Looking Back: Nashville's Baseball Championships

By Bill Traughber | July 18, 2011 4:30 AM

Nashville has fielded professional baseball teams since 1885, with the beginning of the original Southern League (1885-99).

When the SL folded at the end of the 1899 season, the Southern Association (1901-61) was formed with Nashville as a charter member. That Nashville franchise, known as the Vols, was dissolved after the 1963 season. After a 15-year absence, the Southern League would add Nashville into its membership in 1978 continuing the city's baseball history.

These are the championship teams representing Nashville:

Nashville Seraphs 1895
The Seraphs' 1895 season was controversial, but not necessarily on the field. Protested games and fights with umpires were not uncommon in this era when the national pastime was evolving especially in the South. Seraphs' games were played at Athletic Park, which later became Sulphur Dell.

Leading Nashville was player-manager George Stallings who had a brief major league career as a player with Brooklyn and Philadelphia of the National League. Stallings had a successful 13-year managing career with four different teams sprinkled between 1897 and 1920. He led the Boston Braves to the 1914 World Series championship.

The 1895 season ended with Atlanta winning the championship by one game, but several games within the season were protested by Nashville and the league office held a meeting in Chattanooga to address the Seraphs' challenges. Nashville's protest was upheld and the Seraphs were declared the SL pennant winner by percentage points.

Nashville Vols 1901
This Nashville club would not have an official name, but Nashville sports writer Grantland Rice would refer to the team as "The Wanderers." In latter year they became the "Vols" short for Volunteers. One of the Southern Association's founders was Newt Fisher, a Nashvillian with one year of major league experience and a veteran of the minor leagues. The SA organizers affirmed that 12 players would be on each team with a monthly salary cap of $1,200. The average salary was $85 per month.

Nashville would experience another controversial championship. During a series in Little Rock, an umpire forfeited a game against Nashville for bringing it's own umpire, which was assigned to the game by the league office. Little Rock also protested the appearance of a Nashville pitcher thought to be ineligible to play. The umpire also forfeited that game to Little Rock.

Umpiring was a problem with all teams at the time since there was only a single umpire that stood behind the pitcher to make all calls including balls and strikes. Despite these disputed encounters, Nashville was declared the SA's inaugural champs when all the protested games and records were sorted out. Nashville won by four games.

Nashville Vols 1902
The Nashville baseball team would enter this season as the Southern Association's first defending champions. This season would find more difficulties and controversies in securing a league championship. The obstacle this time would be the Memphis manager, Charley Frank. His star pitcher, Jim St. Vrain, had been declared ineligible by the league due his contract, which originally belonged to another minor league team.

Frank stubbornly played St. Vrain, which meant a forfeiture of any games the pitcher participated. The league ordered all club members not to play Memphis or face fines and suspensions. Memphis attorneys obtained an injunction to allow their city's representative to continue playing games without penalty. Frank threatened Nashville's manager, Newt Fisher, with arrest for violating the injunction if his Nashville team did not take the field against his club. The league backed down and allowed St. Vrain and Frank to continue the season until a resolution was met.

In the fall, the cases against the league and Memphis were resolved out of court. After the suspensions, forfeits and reverse forfeits were sorted out; Nashville was officially declared the 1902 SA champions by four games over Little Rock. Frank was dismissed as the Memphis manager.

Nashville Vols 1908
In what was called "The Greatest Game Played in the South" at the time, Nashville would play the season finale at the Sulphur Dell ballpark to determine the league title. New Orleans was on top with 76 wins to second-place Nashville's 74. Each team recorded 56 losses giving the top spot by percentage points to the Pelicans. The victor of this game would win the SA championship.

Nashville manager Bill Bernhard gave the ball to pitcher Vedder Sitton while New Orleans countered with veteran pitcher Theodore Breitenstein. The game was scoreless until the sixth inning with Nashville at bat. With two outs, Nashville catcher Ed Hurlburt slapped a single to right field; Sitton then hit a slow roller to first base for an infield hit. Harry Bay dropped a surprise bunt to beat the throw to first base leaving the bases loaded.

Nashville's right fielder, Doc Wiseman, stroked a single past the second baseman's glove scoring Hurlburt for a 1-0 lead and the only run of the game. In the Pelican's half of the ninth inning, a pair of strikeouts by Sitton followed a leadoff ground out. During those final two outs over 11,000 Nashvillians chanted Sitton! Sitton! Sitton! Nashville won the SA championship, 1-0, by .002 percentage point.

Nashville Vols 1916
This would be a strange year for one Nashville pitcher who would lead the Vols to a championship while experiencing a triumph and a tragedy the league never forgot. Tom Rogers was a 24-year-old hurler from Sparta, Tenn. On June 18, in a game in Moble, Ala., Rogers threw a pitch that struck Gulls' batter Johnny Dodge in the face. Dodge was knocked unconscious and died the next day.

One month later on July 16, Rogers tossed a no-hit, perfect game in Nashville's Sulphur Dell against Chattanooga. The Vols were in first place with a one-game lead over New Orleans when the day began. Rogers retired all 27 batters that he faced in the 2-0 win. This was the first perfect game in the Southern Association's history and the only perfect gem in the Vols history.

Nashville manager Roy Ellam's club would win the SA title by nine games over New Orleans with Rogers the league leader in victories with 24 (12 losses). He also led the league in complete games (33). Rogers went on to pitch four seasons with the St. Louis Browns, A's and Yankees (1917-19, 1921) going 15-30 with a 3.95 ERA.

Nashville Vols 1940
A 24-year championship drought ended with one of minor league baseball's all-time greatest teams. Nashville dominated the SA from opening day in April and occupied first place until the final day in September. This Vols dynasty began with the hiring of longtime New Orleans manager Larry Gilbert in 1939. The Vols ownership persuaded the most successful SA manager to head to Nashville as a part owner and manager.

The Vols were loaded with pitching, hitting and defense. Nashville posted a mark of 101-47 becoming only the fifth team in SA history to record 100 wins. The club batted .311 besting the average of the other league members by 25 points. Leading the potent offensive attack were Oris Hockett (.363), Arnold Moser (.347) and Gus Dugas (.336). Dugas also clubbed a league leading 22 home runs while tying teammate Robert Boken for the league lead in RBIs (118).

On the mound Vols' ace Boots Poffenberger (26-9) dominated the league in wins. Ace Adams went 13-5 and led the league in strikeouts (122). Other members of that historic pitching staff include Leo Twardy (17-11), George Jeffcoat (14-6) and Johnny Sain (8-4). The Sporting News named Gilbert their Minor League Manager-of-the-Year for 1940.

Nashville Vols 1943
In the midst of World War II, the SA reduced its schedule and travel from 154 to 140 games. A split season would be played with a best four-of-seven playoff between the two first place teams. Larry Gilbert's Vols won the first half while New Orleans won the second portion.

Nashville would win four-of-five games over the Pelicans to win another SA title. The Vols led the league in batting (.309) with Hank Sauer as the top SA hitter with a .368 average. Sauer also led the SA in doubles (51), runs (113) and stolen bases (30). Vols first baseman, Mel Hicks, paced the league in RBIs (107). The Vols were led in pitching by Macklin Stewart (18-5), Walt Signer (16-7) and Glenn Gardner (16-9).

Nashville Vols 1944
Nashville opened the first half of the split season with a losing record, but rallied in the second half to capture a spot in the SA playoffs. Larry Gilbert won his third SA title with the Vols by beating first half champions Memphis in seven games. First baseman Mel Hicks led in SA in home runs (16) while Peter Elko batted .351 to guide the Vols. Charles Cueller was 16-7 on the mound while Boyd Tepler (12-2) topped the SA in strikeouts (147).

Nashville Vols 1948
Larry Gilbert assembled a club that would produce runs in droves with his son, Charlie, setting the all-time SA mark for runs (178) and walks (155). He also batted .362 for the year collecting 42 home runs while driving in 110 tallies. Those batting numbers did not lead the team as outfielder Charles Workman slugged a record 52 home runs to go with a league-leading and all-time league best 181 RBIs.

Also adding to the forceful offense was batting champ Smokey Burgess who batted .386 with 22 home runs and 102 RBIs. The 1948 Vols led the SA in batting (.307) and smashed 183 home runs that broke the league record (157) also set by Nashville in 1930. The pitching staff included Leo Twardy (15-9), Garman Mallory (15-9), Art Cuccurullo (14-7) and Ben Wade (14-10).

The Vols beat Memphis by three games for the 1940 flag. At the conclusion of the season, Gilbert retired as the Vols manager and moved into the front office serving as vice-president and general manager. In his 25 years as a manager in the SA, Gilbert won nine championships (four in Nashville).

Nashville Vols 1949
In manager Rollie Hemsley's only season with the Vols, another championship flag waved in Nashville. The Vols won the SA title with power and pitching. A trio of left-handed home run sluggers in catcher Carl Sawatski (.360, 45 HR, 153 RBIs) who led the league in home runs and RBIs; outfielder Babe Barna (.341, 42 HR, 138 RBIs) and Harold "Tookie" Gilbert (.334, 33 HR, 122 RBIs) son of Larry Gilbert. The league's batting champion was Nashville center fielder Bob Borkowski (.376).

On the pitching front, Garman Mallory (20-4) boasted the best league record with support from Frank Marino (19-7) and Ben Wade (18-8). This would be the final championship for the Vols, which played their last game in Sulphur Dell in 1963. The ballpark was demolished in 1969.

Nashville Sounds 1979
In 1978, baseball would return to Nashville as members of the Southern League (Double-A) in newly constructed Herschel Greer Stadium. The next year, the Sounds would place second in the Western Division under manager George Scherger, but defeated first-place Memphis two games-to-one in the division playoffs.

The Sounds lost to Columbus at Greer Stadium in the first game of the SL best-of-five championship series. Nashville won the second game, 3-1 with Duane Walker's two-run double and Gene Menees RBI single in the third inning. Geoff Combe picked up the save.

The Sounds slammed the Astros in the third game, 14-7 in Columbus. Tommy Sohns blasted a three-run homer with Walker, Eddie Milner and Skeeter Barnes each collecting three hits. Pitcher Bill Kelly recorded the victory. With the fourth game tied 2-2 in the Sounds half of the ninth inning, catcher Dave Van Gorder tripled with the bases loaded to give Nashville a 5-2 lead. They hung on to win the SL Pennant, 6-2. Combe recorded the victory.

Nashville Sounds 1982
The Sounds, managed by Johnny Oates, finished the season in second place of the Western Division behind Memphis. In the playoffs, Nashville would defeat Knoxville three-games-to-one and advance to the SL best-of-five championship series with Jacksonville. The Sounds took the opening game loss at Jacksonville (3-2), but split the road trip with a 4-1 victory.

Returning to Greer Stadium, the Sounds defeated the Suns (2-0) to give themselves a chance to win the title at home. Trailing 3-1 in their half of the ninth inning, Jacksonville scored a pair of runs that eventually sent the game into extra innings. In the home half of the 13th inning with two outs and Buck Showalter on base, left fielder Brian Dayett smashed a home run to left center for a dramatic championship finish.

Leading the Sounds offense that season were SL MVP Dayett (.280, 39 HR, 96 RBIs). More offense came from third baseman Erik Peterson (.301), Showalter (.292) and speedster Otis Nixon (.283) who stole 61 bases in just 72 games before being promoted to Triple-A. On the mound Stefan Wever (16-6, 2.78 ERA, 191 SO) became the league's Pitcher-of-the-Year. Teammate Clay Christensen (16-8) tied Wever for most wins in the league.

Nashville Sounds 2005
The Sounds are now Triple-A members of the Pacific Coast League with manager Frank Kremblas. They won their division by three games and advanced to the best-of-five PCL championship series by defeating Oklahoma, three-games-to-two. In the first game in Nashville against Tacoma, the Sounds blasted five home runs including two each by outfielder Nelson Cruz and DH Tony Zuniga. Catcher Mike Rivera added the fifth dinger in route to a Sounds 8-6 win.

Nashville fans would witness their ball club take a 2-0 lead in the series when the Sounds crushed the Rainiers, 11-5. Dave Krynzel paced the Sounds with three hits while each batter, except one, recorded at least one base hit. Tacoma aided the Sounds with five errors.

The Sounds would bring home Nashville's first championship in 23 years by sweeping the Raniers with an extra inning victory. In Tacoma, with the score knotted at 2-2, series MVP Cruz smacked a three-run homer in the 13th for a 5-2 lead and eventual win. Pitcher Brett Evert pitched three scoreless innings to earn the victory. Sounds leaders that season were Corey Hart (.308) batting, Prince Fielder (28) home runs and (86) RBIs. Pitcher Rick Helling collected the most wins (9) while Ben Hendrickson led in strikeouts (122).

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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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