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Looking Back: The 1940 Nashville Vols

July 4, 2011
It did not take Larry Gilbert long to bring his Southern Association's background as the premier manager to Nashville. Gilbert had been managing in the league since 1923 in New Orleans. He won five championships there and was persuaded to leave New Orleans for Nashville in 1939 to add general manager and part-owner to his managerial duties. Gilbert's first Vols' club finished his inaugural season in third place. His 1940 club would become of the greatest minor league teams ever assembled.

One of the keys to its success was a great pitching staff, which included Cletus (Boots) Poffenberger, Leo Twardy, George Jeffco, Ace Adams, and Johnny Sain.

Poffenberger once thrilled Nashville baseball fans on Labor Day in 1940 with a rare feat for a pitcher. He produced two wins in a doubleheader at Sulphur Dell ballpark to secure the Southern Association pennant for the hometown Vols.

In the first game, he gained the win with an inning of relief. After starting the nightcap, the game was called after five-and-a-half innings due to darkness with the Vols leading, 10-2. Those were Poffenberger's 24th and 25th victories of the season that helped send the 1940 Vols into the history books with one of the greatest minor league seasons ever.

This was only the third team in Southern Association history to be on top of the standings from wire-to-wire. The Association was formed in 1901 with the Vols a charter member.

The 101-47 record and a nine-and-a-half game winning margin was due not only to pitching, but also a flawless defense and a slugging lineup. The 1940 season began with a special train ride from Nashville to Atlanta, the site of the Vols' opening day. The train consisted of 300 Nashvillians including Mayor Thomas Cummings, city officials and fans. There was an omen of what was about to occur when the first three Vols' batters hit safely. Nashville won 12-8 against the Crackers and never looked back on the season.

"Larry Gilbert was our manager and he was one of the best managers I ever played for," said Arnie Moser a member of that 1940 team. "We had a bunch of good hitters and led the league in a lot of things. There was a short right field fence (282 feet) there in Nashville. The hitters use to wear that thing out. We'd bounce baseballs of that screen just one right after another. It was fun. I really enjoyed it."

Moser began that spring in the Milwaukee Braves organization and was optioned to Nashville. His first game in a Vols' uniform was on that opening day in Atlanta. Moser led the league that year in at-bats (623) and hits (216). The leftfielder also hit .347 while driving in 104 runs with five home runs. In 1937 Moser totaled five at-bats for the Cincinnati Reds, but failed to get a hit. That would be his only major league experience.

"Atlanta was always tough, they had a good ball club," said Moser. "I remember we beat them five-out-of-seven near the end of the season and that knocked them out. Fred Russell (Nashville sports writer) use to travel with us on the train. He used to play a lot of poker with us and we won some of his money, too. We didn't play for big stakes.

"Gilbert taught us how to behave and to do what we were supposed to do. He turned us loose. I had a pretty good year hitting and he'd tell me to swing away anytime I felt like it."

Another league leader that season for the Vols was right-handed pitcher Adams. Adams went 13-5 with a 4.06 ERA and led the league in strikeouts with 122. Ace is not a nickname, it's his given name.

"We had a mighty good team with great hitters and an excellent infield," Adams said. "Our manager [Gilbert] was a pretty smart old guy. He knew baseball real well. I was told that I threw in the 90's, but I never knew for sure. We didn't have one of those speed guns like they have today.

"When I was asked, 'who were the toughest teams to pitch against?' I'd say, 'To tell the truth--all of them.' I got beat some, just like everyone else. I threw a screwball, a slider and fastball. I learned to throw my slider in Nashville. There's no such thing as a curve anymore. It's always a breaking ball. I tried to make all of my pitches break, everything. What we called a forkball back then, they call a split-finger fastball now."

Adams pitched in Nashville for three years. His 13 victories were fourth best in the Vols rotation from that championship season. Adams appeared in 44 games, 19 as a starter and tossed two shutouts with six complete games.

The following year, Adams was on the roster of the National League's New York Giants. In a six-year career he was 41-33 with a 3.47 ERA in 302 games. Only seven of these games were as a starter. Adams led the league in saves (1944-45) and appearances (1942-43-44) while with the Giants.

"I loved pitching at Sulphur Dell," said Adams. "The right fielder played up there on a hill (known as 'The Dump"). They had a screen about 30 feet high. Left and center field were reasonable, but right field was very short. It was a hitter's ballpark, but I didn't care where I pitched."

The player, which would proceed to the majors with the most success, was pitcher Sain. Sain joined the Vols in 1939, but pitching was not what Gilbert had in mind for the 22-year-old youngster.

"Gilbert told me that he didn't believe that I would be able to pitch in the major leagues," Sain said. "I was able to hit line drives and he told me I could maybe play first base.

"So he gave me a first baseman's mitt. Gilbert later sent me a letter asking me to stay on the mound and pitch because of his player personnel concerns. I thought maybe he was right; maybe I should switch to playing another position."

Sain was used by Gilbert as a spot starter on the mound, a reliever and right field. He appeared in 30 games, seven as a starter and an 8-4 record. Sain recorded a 4.45 ERA with one shutout and three complete games.

"Whatever Gilbert said, that was what I was willing to do," said Sain. "Gilbert was a super person as far as I was concerned, he made me feel important. One of my best recollections about Nashville was walking to the ballpark from our hotel. Some of us stayed at the Maxwell House and we would walk down Church St. to Candyland before a game."

Gilbert arranged for Sain to gain a tryout with the Boston Braves of the National League in 1942. He appeared in 40 games, mostly in relief, earning a 4-7 record. Sain's baseball career was interrupted with three years in the military. Sain became a Braves' starter in 1946, compiling a 20-14 record with a 2.21 ERA. In 1948, Sain had his best year in the majors with a 24-15 record, leading the league in wins, complete games (28) and innings pitched (315).

Sain was also named the National League Pitcher-of-the-Year. His 11-year major league totals include a 136-116 record with a 3.45 ERA in 412 games. Sain also appeared in four World Series with the Braves and Yankees, going 2-2 in six starts.

The key to the Vols 1940 success was its continuity, great pitching and a record-setting infield. The starting lineup remained intact throughout the season with only two roster changes to the pitching staff in mid-season. Several players were veterans with prior major league experience. Sain was the only player to reach major league stardom while only one player failed to reach the major leagues.

The rest of the lineup:

First Base - Mickey Rocco set the league record for the most double plays by a first baseman at 179. He recorded a .305 average, clubbed 21 home runs while driving in 101 runs. Rocco's 18-year baseball career includes four years with Cleveland (1943-46) where he batted .258. In 1944, he led the American League with 653 plate appearances.

Second Base - John Mihalic was the Vols leadoff batter and led the league with 127 walks, which was a league record at that time. He batted .317, was second in the league with runs (133) and third in doubles (54). Mihalic also set a league record for double plays by a second baseman with 143. The 10-year Southern Association veteran also batted .244 with the Washington Senators (1935, 36, 37).

Shortstop - Dick Culler also set a league mark for double plays by a shortstop. He batted .277 with 73 runs-batted-in and only one home run. Later, he became the Boston Braves regular shortstop in 1945-46. Culler spent eight years in the major leagues with five different teams. His major league career totals a .244 average in 472 games.

Third Base - Bob Boken was a 32-year-old veteran whose 118 runs-batted-in tied for the league lead. He also recorded a .302 batting average while collecting 13 home runs. This veteran appeared with the Washington Senators (1933-34) and Chicago White Sox (1934). Boken was a .247 hitter in 457 career at-bats on the major league level.

Catcher - Charley "Greek" George set a Southern Association for a catcher with a .998 fielding percentage, making one error in 612 chances with two passed-balls. The record stood until 1961 when the league folded. George batted .335 with nine home runs and 109 runs-batted-in. His difficulty with major league pitching limited his time there. Playing for five different teams (1935, 36, 38, 41, 45), he managed a .177 batting average in 118 games. While playing for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1945, he slugged an umpire in the nose during an argument. George was given a one-year suspension and never played another major league game.

Center Field - Oris Hockett led the Vols in batting with a .363 average, 14 home runs and 68 runs-batted-in. He finished eight points behind the league leader for average, finishing third. Prior to joining the Vols, Hockett played two years with the Brooklyn Dodgers. After the 1940 season, he played five seasons with the Cleveland Indians. Hockett had a .276 lifetime batting average and represented the Indians in the 1944 All-Star game.

Right Field - Gus Dugas was the Vols' third outfielder and was 33 years old when he batted .336, hit 22 home runs and 118 runs-batted-in. His home run and RBI totals tied him for the league's best. Dugas' major league experience includes short stints with the Pittsburgh Pirates (1930, 32, 33) and Washington Senators (1934). He hit .206 in 125 games, but had a .327 career minor league batting average.

Pitcher - Boots Poffenberger was the ace of the staff, leading the league with a 26-9 record. He appeared in 38 games (33 starts) completing 18 games with three shutouts. Remarkably, his 4.58 ERA was the second worst of the pitching staff. Prior to joining the Vols in 1940, Poffenberger played three years in the majors with Detroit (1937-38) and Brooklyn (1939). His big league career totals include a 16-12 record with a 4.75 ERA in 57 games. After two years in Nashville he spent three years in the military, then retired in 1946 after playing in San Diego. Poffenberger was a favorite with his teammates. His favorite breakfast consisted of two fried eggs and a beer.

Pitcher - Leo Twardy was the only regular never to reach the major leagues. He was second on the team with 17 wins against 11 losses. Twardy appeared in 53 games and recorded a 3.45 ERA.

Pitcher - George Jeffcoat recorded a 14-6 season with a 3.78 ERA. The right-hander was second only to teammate Adams in strikeouts with 121. Jeffcoat opened the 1940 playoffs striking out 18 Chattanooga Lookouts in a Vols' 6-1 victory. At one time, he struck out seven Lookouts in a row for a league record. As a major leaguer, he was 7-11 in parts of four years with Brooklyn (1936, 37, 39) and the Boston Braves (1943). In his 70 career games he recorded a .451 ERA while pitching mostly in relief.

The Vols went on to win the Shaughnessy Playoffs and the Dixie Series. The Shaughnessy consisted of a postseason playoff within the Southern Association to determine the representative to the Dixie Series. The Dixie Series was played between the champions of the Southern Association and the Texas League.

The Sporting News also named Gilbert their Minor League Manager-of-the-Year for 1940. The Vols would also win pennants in 1943, 1944 and 1948.Gilbert retired from the field in 1949 to become the Vols' General Manager. He retired from baseball in 1955 and died in 1965 at age 73.

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