and by The Sporting News’ vote of the league managers. In 1995 the Yankees finished second, but qualified for the American League wild card spot. They lost to Seattle in the playoff. On November 15, 1995, Showalter was named manager of the National League Arizona Diamondbacks, spending the next two years scouting and preparing for the expansion draft. In 1999, Showalter led the second-year Diamondbacks to the National League West title (100-62), before losing to the New York Mets in the playoff, the first time an expansion team had ever done that well so quickly.
| Steve Balboni|
(photo courtesy of Nashville Sounds)
Other hitters of note on the Sounds’ roster included their first and second basemen--Steve Balboni and Pat Tabler. Balboni (.301) led the league in home runs (34) and RBI (122), despite striking out 162 times, while Tabler (.296) finished ninth in the batting race. Both went on to lengthy major league careers. Balboni enjoyed a 16-year professional career, which included significant stints for the Yankees and Kansas City. During his major league tenure, he bashed 181 homers in 960 games, while batting .229. In the minors, Balboni was even more impressive, winning a total of six home run titles in four different leagues. Because of his power, Balboni was tagged with the nickname “Bye-Bye,” which he detested. Tabler, although not possessing Balboni’s raw power, out-hit the big slugger, posting a .282 average in 12 big league seasons from 1981-92. He became famous for his major league performance with the bases loaded. Going into his final season, 1992, he had hit .488, 42-for-86, with three men on base, driving in 103 runs.
| Willie McGee|
(photo courtesy of Nashville Sounds)
One member of the Nashville outfield also went on to major league glory. Willie McGee (.283) who played only 73 games in an injury-filled campaign, joined the Cardinals early in the 1982 season. He retired after the 1999 season, having spent 18 years in the majors with a career .295 average and 2,254 hits. He won two National League batting titles with St. Louis, hitting .353 in 1985 and .335 in 1990. He is the only player ever to win a batting championship in one major league after being traded to the other during the season. In 1990 he was leading the National League with the requisite number of plate appearances when he was traded to Oakland on August 29.
Other batters seeing significant major league action included catcher Brad Gulden who played for six teams in six years and part-time shortstop Andre Robertson, who served as a backup infielder for the Yankees from 1981 to 1985.
The Sounds’ pitching staff was led by Andy McGaffigan (15-5), Brian Ryder (15-9) and Tom Filer (13-9). The three combined for nine shutouts while McGaffigan led the league with a 2.38 ERA. Of the three, McGaffigan went on to the longest major league career, going 38-33 as a reliever in eleven seasons.
The Nashville Sounds played in the Southern League until 1985, when they upgraded to the Class AAA American Association. In 1993-94, Nashville had continuous baseball. In addition to the Sounds, a team called the Nashville Xpress played in the Southern League. Charlotte had moved up to the International League and the Southern had no place to put that AA franchise until 1995 when it went to Wilmington, NC. The Xpress played at Herschel Greer Stadium when the Sounds were on the road. Upon the demise of the Association in 1997, the Sounds joined the far-flung Pacific Coast League where they remain today.
Behind the efforts of two future big league skippers, the Nashville Sounds carved a swath through the 1980 Southern League. In doing so, they became one of only two teams in the modern history of the league to reach the ranks of greatness.
|1980 Southern League Standings|
|1980 Nashville Sounds batting statistics|
|1980 Nashville Sounds pitching statistics|