Throughout most of the 1960s and ’70s, professional baseball in Nashville seemed relegated to the dugout for good. It had been 15 years since the 1963 swan song of the Nashville Vols and the subsequent end of their historic Sulphur Dell home when, in 1978, Vanderbilt head baseball coach Larry Schmittou pulled a trick out of his glove. He enlisted a team of investors, acquired a Double-A minor league team and built Herschel Greer Stadium. Though beleaguered in recent years, the Chestnut Street ballpark has continued to host a treasured local tradition—one which is about to get its contract renewed, as Music City prepares for the construction of the as-yet-unnamed “new Nashville ballpark.” Not that sports fans are superstitious or anything, but it just might be a plus to some that the soon-to-be new stadium will overlap a portion of the land where Sulphur Dell gave birth to Nashville pro baseball in 1885.
“The most significant thing about returning to Sulphur Dell,” says Sounds co-owner Frank Ward, “is that our ball club, front office staff and ownership will be a part of the rebirth of a neighborhood that has a storied history—one that includes the exploits of some of baseball’s greatest players . . . and characters like Babe Ruth.” Our Nashville Sounds, of course, have been busy creating the more recent history of local baseball from inside Greer Stadium. As the facility moves into its ninth inning and prepares for its team’s farewell year, it’s fitting to toss out some highlights from the Sounds’ first era.
Larry Schmittou’s first recollection is immediate: “The hurdles we had to clear to get it done. That was a monumental task,” says Schmittou. “We had a lot of cooperation from a lot of good citizens of Nashville to help us get it done.” Farrell Owens, the Sounds’ first general manager, says the infield was still bare two days before the scheduled April 25 opening game. That day, he was in the ticket office pondering the problem. “Lo and behold,” Owens recalls, “a fellow pulls up in a big rig that has the name of his sod company on the side. He came by to buy tickets!” Owens arranged for the company to haul sod to Greer on the 24th, and local volunteers helped lay it down. A rainout on opening night allowed the backstop to be completed, and the first game took place on April 26, when the team beat the Savannah Braves 12–4.
The Sounds’ first five years included two Southern League championships (1979 and 1982) and saw some of their best-remembered alumni pass through town, including future major-league MVPs Willie McGee and Don Mattingly, as well as 1980 Southern League MVP Steve Balboni (whose fun-to-pronounce name was memorably elongated by Greer PA announcer Chuck Morgan). The move from the minor-league Sounds to the majors has been a common one; in recent years, such all-star players as Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, R.A. Dickey, Corey Hart, and Yovani Gallardo made stops in Music City. Other Sounds alumni who are worthy of special mention include Buck Showalter (1980–’83), Skeeter Barnes (1979; 88–’90) and Chad Hermansen, who comprise the team’s Top 3 career leaders across many categories.
As Schmittou points out, it wasn’t possible to market a minor-league team, “since there’s no control over who the team will be.” Instead, he opted “to market fun,” starting a longstanding tradition of such antics as “used car night” (one was given away each inning) and appearances by the flappin’-crazy San Diego Chicken. Inspired by UT’s Big Orange brand, Schmittou decided to make Sounds merchandise available. “It was wonderful,” he says, “to see the kids wearing a Sounds shirt or hat, batting glove or whatever, and having fun.” Says Owens, “I think the fans always felt like they had gotten their money’s worth and more. Our food was good, and things like ice cream in a miniature batting helmet were a big hit. Larry headed up our concessions,” Owens says, “and he did a great job in hiring good people.” A giant among them was beer vendor David Cheatham, who worked in the stands every season from Greer’s 1978 opening until his death in 2009. “David was known by every person in the stadium,” says Schmittou, “whether they drank beer or didn’t. He was interested in your family, in what you were doing . . . he didn’t just want to sell you a beer, he wanted to chat with you.”
The dependability of such upbeat and wholesome entertainment, coupled with America’s favorite pastime, kept fans coming through the Sounds’ highs and lows. The team again captured a league championship in 2005; three years earlier, the Sounds were the first in the country to establish a Christian-themed Faith Night, which has since become one of the best-attended events at Greer. Eager to continue the Sounds’ time-tested appeal, Frank Ward promises that future Sounds games “will continue to offer experiences that are memorable, family-oriented, and budget-friendly.” Though details are still forthcoming, Ward temptingly adds, “Today’s new technology is going to allow us to present the game in a special way at the new ballpark.” No doubt, this as-yet-unveiled high-tech innovation is something that would have been unthinkable to fans who witnessed Sulphur Dell’s original glory days.
Change, of course, can be bittersweet, as is the thought that dearly departed Sounds superfans like Chuck Ross and Joe “Black Cat” Reilly—(in)famous for casting curses on opposing teams—won’t get to see Nashville baseball make its ’round-the-bases return to the Dell. Asked about Chuck Ross, Schmittou recalls that he was “beloved by all the players and even umpires, knew ’em all. He got there about 10:00 in the morning for a 7:30 game,” adds Schmittou. “Everybody in my office loved Chuck.” Owens says he “could go on forever about Chuck and Black Cat. Shame they will not get to see the new park from here. But then again,” Owens muses, “they may have a better view than any of us could possibly have.”
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