When the original Southern League (1885-1899) folded, baseball was emerging as the most popular sport with the fans. This was true in the South, and especially Nashville. Nashville's Athletic Park was full of baseball activity, spring through fall.
Amateur and semi-professional teams played regularly with barnstorming teams from across the country also participating. In the fall of 1900, a group of men with baseball experience met to organize a new league in the South. One of these men was native Nashvillian Newt Fisher. The 29-year-old Fisher was a minor league player with major league experience in 1898 with the Philadelphia Phillies.
The founders organized the Southern Association with 12 men on a roster and a salary cap of $1,200 per club. The average salary was $85 per player. Teams traveled by train and slept in the cheapest hotels. The original teams were Nashville, Little Rock, Memphis, New Orleans Shreveport, Chattanooga, Birmingham and Selma. Vols (Volunteers) was chosen as Nashville's nickname. A 120-game schedule would be attempted in the spring of 1901.
Just prior to the start of the season, league president R.W. Kent, issued a directive to all of the league's umpires. The Nashville American printed his instructions, which said in part:
You are absolute master of the field from the beginning to the termination of the game. I will sustain you in everything as long as you show me you are capable, industrious and honest. You need never be afraid of complaints from Presidents, managers or other persons interested in the association when you adhere strictly to the above.
In assuming control of a game, you will familiarize yourself with the batting order of each club. See that all foul lines are distinctively marked; 3-foot line and coacher lines can be plainly seen. Just before you call the game, face the grandstand and give the names of the batteries, example as follows: The battery for Shreveport to-day is Green and Jones, and for Memphis, Smith and Little.
Never in any case allow players to argue decisions with you. The Captain is the only man who has a right to address you, and it is always your duty to keep him in the limits of respectability. You have full power to fine or remove any player from the game, at any time, for infringing any way whatever on the rules. If any player continues to make trouble for you, I will handle him.
Nashville's first series of games that spring was an exhibition with Vanderbilt's baseball team. Athletic Park was notorious for flooding after a hard rain and some games were moved to the original Dudley Field on the Vanderbilt campus. The Commodores were swept badly in the three-game series. Playing at shortstop for Vanderbilt was Murfreesboro native and future sports writing legend, Grantland Rice.
The Vols opened the regular season in Chattanooga and then returned home after a three-game sweep of the Lookouts. Opening day at Athletic Park drew the attention of Nashville on May 6. A gala festival marked the occasion.
At 2:00 p.m., the Vols led by a band, left the Duncan Hotel in carriages with Nashville Mayor James Head and other Nashville officials. Over 2,000 fans were disappointed as their hometown Vols lost, 9-7. In this era of baseball, the home team had the option of batting first and there was only one umpire. Newspaper clippings generally did not include the first names of the players or umpires. Therefore, at times, omissions of first names in this story were necessary.
Fisher was the catcher, manager and occasionally filled in at first base. His lineup for that first Southern Association game in Nashville were: Ed Abbaticchio, second base; Doc Wiseman, right field; Fisher, first base; Ballantyne, catcher; Lang, center field; Tom Parrot, left field; Henry Reitz, third base; Kennedy, shortstop; Corbett, pitcher.
By the July 4th holiday Nashville was in second place (31-21) behind Little Rock by one game. Two games scheduled in Nashville with Birmingham revealed the seriousness that the national pastime evolved. The July 2nd and 3rd games with Birmingham were forfeited to Nashville, 9-0 as the Barons' manager Mills, protested the umpire.
Mills refused to play the games due to the presence of the umpire named York. Three days earlier, in a Nashville victory over Birmingham, Mills was upset with York's umpiring and was kicked out of the game. An unnamed reporter for The Nashville American explained that incident:
The Birmingham team claim that York was in error in deciding that Kennedy had stolen second in Monday's game, and that Corbett was out in the last inning for not touching second and third bases when making a circuit after his drive over the fence. From the reporter's table it could be seen that York was correct in his first decision, for the second baseman never touched Kennedy. He got the ball in time, but it was a high throw and Kennedy slid under before the ball could be brought to touch him. The latter decision, which affected the final score, was one the writer could not see, because of the crowd swarming on the field.
Mills sent a telegram to Kent requesting that York be suspended from umpiring future league games. Mills' request was denied and he was fined $100 per game for not playing. After the second forfeiture, Mills' rage was apparent as he made serious accusations against York and Vols' manager Fisher. Fisher is quoted in the newspaper answering the Mills' outburst:
"I want you to correct some misstatements made by Mills. He states that York was drunk in Birmingham and could not umpire two games. This is not true. I saw York everyday that we were in Birmingham and he was not the least bit intoxicated. For some time prior to our going there York had been suffering with an attack of malarial fever, and that was the reason he could not officiate the two games he was out.
"I understand that Mills said that I gave York $5 while at Birmingham, implying thereby that I had bought him. I have been playing professional ball for ten years, and was never a party to a dirty transaction, and have never seen anything crooked done by any manager."
The two forfeits would later benefit Nashville as by mid-August, the Vols held a two game lead over Memphis. All games that were postponed due to bad weather would be rescheduled whenever possible and doubleheaders were popular.
With only two weeks left until the end of the season, Little Rock was now pursuing Nashville in the hotly contested pennant race. While playing in Little Rock, more umpiring problems forced the police to become involved with fights, arrests and near-riotous fans. The Nashville American gave this report on that August incident:
The scheduled double-header between Little Rock and Nashville broke up in a row this afternoon and resulted in the arrest of Umpire John E. Johnstone and First Baseman Joe Wright, of the local club. Wright was bailed out within an hour, but Johnstone was refused bail until to-night on account of the fear of danger to him from the excited populace which surrounded the jail to the number of 500.
The problem that led to the ruckus was the issue of who was to umpire the game and the eligibility of a Nashville pitcher. Nashville brought Johnstone with them on the train to Little Rock while the normal Little Rock umpire was James Murray. Murray would not relinquish the field to Johnstone. When Nashville refused to play the game without Johnstone as the umpire, Murray forfeited the game to Little Rock.
Documentation finally appeared form the league's president that Johnstone was scheduled to umpire the game. Another issue that riled Little Rock was the pitcher for the Vols, Bailey, who recently joined Nashville. Bailey had previously pitched with Selma, but was traded to Nashville the day before. Another telegram from the league president confirmed Bailey's status with Nashville. The Arkansans were not satisfied with either ruling. The Nashville American continued their story of the controversy in this heated pennant race:
Little Rock took the field in the first inning, with Popp pitching, and Nashville made two runs. When Little Rock went to bat, Bailey walked to the box over Little Rock's protest. Crozier, of Little Rock, was on second when Martin singled and Crozier attempted to score. The ball got to the plate just as Crozier did, and Catcher Fisher, swung at him and apparently missed him, but the umpire called Crozier out.
First Baseman Wright, who was sitting on the bench, ran into the diamond and, pushing against Johnstone, knocked him down. When Johnstone got up it is alleged he attempted to strike Wright. Policemen ran to the diamond and placed Johnstone under arrest. Wright was also arrested, and both were taken to city jail. Nashville refused to continue the game unless Johnstone umpired.
The mayor of Little Rock was in attendance and spoke before the 5,000 fans. He stated it was best to send Wright and Johnstone to city jail. It was reported that Nashville exited the field and later they were ordered to forfeit the game to Little Rock.
In a public relations maneuver, Fisher fired off a telegram to The Nashville American to provide his side of the story. The telegram was printed at the end of the newspaper's story of the entire incident. Fisher's telegram:
"Our treatment here by the police, city officials and the Little Rock club has been something awful from the moment of our arrival. The games to-day broke up in a riot. Wright assaulted Johnstone during the game and knocked him down. The police first arrested, Johnstone then Wright, The trouble was anticipated, as the patrol wagon was on the grounds. The manager refused to let the game continue. Wright was intoxicated. We will get both games."
A determined and emotional Fisher followed his telegram with a second that was also published for Nashville's consumption:
"Press reports say that I took my team from the field and that Johnstone assaulted the Little Rock player. That is false. Wright was intoxicated and assaulted Johnstone during the game. It was a deliberate conspiracy on the part of the officials and people to rob us. I was prepared for them. I have just seen the operator who sent out the false report. My boys kicked him out of the hotel. Johnstone gives Nashville both games. Johnstone was not only knocked down, but kicked also. I am right and will stick up for my end."
The Vols did hold on to claim the pennant despite some controversial encounters throughout the year. No team in the league was fully satisfied with the umpires. When all the season's protests and records were sorted out, Nashville was declared the inaugural champs of the Southern Association by four games.
Sample of Nashville led the league in pitching with 25 wins while Wiseman led the Vols in batting (.365).
An historical note of national interest, which played on the emotions of Nashvillians and the American people in Sept. 1901, was the assassination of President William McKinley. The Nashville newspapers reported the front-page story with sadness as he was shot on the sixth. Baseball continued while McKinley's life lingered until his death one week later. The shocked country mourned for months.
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.