Sulphur Dell (Nashville)
The ballpark was a magnet. It drew boys like Walter Nipper, long before the 3:30 game time on summer afternoons in the 1930s. The groundskeeper recruited boys to rake the infield and fill the gopher holes that dotted the outfield. When the work was done, Nipper recalled, "We'd choose up sides and play a game" on the diamond where Babe Ruth and Southern Association heroes such as Kiki Cuyler, Waite Hoyt and Jim Poole had sunk their spikes.
Ballpark historian Philip J. Lowry said Nashville's Sulphur Dell -- home of the Volunteers, or "Vols" -- had "the greatest and craziest right field in history." Opposing players might agree with "craziest," but they tended to use stronger words. The craziness was the result of the Dell's landmark feature, "the Dump." The Babe's description is as good as any: "They have a right field that goes straight up in the air."
Right field resembled a ridiculously short par-three hole on a golf course, with the tee at home plate, shooting at a tiny elevated green just a 79-yard chip shot away. The base of the fence -- 262 feet down the foul line -- stood 25 feet above the infield. The slope began gradually a few steps behind the first baseman, then shot up at a 45-degree angle. It leveled off 235 feet out, forming a ten-foot-wide shelf. Then the 45-degree climb resumed to the fence.
Nashville right fielders were called "mountain goats." They usually grazed on the terrace so they could run downhill for short pop-ups and ground balls. To negotiate the hillside, former goat Bob Lennon said, "You got to know how to run with the short leg and the long leg."
This topography produced more low comedy than high drama. According to an often-repeated tale, Smead Jolley, always an accident waiting to happen in the outfield, fought the Dump and lost in his first game there in 1937. Jolley chugged down the embankment to pick up a ground-ball single, but it skipped between his legs and rolled up to the fence. He whirled to handle the carom as the ball gathered speed on its return trip downhill. That, too, eluded him. By the time he subdued the ball the batter was rounding third. Jolley uncorked a strong throw -- so strong it overshot the catcher. The hitter scored and Jolley was charged with three errors on the play.
Others who played and watched games in Sulphur Dell told stories of outfielders who fell down the incline, outfielders who fell up the incline, and one outfielder who crawled down on all fours.
Harold "Buster" Boguskie, the Vols' second baseman from 1947 through 1954, said his position "was like a short fielder in softball." When the right fielder climbed the Dump chasing a fly ball, Boguskie's job was to get in position to take the rebound. Balls that rattled off the board fence turned into loud singles if Boguskie was in the right place.
One of Nashville's many heavy-footed right fielders, Babe Barna, warned Boguskie to back off whenever Barna slalomed down the slope after a short pop fly, "in case my brakes give out."
It was called the Dump because it was a dump. The Dell was a natural bowl, a sinkhole near an artesian sulfur spring. For decades the sinkhole was the last resting place of Nashville's garbage, a landfill in those environmentally unconscious days. One writer said it gave a unique aroma to the hot dogs. Once, when Babe Ruth came to town for an exhibition game, the fire chief unlimbered his hoses to wet down the smoking, stinking mess beyond the outfield fence.
The Dump gave Sulphur Dell its enduring fame. But the first baseball games were played on that spot by Yankees -- Union Army soldiers who occupied Nashville during the Civil War. An enclosed ballpark was built in 1885 when Nashville joined the Southern League, ancestor of the Southern Association. Through two renovations and a couple of short breaks, it was home to minor league baseball until 1963 and to segregated major league ball -- the Negro American League Elite Giants -- in 1933 and '34.
At first it was called Athletic Park, but was generally known as Sulphur Spring Bottom. The name Sulphur Dell was coined by Grantland Rice, the phrasemaker who nicknamed Notre Dame's backfield "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." Writing for the Nashville Tennessean in the early 1900s, he had already adopted his trademark: He began most stories with a few lines of poetry. Fred Russell, who covered sports for Nashville newspapers for more than 65 years, said, "He was having a helluva time rhyming something with Sulphur Spring Bottom, so he picked Sulphur Dell." Dell is easy to rhyme, of course. Chattanooga Lookouts owner Joe Engel exercised his poetic license and called the place "Suffer Hell."
Visiting players loathed it. One complained, "Who can play baseball in a telephone booth?" Lefty Gomez said, "We couldn't pitch sidearm because we scraped our knuckles on the right-field screen." Bobo Newsom derided the Dell as "a drained-out bathtub."
All too often the bathtub was not drained out. The Cumberland River lay just a quarter-mile east. In the spring flood season the river and the low-lying ball field frequently merged. During one of those floods, catcher Del Ballinger dived into the dugout after a pop foul and splashed into four feet of water. When he surfaced clutching the ball, the batter was called out. Ballinger later confessed that he made the "catch" while floating between the bat rack and the dugout steps.
If the Dump was an adventure for right fielders, it was an invitation for left-handed sluggers. Casey Stengel claimed to have bunted a home run down the line. In 1930, the year of the rocket-powered baseball, first baseman Jim Poole launched 50 homers for the Vols and second baseman Jay Partridge blasted 42.
After that outburst the Dell's 16-foot right-field fence was topped with a 22-foot screen, extending from the foul line across the right-center power alley, rising as much as 30 feet above the fence in some spots. The towering screen did nothing to erase the Dell's reputation as a homer haven. In the Southern Association's 61-year history only eight players hit as many as 40 home runs in a season. All played for the Vols and all swung left-handed.
Longtime part-owner and manager Larry Gilbert knew how to take full advantage. Buster Boguskie recalled, "Mr. Gilbert always had at least four, sometimes five, left-hand hitters" in his lineup. He even grew his own; his left-handed batting sons, center fielder Charlie and first baseman "Tookie," both played for him.
Gilbert liked to hire veteran lefty power hitters and coax one more good season out of them. In 1948 he featured 33-year-old Charlie Workman, a wartime big leaguer who set a league record with 52 homers. In '49 Workman was succeeded in right field and the cleanup slot by 34-year-old Babe Barna, who also saw wartime service in the majors. Barna belted 42 homers, but young catcher Carl Sawatski outdid him with 49.
The champion Sulphur Dell slugger was Bob Lennon. The New York Giants had demoted the 23-year-old Lennon to AA Nashville when they called up the Vols' right fielder, Dusty Rhodes, in 1952. Larry Gilbert overhauled Lennon's batting stance and in 1954 he slammed 64 home runs, 42 of them in the Dell. On the season's final day he played a doubleheader before leaving for New York to join the big club. With his car packed and waiting outside the park, Lennon capped his career year with three homers. (That same year Joe Bauman hit 72 homers for Roswell, New Mexico, in the Class C Longhorn League, a professional baseball record that stood until Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001.)
By 1963 minor league baseball was crippled by television and other powerful social forces. The Southern Association had folded in 1961; sportswriter Sam Heys said, "The Southern Association chose death over integration." After a one-year hiatus Nashville joined the Class A South Atlantic League, known as the Sally League. The team attracted only a few dozen fans on some weekday evenings, many of them gamblers who sat behind the third-base dugout and bet a few dollars on foul balls. The radio sponsor canceled in June, ending the broadcasts that had been carried only on a low-powered FM station.
In September a newspaper headlined, "Sulphur Dell's Death Knell Might Follow Sally Finale." The headline writer was right. The next year an auto-racing promoter leased the park, but it was a bit cramped for the stock-car boys. Subsequently it hosted demolition derbies and shows starring B.B. King, James Brown and others. In 1969 plans were announced for a 20-story merchandise mart on the site.
It never happened. The Dell was razed that year. Ex-second baseman Buster Boguskie, then a city councilman, said, "The city just couldn't afford the upkeep."
Walter Nipper saw it differently. He thought the park could have become home to a minor league hall of fame. Nipper, the boy who filled gopher holes in the outfield, grew up to be Nashville's "Mr. Baseball." His sporting goods company sponsored dozens of youth-league teams. A shrine to Sulphur Dell adorned one wall of Nipper's downtown store: a photograph of some long-ago opening day, with the fans bundled in overcoats, the vendors wearing sparkling white caps and white uniforms.
At Fifth Avenue North and Jackson Street, the bottom was filled and covered with asphalt. Sulphur Dell historian Nelson Eddy recalled Joni Mitchell's song "Big Yellow Taxi": "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."
The song also says, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."
This story is adapted from Warren Corbett, "There Used To Be a Ballpark: Sulphur Dell, Nashville," in The Diamond, March/April 1994. Portions also appeared in Warren Corbett, "Bob Lennon," bioproj.sabr.org.
The author broadcast Vols games in Sulphur Dell in 1963. Some details come from his memory.
Author's interviews: Bob Lennon, Harold Boguskie, Walter Nipper and Nashville Banner sportswriters Fred Russell and George K. Leonard, 1993.
Bob Lennon interview by Al Blumkin, February 4, 2001, videocassette available from the SABR Oral History Committee.
Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1992).
These references were provided by SABR member Nelson Eddy:
Ken Beck, "'Sulphur Dell Sights, Smells Linger On," Tennessean, September 18, 1977.
Joe Hatcher, "Remembering Old Times: The Vols & Sulphur Dell," Tennessean, January 22, 1978.
Ted Power, "Babe's Last Visit," Nashville Tennessean, October 18, 1991
Grantland Rice, "1901: Nashville Led 'Base Ball Boom,'" Taylor-Trotwood Magazine, (n.d.) 1910. Reprinted in The Tennessean, October 8, 1978.
Hugh Walker, "Buffaloes and Ball Players: The Story of Sulphur Dell," Tennessean, March 2, 1969.