Looking Back: Sulphur Dell's First Night Game

By Bill Traugher | June 21, 2010 4:24 AM

The first night baseball game for the Nashville Vols was played on May 18, 1931 at the Sulphur Dell ballpark. In the previous year, the Southern Association's first night game was played in Little Rock, Ark.

Speculation was that the night games would attract more fans through the turnstiles, but baseball purist supporting day baseball claimed bugs would be the main attraction.

The hometown Vols played the Mobile (Ala.) Marines in this historic Monday night occasion. Nashville sports writing legend Fred Russell gave this preview in the Nashville Banner.

The greatest throng to ever witness a game in Sulphur Dell is expected Monday night when the Volunteers of Joe Klugman oppose the Mobile Marines in the first game of Southern League night baseball offered in Nashville and the state of Tennessee. Reduced railroad and bus rates are bringing in hundreds of bugs from neighboring towns, and it is thought that close to 10,000 will be on hand to see the curtain rise on baseball a la nocturnal.

The final test of the lighting system in the Dell was made Sunday night and everything pronounced in readiness for the Monday night opener. The gates will open at 6 p.m. A band will offer selections between seven and eight o'clock when the boys are taking batting and fielding practice. The game is scheduled to start at 8 o'clock, but there are a few preliminaries on the program before actual play begins.

The Vols' starting pitcher was Frank Pearce, facing Mobile's veteran Rube "Red" Oldham, who was also the acting manager. Oldham was in the twilight of his career, playing in the major leagues from 1914 through 1926 with Detroit and Pittsburgh.

Oldham scattered five hits in his complete-game 8-1 win over the Vols. The second batter of the game, Mobile leftfielder John Hutson, set the trend by slapping a home run over the right centerfield wall. The ball sailed over the Hill Electric Company sign, which was a salute to the installers of the new lighting system.

More problems occurred mostly for the Vols and a portion of the estimated 7,000 fans, according to newspaper reports.

Although the Vols bats were not busy, bats were busy flying around trying to discover what it was all about. They were very annoying to the gents in the press box. These bats were far more annoying than Vols bats to Red Oldham.

The Vols committed six errors and managed their only run in the home half of the ninth inning.

There was a theory that young pitchers perform better at night than under the sun, but that was shot down when the veteran Oldham beat the Vols' youngster Pearce. It was reported that this night game attracted more wives with their husbands than ever before. The reasons given suggested maybe the women came "to checkup on hubby and see if he was really going to a ball game."

Blinkey Horn of The Tennessean gave this report:

A heap of folks were present because the novelty of night baseball lured them into Sulphur Dell. No telling how many people who never saw a ball game before and never will again were there. After the sample of last night their curiosity is cured. After the comical exhibition Those Vols gave their desire to watch the hemophiliacs in action has had a setback. It's hard enough for Those Vols to play winning ball by daylight. When the lights are turned on they merely grope around. Last night they blew out a fuse and were short-circuited.

A heap of people declared that they were sorry that they did not stay home and listen to Amos and Andy. Still it is doubtful if Amos and Andy could be any funnier than Those Vols were last night. They went through the blindfold test.

Other than the bats and bugs lacking in day games, night games featured problems. Kids were told that any baseball hit outside the ballpark would gain them free admission upon retrieval. After scrambling for the baseball, one of these youths gave his opinions of the flying ball coming out of the night sky.

"It won't do at all," complained one of the boys. "You can't see the ball 'till it's right on you. It comes down busting out of the dark. It ain't worth the risk!"

When Vols' third baseman Johnny Chapman missed a pop fly by six feet after circling around the infield grass, a fan with a "fog horn voice" could be heard hollering:

"I knew it," he screamed. "They can't see those high ones." After another fly hit into the outfield this brave spectator shouted, "Watch him muff it." The centerfielder did muff it.

The newspapers reported more of the festivities surrounding the game.

A boy perched far out on the limb off a Fourth Avenue tree had to hear his country's song through in a combination sitting-prone posture. To have uncovered his head would have been fatal. He had to hold that limb.

Why, there was even a cheer leader in the audience. Along about the fifth inning a deadly serious gentleman left his seat and pranced boyishly up and down before the grandstand, exhorting the people to "Come on and give 'em some sand. They can't win the game unless we give them some sand."

Astonishingly, he was cold sober. Unkind remarks eventually retired him to his seat, a disillusioned, life-soured man. "They don't need sand, they need runs," was one of the cruel remarks. A terse "razzpberry" was the other.

Two very attractive young heartthrobs demanded that the folks stand up and stretch in the Vols' half of the lucky seventh. They stood alone for awhile, but persistence, aided and abetted by pulchritude, ultimately got them a supporting cast.

Habit claimed at least two victims, "Smokey Joe" Sewell, for the Vols and Kelly for the Marines, enjoyed brief naps. Sewell snored off first and was erased. Kelly snored off the same station and his energy-restoring snooze enabled the homelings to score their only run.

The next night would draw a disappointing attendance of 1,000 fans. However the Vols' bats finally came to life. Vols' pitcher George Milstead was spotted a 13 -2 lead after five innings when the Mobile club went to work on Milstead. They cut the lead to 13-11 entering the ninth.

With two men on base, Milstead, who was nearly yanked in the seventh, held on for the Vols first night victory. The only reported complaint was by the players objecting to a streetlight. A street lamp on Fourth Avenue was in the line of the batter behind the pitching mound blurring their sight. Nashville Mayor Hilary E. Howse, who was at the game, ordered the light to be extinguish.

Russell was a 25-year-old sports writer who was about to complete his second year at the Banner. His column "Sideline Sidelights," reflected his thoughts on the Nashville Vols new venture into night baseball.

Now that the Vols have gone into competition with the movies by staging their performances during the after dinner hours, it follows that they should keep space of their indoor rivals in the matter of ballyhoo. Today this department is offering a few suggestions that may be of help to the Vol management in the matter of increasing the box-office receipts.

The first thing Bob Allen and Company should do is to institute the "trailer " system. You know, like the talkies do in telling of next week's attraction. For instance, after the game tonight the baseballers should give a little sample of what may or will happen Tuesday night. The man with the megaphone would announce the following:

You saw Charlie Willis when he let down the champion Chicks with four hits. You've seen him breeze through the Barons. But get a look at him Tuesday night in that show of shows 'Telling It to the Marines.' See Willis in this ideal role.

It starts with a bang and rollicks pepfully along through reels of gayety to a splendid climax. There's pathos and drama, too. This well-constructed vehicle gives the star every opportunity to run that well-known gamut of emotions. And how Charlie runs them is nobody's business except the extra cashiers that will be necessary to count the box office receipts. DON'T MISS IT.

The minor and Negro Leagues were the first to play baseball in the evening. The majors followed in 1935 with their first night game in Cincinnati. Reportedly, Nashville's Wilson Park hosted black ball games at night close to the 1931 date. Due to the limited press coverage of black baseball, proper documentation on its first night game cannot be located. In 1894, the Nashville Tigers of the Southern League played an exhibition night game with 54 temporary lights scattered about Athletic Park (later Sulphur Dell).

If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com. Pick up a Sounds 2010 Program to learn about Nashville's baseball champions from the 19895 Seraphs to the 2005 Sounds.

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

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