Looking Back: The 1887 Nashville Blues

By Bill Traughber | April 26, 2010 5:21 AM

When the Nashville Americans joined the original Southern League in 1885, professional baseball had arrived in the city. But, after just two seasons the Americans folded their franchise.

In 1887, financial problems also forced two-time league champion Atlanta to drop out along with Augusta, Macon and Chattanooga. Nashville was able to put together another team that became the Blues.

New Orleans and Mobile became replacement teams joining Charleston, Memphis, Savannah, and Nashville for a six-team league. The revamped league would experiment in 1887 with new rules. The number of strikes was raised to four and base on balls would credit the batter with a hit. This experiment was dropped the next year as batting averages soared.

The season began for the Blues with a March exhibition series with the Syracuse Shamrocks at Sulphur Spring Park (Athletic Park and Sulphur Dell). George Bradley was the Nashville Blues manager and also played third base. Bradley had a 10-year major league career beginning in 1876 with St. Louis of the National League.

The highlight of the exhibition season was the arrival of the major league Detroit Wolverines to Nashville. Detroit finished the previous season in second place of the National League. They were just three games behind Cap Anson's potent Chicago White Stockings. The Wolverines were described as, "the most powerful and the highest priced aggregation of base ball players in the world."

They must have been the equivalent of the Yankees in the 1880s.

The Nashville morning newspaper, The Daily American, was so impressed with the Wolverines arrival in the city that they printed nearly a full-page story on the team. Sketches and profiles were included on 14 players and their manager Bill Watkins. Detroit would sweep the Blues 14-4, 8-0 and 12-2. Approximately 1,200 fans including "several women" witnessed the final game. Detroit would continue with their dominant ways and win the 1887 National League championship.

Detroit was a member of the National League from 1881-88. They became charter members of the newly formed American League in 1901 where they became the Tigers.

There was a report that before the second game of the series, Southern League President John Morrow led a contingent to the Belle Meade horse farm. Accompanying him in "Open carriages drawn by some of Tennessee's fastest horses" were the Blues' team and visiting press representatives. Gen. William Jackson, the farm owner, entertained the group with refreshments and special viewings of his top horses Iroquois, Enquirer and Great Tom.

The Blues uniforms were described as "light blue shirts and pants, white belts, red stockings and red and white caps." It was reported that the uniforms were made by A. J. Reach & Co. and, "Also sent to the club their compliments a box of handsome toilet articles for the club dressing rooms."

The 1887 season would bring to Nashville a hated rivalry with Memphis and financial problems. Only one umpire was assigned to each game. Game times at Sulphur Springs Park would be in the afternoon at 2:30, 3:30 or 4:00 while bleacher seats were a quarter and 50 cents. The individual series with each league team would be four games and travel was, of course, by train.

The state of Tennessee had a law that banned the playing of baseball on Sundays. The Blues were advised to play their first scheduled Sunday game believing the law was unconstitutional. Just prior to the initial Sunday game, a meeting was held at the Y.M.C.A and attended by several Nashville ministers. The group wanted the law to be enforced. Petitions were to be circulated around town condemning the violation of the law.

The Sunday game was played before a large crowd without incident. However, later that week the Davidson County grand jury sent indictments to all the Nashville and Savannah players involved in the game. Also indicted were the officials of the Nashville Base Ball Association.

The law offices of Vertrees & Vertrees, Demoss & Malone were the attorneys representing the Nashville club. The lawyers must have been one of Nashville's best as they were able to have the charges dropped. Sunday baseball continued in Nashville that year.

A newspaper article also reported that the Square Street and Market Street nine would play a series for the city's championship. Final results were not located. The Nashville Blues exploded to a 16-3 record early in the season. Mobile folded as a team after a 5-21 start and two weeks later Savannah joined them. Birmingham was persuaded to field a team and join the league. The schedule had to be revised for the remaining portion of the season.

When the Blues were out of town, Nashvillians could gather at the downtown Masonic Theatre to learn game updates by telegraph.

At one game in Nashville it was reported that a young lady in the grand stand suggested, "that the names of the players be chalked on their backs for the benefit of the spectators." The lady had foresight. It would be decades before names were affixed to baseball jerseys. Numbers would not be in use for identification purposes until the 1920s.

Nashville's top pitcher was Al Maul (9-3). While rumors began to circulate that Nashville was in financial difficulty, they were forced to sell Maul to Philadelphia of the National League where he was 4-2. Maul played 15 years with 10 different teams in professional baseball. The Blues top hitter was first baseman Michael Firle (.322).

A scandalous event was reported in The Daily American concerning a Blues' player. Blues' pitcher Larry Corcoran was scheduled to pitch a Saturday game in Nashville against Memphis. An investigation revealed that Corcoran was intoxicated before the game. A Memphis player, Bob Black, reportedly was the culprit to have gotten Corcoran intoxicated so Memphis would win.

It was revealed that certain parties from Memphis had bet large amounts of money against Nashville. When manager Bradley learned of the scheme, he promptly replaced Corcoran on the mound himself and got the victory. Corcoran was fined $50 and suspended indefinitely. Also under investigation was Memphis manager John Sneed for his complicity. Corcoran was eventually sold to Indianapolis for $500.

Black would also have to leave his team after a July series in Nashville to testify in a Memphis murder case.

Sneed was a controversial man himself. Often he was fined as much as $100 for his "abusive language." Sneed was also under investigation for trying to break up the league. The Memphis officials tried to suspend him due to his irrational behavior. But, Sneed retained an attorney to keep his contract enforced. Later in the season he was sold to Indianapolis.

The Blues were eventually forced to sell off players during the season in order to remain stable financially. The turnover in the roster affected the team's record. They were losing much more often.

Nashville (34-30) finally did fold as a team during the first week in August. In withdrawing their franchise from the league they forfeited their $1,000 guarantee to complete the season. It was estimated that the Blues lost $18,000.

New Orleans would win the Southern League pennant that year (74-40) followed by Charleston (66-41) and Memphis (65-46).

Nashville would not rejoin the Southern League until 1893-94 when they became the Tigers. The Nashville Seraphs (1895) won the first professional championship for the city in their only year in the league. The Southern League folded after the 1899 season, but reemerged in 1901 as the Southern Association.

Traughber's Tidbits: The Nashville Sounds all-time winningest manager is Trent Jewett (1998-00, 2003-04). His record is 320-304 (.513). Listed in second place is Rick Renick (1993-96) with a 309-266 mark (.537).

Tidbit Two: The best team record in Sounds history was in 1980 at 97-46. The New York Yankees affiliate, managed by Stump Merrill, won the Western Division title, but was bounced from the playoffs by Memphis in the division finals, three games to one.

Tidbit Three: The most runs the Sounds scored in a game were 20. On May 31, 1981 they scored that amount and duplicated the feat against Colorado Springs on May 20, 2000.

If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via e-mail WLTraughber@aol.com. Pick up a Sounds 2010 program for a feature story on Nashville's baseball teams championships from the 1895 Seraphs through 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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