History By Bill Traughber
When pioneer James Robertson led his frontier party to the river banks of the Cumberland River on Christmas Day 1779, the future site of Nashville was established. There were hardships endured, but no doubt leisure time was spent with various types of entertainment.
Horse racing was a popular “sport” while the future president, Andrew Jackson, established Nashville’s first horse track at Clover Bottom in 1805. The Nashville Race Track (present site of MeroCenter) was later the feature place for Nashvillians to gather on weekends.
The Nashville Jockey Club organized horse races at that track from 1828-86. In 1843, the track hosted the richest horse race in the world at that time. The chestnut filly Peytona won the Peyton Stakes purse of $35,000. As Nashville grew, other racecourses would sprout about the city.
The West Park racetrack was located in what is now Centennial Park, but was closed in 1893 to make room for the Nashville Centennial Exposition. The current site of the Nashville Fairgrounds was known as Cumberland Park and home to harness racing. These tracks also entertained bicycle races.
In 1941, the Iroquois Memorial Steeplechase was held in Percy Warner Park and established annual horse racing. Named for the first American-bred thoroughbred to win the English Derby in 1881, the event has lasted each year expect for one during World War II. The remains of the famed Iroquois are buried in an unknown location on the original Belle Meade Mansion grounds.
The origin of baseball in Nashville is not known, but an article in a Nashville newspaper from July 1860 describes men playing the game on the east side of the Cumberland River. Organized baseball was played as early as 1866 in an area of Nashville known as Sulphur Springs Bottom.
Nashville was a charter member of the new Southern League in 1885 with the Americans (1885-86). The league folded in 1899 as Nashville fielded three more teams Blues (1887), Tigers (1893-94) and Seraphs (1895).
In 1901, an original league emerged as the Southern Association, which Nashville was again a charter member. Games were still played in the Sulphur Springs Bottom area of the city. The ballpark was known as Athletic Park and later became famous as Sulphur Dell.
Nashville was excited about their new ball club christened the “Volunteers.” But the team was best known as the “Vols.” The Vols won the first two Southern Association’s pennants in 1901 and 1902 behind the leadership of manager Newt Fisher. The Vols would also win league pennants in 1908 and 1916.
A pennant drought of 24 years ended with the arrival of Larry Gilbert as the Vols manager in 1939. The former longtime manager of the New Orleans Pelicans was lured to Nashville. Gilbert won pennants with Nashville in 1940, 1943, 1944 and 1948. Gilbert moved into the front office after the 1948 season. His successor, Rollie Hemsley, would win the Vols ninth overall and final league championship in 1949.
The first night game at Sulphur Dell was held on May 18, 1931. Nashville lost that game 8-1 before an estimated 7,000 fans. (In 1894, Nashville experimented with night baseball for one night as 54 temporary lights were scattered around Athletic Park). Other historic moments at the ballpark include Tom Rogers’ perfect game (1916), Buster Boguskie’s six hits in a game (1948), and Bob Lennon clubbing 40 of his 64 record-setting home runs in Nashville.
The Southern Association folded at the end of the 1961 season. The ballpark was empty the next year, but the Double-A South Atlantic League (also known as the SALLY League) came to Nashville in 1963 for one season. Poor attendance and financial problems forced professional baseball to leave Nashville at the end of the 1963 season.
Professional baseball returned to the city in 1978 with the Double-A Nashville Sounds playing in their new home—Herschel Greer Stadium. The Sounds would win championships in 1979, 1982, and 2005. Two future major league MVP’s in Don Mattingly (Yankees, 1985) and Willie McGee (Cardinals, 1985) were once on a Sounds’ roster. A new downtown ballpark in planned for 2008.
Nashvillian Tom Wilson was one of the first blacks to own a baseball park. Wilson Park, located in the Trimble Bottom area, was home to the Nashville Elite Giants members of the National Negro League and Southern Negro League.
The first football game in Nashville was recorded on Thanksgiving Day, 1885 when the Nashville Football Club played the Nashville Athletic Club. The game was played in Athletic Park while the NFC won that historic contest, 6-4. Vanderbilt University would win the city’s first college football game five years later with a defeat of the University of Nashville (Peabody), 40-0.
As the first major university in Nashville, Vanderbilt has been supplying a variety of events to sporting fans. Football, basketball, baseball, track, tennis, bicycling, swimming and other sports have been played on the Vanderbilt campus since the early 1890s. Coach Dan McGugin (1904-34) won more football games (197-55) in the school’s history. Some of the great players from Vanderbilt include Josh Cody, Lynn Bomar, Carl Hinkle and Bill Wade.
When Dr. James Naismith invented basketball, the eastern game spread to Nashville. The Commodores have been playing basketball since 1893. The Y.M.C.A Ramblers were basketball competitors and several times crowned city champs in the early 20th century.
Basketball coach Bob Polk (1948-61) is considered Vanderbilt’s father of modern basketball. Roy Skinner (1962-76) followed and is the Commodores all-time winningest coach (278-135). Such basketball greats to wear a Commodore uniform are Billy Joe Adcock, Clyde Lee, Tom Hagan and Will Perdue. The Commodores have won three SEC titles.
Tennessee State University has given many thrills to fans of sports. The football program gained national attention with the legendary coach John Merritt. He was a constant winner with players as Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Claude Humphrey.
Track coach Ed Temple gained world wide recognition with his famous Tigerbelles, Such track women as Wilma Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus and Madeline Manning were Olympic champions. Coach Ed Martin was part of a basketball tradition that includes, Dick Barnett, Len Robinson, Ted McClain and Lloyd Neal.
David Lipscomb College became a force in N.A.I.A. baseball with coach Ken Dugan (1960-96). Dugan’s clubs won two national championships in 1977 and 1979. He amassed a career record of 1,137-462. The Bisons also won a national championship in basketball in 1986 with coach Don Meyer while playing in cozy McQuiddy Gym. Former Bison greats are John Kimbrell, John Pierce and Philip Hutcheson.
Belmont College would be another great school to provide excitement for sports fans. Baseball coach Dave Whitten’s teams gave fierce competition to any opponent. Rick Byrd has brought Bruin basketball to national recognition and a recent NCAA Tournament berth. All-time scorer Joe Behling treated Belmont fans with his power style of play.
Fisk University’s Galloway Stadium was the site of the state of Tennessee’s first interracial football game played in 1954. Fisk lost to Taylor University (Upland, Ind.) 32-0. Ron Lawson led Pearl High School to two national championship seasons before guiding the Fisk basketball program into distinction as a coach in the 1970s.
Nashville hosted its first automobile races at dirt track Cumberland Park (fairgrounds) in 1904.
An 11-event program was established which included famed driver Barney Oldfield. The fairgrounds site has hosted auto races since that day, but has been through various name changes. The track was paved in 1958 and is today known as Music City Motorplex.
The Sulphur Dell Speedways held races for a short period in 1965 before being demolished four years later. In those early modern years of auto racing popular drivers were Bob Reuther, Coo Coo Marlin, Bill Morton, Jimmy Griggs, Bob Celsor, Flookie Buford, Darrell Waltrip and Sterling Marlin.
Hockey came to Music City in 1962 with the arrival of the Nashville Dixie Flyers, members of the Eastern Hockey League. The Flyers would win championships with the aid of coaches John McLellan and Lloyd Hinchberger. Home was the Municipal Auditorium for players Ted McCaskill, Marv Edwards and Wayne Clairmont. Financial woes forced the Flyers to leave Nashville in 1971. The Nashville South Stars (1981-83) played two seasons in the Central Hockey League and Atlantic Coast Hockey League.
Golf has been played for centuries and came to Nashville in the late 1890s. The first Nashville golf course was located where the old West End High School existed. The Nashville Golf and Country Club was completed in 1902. In 1916, the golf club moved to Belle Meade and became the Belle Meade Golf and Country Club five years later. The first public golf course opened in 1924 and became Shelby Park Golf Course.
Nashville sporting veterans can recall Nick Gulas promoting wrestling matches involving Jackie Fargo, Tojo Yamamoto, LenRossi, and BearcatBrown. A popular event from the 1940s, 50s and 60s was the annual Golden Gloves Tournament. These matches were held in the Hippodrome and Municipal Auditorium.
Today, your sporting ancestors would be amazed with Nashville venues of LP Field, Bridgestone Arena and the Centennial Sportsplex. The Tennessee Titans and Nashville Predators have brought Nashville to the highest level in the NFL and NHL. Additional events held in Nashville are the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Country Music Marathon & ½ Marathon, NCAA, SEC and OVC Men’s & Women’s basketball tournaments and swimming and skating competitions.
Nashville can be proud of it's historical sporting achievements.