Looking Back: The 1895 Nashville Seraphs

By Bill Traughber | May 16, 2011 4:30 AM

One of the first professional baseball teams in this city was known as the Nashville Seraphs. Nashville had also fielded teams in 1885-86 (Americans), 1887 (Blues), and 1893-94 (Tigers), but the 1895 Nashville baseball club, from the original Southern League, won the city's first professional baseball championship.

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.

Seraph games were played at Athletic Park, which later became Sulphur Dell. Exhibition games were played in the preseason against major league teams, local athletic clubs and Vanderbilt. An ad was located in an old Nashville newspaper announcing an April exhibition game with Nashville vs. Ted Sullivan's Wild Texas Steers. Admission prices included: Ladies--Opera Grand Stand 50 cents, Smokers--Grand Stand 40 cents, Bleachers 25 cents. "Ladies accompanied by gentlemen, admitted to Grand Stand free on Fridays."

Members of the league at this time were Atlanta, Evansville, Little Rock, Memphis, Mobile, Montgomery, Nashville and New Orleans.

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.

In the Southern League, one umpire was assigned to each game, and he stood several feet behind the catcher. When there was a base runner, he positioned himself behind the pitcher.

Newspapers of that time would print box scores and the stories would include the player's last name only. Occasionally, a first name would be mentioned in an extended story. With the Southern League records of this period unavailable, research for this story will omit several players' first names. The home team had the option of batting first; therefore the line score placed the visitors at the bottom, unlike modern baseball.

This 1895 season opened for Nashville on an April afternoon at Evansville, Ind. Seraphs' fans in Nashville could receive details of the games by telegraph at the Merchants' Exchange (corner of Church and College Streets) and at the Grand Opera House (Ryman Auditorium). The Ryman was built in 1892.

Nashville lost the game, 17-10, and Nashville's daily morning newspaper of that day, The Nashville American, gave a detailed summary of the game. The following paragraph reveals the passions of the time about baseball and what lay ahead for the season:

The principal feature of the game was the work of Umpire Keller. His decisions were disgusting, and gave both clubs reasonable excuse for a vast amount of kicking. The Nashville infield with the exception of Stallings seemed to be suffering from a severe case of "stage fright."

By the middle of August, Nashville trailed Evansville and Atlanta in the standings. An apparent ordinary game in Nashville against Atlanta on Aug. 10, would later be pivotal in determining the Southern League championship. The Seraphs lost the game 10-9 at Athletic Park behind the pitching of their ace starter, Sammy Moran. More than 1,000 fans witnessed the poor pitching performance, but the villain of the game was, of course, the umpire.

With Nashville trailing 10-8 in their ninth inning at-bat, they scored one run. With two outs, runners were on first and second with the Seraphs catcher, Sweeney at-bat. Clark was the umpire and The Nashville American reports on Sweeney's plate appearance:

Two strikes had been called when he hit a high foul fly toward the grand stand. Wilson got under it, but his foot slipped and he did not get his hands under it at all. Just as he went to reach for it some boy in the grounds threw a glove or a cap past his head. For this alleged interference Clark called Sweeney out. Then pandemonium reigned supreme. A howling mob went after Clark and he doubtless would have been subjected to the rough treatment which his robbing tactics had earned for him but for the interferences of a package of Chief Clack's regulars and detectives. As it was, one enthusiastic fan gave him a sound nose pulling.

Wilson was Atlanta's catcher and Clack their manager. The game ended with a Nashville defeat, 10-9. The game would be meaningful three week's later. With the help of a remarkable 20-game winning streak, Nashville vaulted into first place in the standings. At this time, only a few games remained on the schedule. Nashville stood at 65-35 (.650), Evansville 61-33 (.649) and Atlanta was third at 62-34 (.646).

With the teams traveling by train, games that were postponed due to rain were not rescheduled. Percentage points then determined the Southern League champions. The season was scheduled to close after the games of Sept. 2. However, Atlanta won a game on Sept. 3 against New Orleans, which gave them a tie with Nashville. Nashville was 71-35 and Atlanta finished at 69-34. Nashville played three more games than Atlanta, but each team finished with the same percentage, .670.

Nashville claimed the pennant and protested the final standings due to these reasons:

They claimed that the August 10 "Glove Game" should have been thrown out due to the umpire's incorrect call. New Orleans used a player who was ineligible after he was suspended from Pennsylvania State League. Nashville insisted that the games he appeared should be forfeited. And thirdly, Atlanta played a game one day after the season was officially over and declared that the game shouldn't count in the standings.

If New Orleans were to forfeit the games in question, Nashville would be the beneficiary. The president of the Nashville team, Mr. White, gave his opinion of the controversial season ending:

"I do not think there is any necessity for talking about playing off a tie, for there is none to play off. The Nashvilles are winners of the pennant and it should be awarded to them. I would rather see that flag fly over the Nashville Base Ball Park than to be presented with a $1,000 bill as the proceeds of playing off of a tie, or from any other source.

"The action of the association may be necessary in order to officially decide the award of the pennant but of result of that action no reasonable being can have any doubt. I have only the kindest feelings for Atlanta. It is a very nice country town, and if she keeps her club together might be able some day to successfully contest with Macon and Milledgeville, Ga."

A few days later, a meeting was held in Chattanooga with the league and team representatives to determine the winner.

The American reported the results of that meeting.

The Nashville Base Ball Club of Nashville, Tenn., the club which won more games than any other club in the Southern Association and won them all fairly, not a forfeited game or an irregular game of any description being included, has justly and rightfully been declared the championship pennant winners for the season of 1895, and the pennant for which the Nashville team so earnestly fought and so fairly won by their magnificent line of twenty consecutive victories at the close of the season, will fly from the grounds of the Nashville club.

The game of Aug. 10, between Nashville and Atlanta, played at Nashville, was by unanimous vote, thrown out. This game is now the now-famous "glove game," which Clark gave to the Atlantas because some small boy in the audience threw a glove in front of Catcher Wilson while he was in the act of attempting to catch a foul ball, which he could not have possibly reached. The ground upon which the game was thrown out was that Clark's decision was an illegal one, there being no rule providing for the punishment of a club for the offense of an outsider.

The league also voided Atlanta's Sept. 3 game that was played after the season. With the loss taken away from the Seraph's and a win taken away from Atlanta, Nashville's percentage jumped to .676. Atlanta's percentage fell to .667. Nashville withdrew it's protest of New Orleans' ineligible player.

Nashville's franchise folded after that 1895 championship season. The Southern League folded in 1899 and the Nashville Vols would be charter members of the newly-formed Southern Association in 1901. The Vols remained in the association until 1963.

In case you didn't know, the dictionary defines a Seraph as: one of the six-winged angels of the highest rank believed in ancient Judaism to guard God's throne with sacred ardor, or one resembling or benefiting an angel.

If you have any comments or suggestions, click here to send an email to Bill Traughber.

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

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