The origin of baseball in Nashville is not known, but it is a myth that Unions soldiers taught the game to the city during their occupation during the Civil War. The earliest documentation has a newspaper article describing a game of "base ball" being played in the Edgefield community. This article is from July 1860, before the Civil War and the election of Abraham Lincoln.
The ball games were played just north of the State Capital Building in an area named Sulphur Springs Bottom. For years, Nashvillians used this area as a watering and picnic spot, which featured a salt lick and sulphur spring. The grounds became a natural location to build a modest baseball field.
Newspaper accounts referred to the Nashville ballpark as Sulphur Springs Park. The park was best known as Athletic Park in those early years. Murfreesboro native and sports writing legend, Grantland Rice later named the field Sulphur Dell.
One of the earliest recorded baseball games appeared in the city's newspapers in Sept. 1867. A three-game series between the "Nashville and Phoenix Base Ball Clubs," was played to determine the county's champions.
Professional baseball leaped to Nashville with the organization of the Southern League in 1885. As a charter member, the Nashville Americans were joined by Atlanta, Augusta, Macon, Columbus, Memphis, Chattanooga and Birmingham.
Nashville was also the 1885 spring training camp for the Chicago White Stockings. Hall of Famer Cap Anson led his club to the city for a three-week period. Exhibition games were played with the newly-formed Americans, local semi-pro clubs and Vanderbilt University. The White Stockings would win the National League pennant with an 87-25 record later that fall. It was suggested that the waters of Sulphur Bottom "energized" the Chicagoans to victory.
The players of this era generally received $50 to $60 a month while the pitchers and catchers might earn a little more. The distance from the pitcher to the catcher was 50 feet and underhand fast-pitching was the rule of the day. The bases were 90 feet away, but the bases on first and third were positioned outside the lines. The next year, the bases were moved inside the lines.
The catchers did have the protection, but not that you see in modern baseball. They stood several feet behind the batter. The single umpire would position himself several feet behind the catcher. His accuracy in calling balls and strikes was a point of frustration for the players and fans. The umpire would move himself behind the pitcher when there was a base runner. Umpires were also given the power to dish out fines on the spot, as the Nashville Americans would experience.
Seven balls had to be taken before a batter would be given a free trip to first base. However, in 1885, the batters could tell the pitcher to throw strikes high or low. Another rule that lasted only a year enabled the batter to use a bat that was flat on one side.
Accurate statistics and records from that era are unavailable and incomplete. The newspapers of that day would refer to a player with his last name. Occasionally, in a feature story the players' and umpire's full names were given. For this story some first names will be omitted.
Nashville's opening-day lineup for 1885 included: Leonard Sowders, first base; James Hillery, third base; John Cullen, second base; Joe Werrick, shortstop; Alexander Voss, pitcher; Rhue, left field; Diestel, center field; Tony Hellman, catcher and Bryan, right field. Bryan was also Nashville's manager. Player-managers were common for this age.
Prior to opening day, exhibition games were played with various ball teams throughout the south. Nashville's morning newspaper, The Daily American, gave this report on the city's anticipated first organized professional baseball game played in Nashville on May 4, 1885.
This afternoon at 3:30 o'clock the first Nashville game in the Southern League championship season will be played at the new base ball park between the Americans and the Columbus Club.
The locals have for several weeks past been on their first Southern trip of the season, and in the face o' bad luck with some of their own players and the horrible umpiring system, have in most instances made highly credible records. They deserve a large attendance and a perfect ovation at the hands of Nashville people.
They have made friends wherever they have visited and return a close second to the highest yet made by a club that has been playing off its own grounds. The Columbus club is considered by Manager Schmeitz of the Atlantas, and also Manager Bryan, of the Americans, to be one of the strongest in the league, and the game this afternoon will undoubtedly be full of interest.
Nashville lost that first game to Columbus 3-2. During this period, the home team had the option to bat first or at the bottom of the inning. Hillery, batting second, got Nashville's first hit in the first inning. Sowders led off the inning reaching first base on an error. Cullen also reached base in the first inning on an error. Werrick followed with a triple scoring Hillery and Cullen for the Americans' only runs of the game.
Scanning the newspapers throughout the season, one finds a July incident in Nashville involved an umpire and a bad call. The game with Columbus was tied 4-4 when Nashville came to bat in the ninth. With two out, Diestel and Crowell were on first and second base. Charles Marr followed with a hit between left and center field.
Crowell scored and Diestel slid into home plate obviously ahead of the throw from the outfield. However, the umpire called a "slide out." The umpire claimed that Diestel had run out of the "three-foot line" and was therefore out. Kellogg, who was catching for Nashville, protested the call and Umpire McCue fined him $10 on the spot. Diestel and Sneed of Nashville also complained, and they were instantly fined $5 each. Columbus scored in their half of the ninth to win, 5-4.
The Daily American gave this report of the incident:
The spectators had seen, in the previous game, exhibitions of McCue's puffness and were thoroughly indignant at him for robbing them of their game. When the players came in Diestel walked up to McCue in a threatening manner and denounced him for calling him out when he was perfectly safe. If it had not been for the ladies in the grand stand Diestel would have hit him. By this time an angry-looking mob came pilling down from the amphitheater, and it looked very much like black eyes, tar and feathers, or something worst for McCue.
Manager Mayberry, in the meanwhile, seemed to have anticipated something of the kind, and hurried a number of police down into the diamond to protect the poor unfortunate McCue. They arrived on the spot in good time. The gang of spectators were about to administer to him what they evidently believed deserved, when he met with his timely rescue. After going to his room to get his coat he was escorted by a body guard of police out of the grounds up Cherry Street to Gaffney's saloon on Church Street. Several hundred people, many of whom were negroes and small boys followed him the entire distance. Upon the streets the umpire, his foul decisions and general incompetency were the talk of everybody.
McCue went to his room at Linck's Hotel and said he intended to umpire the next day's game. He also said that if there were any "guying or hooting in the audience or by players, he would fire the whole crowd from the park." Diestel and Sneed confronted McCue at the hotel where McCue informed the ball players that their fine was now $10 and not the original $5.
Mayberry was reportedly the Nashville manager at this time. That night, he, along with the Columbus manager, telegraphed the league office to request McCue's dismissal as an umpire. Other complaints appeared such as "he is the only umpire in the South who has sent batters to base because the pitcher 'unnecessarily delayed' the game." It was also reported that of the 16 fines imposed by the umpires that season in the Southern League, 12 were by McCue.
The next day McCue was sent a telegraph from the league office informing him that he was fired due to incompetence.
Another incident that summer involved a rumor in Nashville that a special new player would be added to the roster. The game was in Nashville against Birmingham.
The newspaper gave the report:
The mysterious man who had been signed by the locals, it transpired was a huge joke. He was none other than the negro Mascot, who was gaudily attired for the occasion in a suit of red with the word "Mascot" on the back of his shirt and "Nashvilles" on the front, while a large sunflower glowed on his breasts. He was put up to bat to the applause of the grandstand, and after two strikes had been called hit to second base. The visitors were in on the joke, and by laughable errors allowed him to score.
The Civil War had ended just 20 years earlier and the prejudices against other races were strong. Blacks were allowed to attend the games, but were always seated in the "negro bleachers." Newspapers' language was insensitive and insulting by today's standards. This reporting practice would continue well into the 20th century.
The largest crowd of that season in Nashville occurred Aug 29. Over 1,200 fans attended a special "Ladies Day." The Americans beat Augusta, 6-5. Another newspaper story revealed that in one game the Nashville club wore their "old gold uniforms, which have been fixed up, so that they are undoubtedly the most striking suits in the league."
The Americans placed fifth in the final standings of that inaugural 1885 season with a record of 55-37. Atlanta won the pennant with a 60-31 record. Sowders was the league's first batting champion (.309). The following season Sowders played in the American Association (new major league rival of the National League) for Baltimore.
Nashville also fielded a team in 1986 and became the Blues in 1887. Other Nashville pre-1900 Southern League teams include the Tigers (1893-94), and Seraphs (1895). The Southern League folded in 1899 and a new Southern Association was formed in 1901 with Nashville once again a charter member. They later became the Nashville Vols.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.