It was a sad day for true Nashville baseball fans on April 16, 1969. It was the day wrecking crews began to demolish the old Sulphur Dell Ball Park. Located in North Nashville, citizens of the city had witness baseball since the end of the Civil War. With origins unknown, it is a myth that Union soldiers taught the game of baseball to Nashvillians during their occupation of the city in 1962.
There is documentation that baseball was played in the city as early as 1857 and a Nashville Republican story from July 1860 reports on a game of "base ball" being played in the Edgefield community of the city. This is before the Civil War and the election of Abraham Lincoln.
Professional baseball arrived in Nashville in 1885 and 1886 with the Nashville Americans, a member of the newly formed Southern League. Other Nashville teams to represent the city in the league were the Blues (1887), Tigers (1893-94) and Seraphs (1895). The Nashville Centennials (1897) were members of the Central League. The Nashville Vols were charter members of the revived Southern Association in 1901.
The original name of the park was Sulphur Springs Ball Park (a sulphur spring ran near the site), later Athletic Park and finally Sulphur Dell. Sportswriter Grantland renamed the park to Sulphur Dell since it was easier for rhymes in his unique story telling of sports. The Southern Association folded after the 1961 season and the ballpark was vacant in 1962. The Vols played one last season in 1963 as members of the South Atlantic League.
In 1965, for a three-week period Sulphur Dell was converted to a racetrack. It soon became the city's tow-in lot and in 1969 finally sold and demolished. Sports writer F. M. Williams of the Tennessean wrote about the Dell's final days with a headline, "Historic Ball Park Coming Down:"
"About 35 people with a million memories said goodbye to Sulphur Dell yesterday. Shortly after 2 p.m., a giant claw was raised to the grandstand roof near the right field fence and took a giant bite out of one of Nashville's best-known landmarks. Within six to eight weeks, all that remains of what once was the nation's oldest baseball park will have vanished, the victim of the city's rapidly changing skyline.
"In its place, within the year, hopefully, will rise a $4 to $5 million 19-story merchandising mart. Gregg Industries, Inc., which bought the Dell from almost 5,000 baseball fans a few months ago for $255,000, will build the mart. But for the few who bothered to pay a last visit to the Dell, today and tomorrow gave way to yesterday, and its many memories of victory and defeat.
"'It is a sad occasion,' said Frank Wood, of the Gregg Company.
"That is was for such former players who came, like Johnny Beazley, Eddie Lewis and Clydell Castleman. So it was for Willie White, the 75-year old former Negro trainer, who spent 32 years with Vol teams, starting in 1923 and ending in 1955, and for Whitey Larkin, who for more than 30 years operated in the front office of the city's professional baseball team.
"There were others there who came in official capacities, such as Joel Moseley, representing Mayor Beverly Briley; Clifford Allen, Metro tax assessor; Herschel Greer, Eddie Dunn, John Witherspoon and Sory Davis, all of whom served as officials of Vols, Inc., the fan-owned corporation. That owned the property from 1958 until it was sold to the Gregg Company.
"Still others were there simply because their memories drew them there. Mrs. Jim Turner, wife of the New York Yankee pitching coach and manager-general manager of the 1960 Vols, came because, she said, "I realized when I saw that piece in the paper this morning that I didn't have a picture of the Dell." She brought her movie camera and took plenty.
"Then there was George Flanagan, who once served as a Vol batboy. "I was up at the YMCA and ran into Willie, here," said George. 'He suggested we come down, and here we are.' Beazley, who pitched here in 1948 after an arm injury while in service cut short his major league career, swung a bat and hit the last ball that will ever hit the Dell. Castleman, who played here in 1932 and went on to the New York Giants, made the throw.
"Lewis recalled his days as an outfielder from 1925 through 1928. 'I played before they changed the field around,' said Eddie. He is perhaps the only Nashvillian who did that. The new ball park was built in 1927, creating the world-famed right field dump just 262 feet from home plate.
"But even the funny stories that it inspired did not produce laughter yesterday. It was indeed a sad occasion."
Of course, you need the expert opinion of legendary sports writer Fred Russell on the end of Sulphur Dell. The Nashville Banner sports editor wrote:
"Sadness and nostalgia marked the throwing of the last ball at Sulphur Dell Wednesday afternoon, prior to its razing as the site for an 18-story merchandise mart. At no other plot of ground in America had professional baseball been played as long, up through that last season of the Vols, 1963.
"Originally a sulphur springs and a trading, watering and picnic spot in pioneer days, this square in North Nashville, bounded by Fourth Avenue, Fifth Avenue, Jackson Street and a spur railroad track, became one of the first baseball grounds in the United States. Even before the first professional club here, this was the diamond used by the city's top amateur team-or possibly a wee bit semi-pro-the Nashville Athletic Club.
"Grantland Rice, a good baseball player himself in the 1890s at Vanderbilt and on summer teams, later as a sports writing poet changed the name of the park to Sulphur Dell for the sake of euphony and meter.
"Until 1927 the Dell faced in the opposite direction from its later operations, with the grandstand entrance at 4th and Jackson. The first game on the turned-around field, with the batter facing the northeast, was on April 12, 1927. Down the right field line, the distance to the fence was only 262 feet.
"And for the information of youngsters and others only recently moving to Nashville, you wouldn't believe the steep embankment all around the outfield. Sulphur Dell was the most bizarrely angled field in organized baseball, and the most cursed by visiting players.
"April and May each year brought the firsts visits by opposing clubs, with their new players and, sometimes new managers. These series afforded home fans some of their heartiest laughs, watching the newcomers trying to solve the terrain, the rebounds, and the caroms.
"Atop the right field fence above the precipitous incline was a high screen. A liner hitting the wooden fence might rebound 100 to 150 feet, chased by all the outfielders. But a fly against the screen dropped softly. Many Vol outfielders mastered the dump. Lance Richbourg was one. Also Gus Dugas. Also Charlie Workman. But the slickest all-around cat out there, I thought was Emil Mailho of Atlanta.
"Most Nashville right fielders were quick to learn tricks of the trade. Workman was one of the cleverest. When he knew a tall fly was going over his head, against the screen, he would stand on the bank looking up and popping his glove like he was waiting to catch it. A base-runner would tag up and thus frequently limit his advance to only one base after the ball hit the screen.
"The Vols enjoyed a distinct advantage in base running. During the early series each season a holdover Nashville player accustomed to the Dell's particularities often scored from first base on high flies against the screen. And it is a fact that some batters were thrown out at first base on clean singles to right.
"For the most part, though, the ledge in right field was a haven for aging, slow-footed, heavyweight left-hand swinging sluggers who were liabilities afield-in normal parks-but not especially damaging defensively here. At bat, the short right field fence gave them new life.
"Before the screen was erected, in 1930, two infielders, first baseman Jim Poole and second baseman Jay Partridge, clouted 50 and 40 home runs, respectively. But Jay was no lumbering elephant. He was lean and agile.
"One of the best-remembered behemoths in right field was Smead Jolley, who lasted only a few months. On one ball hit to right field one afternoon, he could have been given three errors. As he plunged down the slope, the ball skipped by him. He turned to take the carom and the ball trickled between his legs as the batter went to third. Smead ran the ball down and then threw it over the catcher's head as the batter scored."
Today, the Sulphur Dell site is mostly a parking lot connected to the Bi-Centennial Mall. Only a Nashville Historic Marker reminds the folks of the 21st century of the baseball history once made on the location.
Traughber's Tidbit: This week Nashville Mayor Karl Dean presented to state officials with plans for an $80 million development plan that includes a $40 million baseball stadium. The site selected is the old Sulphur Dell site. Lets hope this plan will succeed and more historic baseball will be recorded on the same plot of land as did Cap Anson, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, the famous double play combination of (John) Evers to (Joe) Tinker to (Frank) Chance, Rube Foster, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Rogers Hornsby, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Capanella, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Hank Aaron. Warren Spahn and Frank Robinson. And Hall of Fame manager's John McGraw, Connie Mack, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel and Walter Alston, These are just a portion of Hall of Famers (except "Shoeless Joe") that appeared in the Sulphur Dell Ballpark.
Tidbit Two: I am working on a Nashville baseball history book hopefully to be published in the Spring 2014. This book will contain stories concerning pre-1900 Nashville baseball, the Nashville Vols (1901-61, 1963), Nashville black baseball, the Nashville Sounds, Hall of Famers in Nashville mentioned earlier in this story with additions, records and stats and much more. Over 50 Vintage photographs and memorabilia will highlight the book.
This will be the last "Looking Back" story for this baseball season. If you have any comments or suggestions, click here to contact Bill Traughber via email.