Thrill of Victory

Nashville has its share of athletes who were true American heroes

Like most of you, I spend my July 4 being thankful for our great country and the freedoms we have as Americans. With that comes thoughts of those Americans who’ve made us great through the centuries – Americans who fought and died in wars, and Americans who fought to make our country better in other ways.

That list includes an untold number of Nashvillians who worked in various ways to improve our society and our way of life. Today, Sports and Entertainment Nashville honors three of Nashville’s athletes who did more than their share to move our nation forward.

George Archie, major league baseball player
Even most die-hard baseball fans don’t know who Nashville-born third baseman George Archie is; he played in just 123 major league games. That, however, was partly by choice, as you’ll see in a moment.

Archie appeared to have a promising career ahead of him after earning Pacific Coast League Most Valuable Player honors in 1940 before getting promoted to the big leagues with Washington the next year. He was traded to the St. Louis Browns late in the season. Over the course of 448 plate appearances for both teams in 1941, he hit a respectable .277 with three homers, 53 RBIs and 48 runs.

But that winter, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Archie volunteered for the war effort. He would go on to serve in the U.S. Army with the 65th Calvary Reconnaissance Troop in 1945 before being discharged the following year.

Archie tried a return to baseball at age 32, but after four games in 1946, his career was over. “I came back after the war… but I had lost too much, the eyesight and what speed I had,” he said in 1991, according to BaseballInWartime.com.

With his playing career over, Archie tried his hand at coaching, which he did at Vanderbilt from 1965 to 1967. Archie died in Nashville in 2001, and while his career as a ballplayer is largely forgotten, his life as a hero was not.

“George was a real hero back then. He gave up his career to go with (General George) Patton into Germany, Austria and France. That was his legacy,” said his friend Herb Connerly.

Irby “Rabbit” Curry, Vanderbilt football player
Curry, a Texan, is among Vanderbilt’s all-time greatest football players. Small in stature, but a giant in the way he played, Curry quarterbacked Vanderbilt from 1914 to 1916, leading the team to 9-1 and 7-1-1 records the last two seasons while earning All-Southern honors those two years, and third team All-American honors the last.

The next year, the U.S. entered World War I, and Curry volunteered as a pilot. The next year, Curry died when his plane was shot down in fighting over France.

Curry would not be soon forgotten, however. Three years later, the Commodores played a game at heavily-favored Texas, and coach Dan McGugin, who’d been Curry’s coach during his VU playing days, gave a moving speech to his team before it took the field. Here’s part of the speech, taken from Nashville sports historian Bill Traughber’s informative book, Vanderbilt Football: Tales of Commodore Gridiron History:

I am glad Mr. Curry is here. Some of you knew Rabbit. We felt towards him the tenderness a mother feels towards her own little boy. He had a little slender body; he weighed only 128 pounds, but he had a heart as big as that loving cup over there on the mantel. He was modest; his life was absolutely clean; and what a fighter he was. His life was a great contribution to Vanderbilt – traditionally to our athletic traditions. The influence of his spirit will always abide. He always wanted to play with Vanderbilt against Texas. His body is resting only a few miles south of here; but his spirit is hovering above us now. Some of these days I want to see his likeness looking down on our athletic fields. I am glad his father is here so that he can see face to face, how we regard his son.

The Commodores went on to stun Texas that day, and McGugin had a picture of Curry that remained in his office until his death in 1936.

Perry Wallace, Vanderbilt basketball player
Wallace was Pearl High’s valedictorian in 1966. He was also a tremendous basketball player, good enough to earn a scholarship at Vanderbilt the following fall. That was impressive in its own right – the Commodores were a national power, having gone 46-8 the previous two seasons – but the real reason that we remember Wallace today is that he was the Southeastern Conference’s first black basketball player.

This was no easy task: coach Roy Skinner had tried to recruit black players for years, but getting them to come to the South – where race riots had become commonplace – proved too difficult.

But Wallace had the courage that others had lacked. While Vanderbilt had admitted its first black student 13 years earlier, Skinner and the university both received letters from alums who were unhappy with the decision to have Wallace represent VU on the hardwoods. Neither was he received well on the court, as Wallace was generally treated horribly by both opposing fans and players, though he personally acted with grace and humility the entire time. This article from TampaBay.com sums it up well.

But Wallace persevered, scoring 1,010 points in 78 games at VU, and he still ranks second on the school’s all-time rebounding chart. He was drafted by the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, though he never played.

The Wallace legacy, though, is far bigger than his on-court accomplishment. He opened the door so that hundreds of other black athletes could play basketball in the SEC. Had Wallace not shown the courage that he’d shown, who knows how long that might have taken — and how many fantastic athletes we sports fans might have never seen play.

Today, Wallace is a law professor at American University. Vanderbilt retired his jersey in 2004.