Looking Back: The 1897 Nashville Centennials

By Bill Traughber | May 3, 2010 10:49 AM

Nashville was a charter member of the 1885 Southern League as the "Americans." That league folded at the conclusion of the 1899 season due to financial woes. In several years of the league's existence, pennant races were halted during the season due to a lack of fan support. And in a few years the league did not function at all.

The year 1897 was one of those vacated seasons. The last professional team from Nashville prior to this year was the Southern League Seraphs in 1895. Without the Southern League, Nashville would join the new Central League in 1897.

The Central League's competition was much less than the Southern League. This Nashville professional baseball club was known as the Centennials. Named in honor of Nashville being a centennial city (Tennessee celebrated its centennial in 1896). Other league members included the Cairo (Ill) Egyptians, Evansville (Ind) Brewers, Paducah (Ky) Little Colonels, Terre Haute (Ind) Hottentots and the Washington (Ind) Browns.

The Nashville American reported on the upcoming needs for baseball to return to the city:

"Only one thing now stands in the way of Nashville being represented in the Central League by a first-class ball team this coming season, and that is a park. The prospects are very bright for even this obstacle to be removed by refitting Athletic Park. Negotiations are in progress that bid fair to terminate satisfactorily. Billy Works is still here, and expresses himself as being very much encouraged over the outlook.

"I don't know of a place in the country where I would prefer playing than Nashville," said Works during a conversation with an "American" reporter yesterday. "I learned to like the city and the people when I played here in '94, and have been anxious to get back ever since. If I succeed in getting Athletic Park put into shape for the season, I will give Nashville a team, which the people will be proud. As I have stated to you before, I have already signed three first-class men and have strings to several others that I can land any day."

Billy Works was assigned the Nashville player/manager. He played for the Southern League Nashville Blues in 1894 for then-manager George Stallings. Works was an outfielder for that club appearing in 31 games batting .285 (32-for119) with one home run and five stolen bases. That Blues club finished in sixth place (eight teams). Works was asked about the Central League:

"Why, I think it a splendid one. If I wasn't confident that it would be a success, I wouldn't be willing to invest my money in a team here. I haven't got any to burn or throw away in a Fourth of July League."

A Fourth of July League is one that disbands without completing its full summer schedule. The Central League was just that. By June 2, Nashville was in first place after playing 31 games. Their 19-12 record bested second place Washington (15-10) and third place Evansville (18-13).

However the American gave this report in the June 3, 1897 edition with a bold caption Outlook is Gloomy:

"The outlook for base ball in Nashville after to-day's game, is somewhat gloomy. President Simon worked hard yesterday to get proper financial backing for the club., but his efforts were only partially successful. He has not entirely despaired yet, however and will renew his efforts to-day. Several gentlemen interested in the game have expressed a willingness to assist the club, and if a few more can be found to-day, the team will be a permanent institution here this summer. If no others will agree to help out the team, the team will be transferred, lock, stock and barrel to Decatur, Ill.

"Some of the gentlemen who have heretofore been identified with local base ball have yet to be seen, and the fate of the team rests with them. As has been repeatedly stated in these columns, Nashville will support a team in the Central League this summer. Let the public know that the club is a permanent institution for the season and the games will be well attended. This is all that is needed, and it is to be sincerely hoped that the gentlemen interested in the great game will not permit the team to be taken away from the Centennial City for the small amount lacked to put it on a new basis."

The next day the last professional baseball game played in Nashville in 1897 resulted in a 15-2 loss at Athletic Park to Terre Haute. The newspaper reported that the Centennials game was a "farce" since none of the local players seemed to care about playing baseball. Just before the game, the players were told the team was being transferred to Decatur.

The American reported on the Nashville Centennials demise with a caption that read Up to The Daisies, It Died a Natural Death:

"The Nashville Base Ball Club of the Central League died a natural death yesterday and, owing to the rapid decomposition of the corpse, the funeral occurred at Athletic Park in the afternoon. As was meet and proper, President Simon conducted the services and the Terre Haute team dug the grave and buried the defunct organization under an avalanche of runs. Three hundred fans were the mourners with Bob Phillips as chief. It is thought, however, that the members of the Nashville team really took the death of the club harder, deeper down in their hearts than anybody else as they had most cause for doing so.

"In all seriousness, yesterday's game was the last professional base ball team that will be seen in Nashville during the year 1897. President Simon worked hard, ably and faithfully yesterday to get enough local lovers of the national game interested in the club to put it on a firm basis, but his efforts were futile and before time before yesterday's game he gave it up as a bad job."

The entire league collapsed by mid-July. However three of the Nashville Centennials players would find time in the major leagues.

Theodore Conover played for Cincinnati of the American Association in 1889. He only pitched in one game lasting two innings, giving up four hits, two walks, and one strikeout for a 13.50 ERA. The American Association was founded in 1882 and was a rival of the National League. The AA came into existence by midwestern teams that resented the NL's ban on selling beer on Sundays. The NL absorbed most of the AA's players after the 1891 season. That league folded soon after.

Pat Dillard was an outfielder for St. Louis of the National League in 1900. He appeared in 57 games, batted .230 (42-for-183), no home runs, 12 RBI's and eight stolen bases.

Charlie Petty was born in Nashville in1866. He pitched for Cincinnati (American Association) in 1889 where he was 2-2 in five starts. Petty pitched for New York (NL) in 1893 where he was 5-2 in nine games. In 1894, Petty was with Washington (NL) and Cleveland (NL). Petty's career totals are 10-15 in 34 games with a 5.41 ERA.

The Southern Association was formed in 1901 with Nashville as a charter member. Known later as the "Vols" this Southern Association franchise would make baseball history from 1901-1962 and in 1963 they were members of the SALLY League. They played their games at the Sulphur Dell Ball Park, which was the tract of land that hosted Athletic Park.

Traughber's Tidbit: At one point during the 1988 season, the Sounds went through five managers. Jack Lind (1) opened the season as manager, but left due to health concerns. Wayne Garland (2) was made interim manager until former Sounds' manager George Scherger (3) returned to Nashville as skipper. Scherger retired after just one game. Jim Hoff (4) replaced Scherger, but soon departed for a Reds' front office position. Frank Lucchesi (5) was brought in and completed the season.

Tidbit Two: Johnny Vander Meer is best known for pitching back-to-back no-hitters in 1938 with the Cincinnati Reds. He no-hit the Boston Bees on June 11 and the Dodgers on June 15, which was in the first night game played in Ebbets Field. Vander Meer also pitched for the Nashville Vols in 1936. He appeared in 10 games going 0-1 in 22 innings pitched, giving up 29 hits and 28 walks for a 7.26 ERA. Vander Meer recorded 18 strikeouts.

Tidbit Three: In 1963, while playing for the Washington Senators, Jimmy Piersall clubbed his 100th career home run. He celebrated the feat by running the bases backwards and sliding into home plate. The league later ruled that running the bases backwards was illegal.

If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com. Pick up a 2010 Sounds program for a feature on Nashville's baseball champions from the 1895 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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