Born on August 6, 1903, in Antioch, Tennessee, James “Jim” Riley Turner began his journey in baseball in March of 1922. Trying out for the hometown Nashville Vols as a catcher in the presence of manager Larry Doyle, pitcher Red Lucas, outfielder Mike Burke, and third baseman Hap Morse, Turner heard: “come back next year”. He spent the rest of the year playing semipro ball in the Nashville area.
Turner’s brother Bryant was usually the pitcher on their teams, and when Bryant failed to show up for a game for Nolensville, Jim pitched the game and struck out 18 Gladeville batters. He was a pitcher from that time on. One of the spectators told Little Rock manager Kid Elberfeld about Turner, and on the team’s next visit to Nashville, Little Rock signed him to a contract for $175 a month.
In March Little Rock sent Turner to Paris, Tennessee in the Kitty League where he played in 1923 and 1924. He won 14 games the first year and 16 games the next. Sent to Winston-Salem in 1925, for the next five seasons, Turner had stops in Greensboro, Portsmouth, Norfolk, Selma, and back to Greensboro. During the winter of 1929-1930, Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League purchased Turner where he played for three seasons. He spent four seasons in Indianapolis winning 18 games in 1936.
Sold to the Boston Braves after 14 years in the minor leagues, he had the break into Major League ball he always wanted. As a 32-year-old rookie in 1937, Turner won 20 games, had a National League-best ERA of 2.38, led the league in shutouts with five and complete games with 24. The next season he was selected to the 1938 National League All-Star team. Two years later he pitched in the 1940 World Series for the Cincinnati Reds. In 1942 he spent part of the season in Newark after having been sent to the New York Yankees where he ended his playing career at 41 years of age in 1945.
He signed to manage Beaumont in the Texas League in 1946 where his team finished fifth with a record of 70-83. In Portland the next two seasons, he finished third and fifth, winning 97 and losing 89 in 1947 and winning 89 and losing 99 in 1948. When Casey Stengel was named manager of the Yankees, Turner became pitching coach in 1949.
During his 11-year tenure with the Yankees, he developed the pitchers who led the Yanks to nine pennants and seven world championships.
In 1960, “Milkman Jim” (a nickname given to him because in the early days of his baseball career he drove a milk wagon during the off-season) returned to Nashville as general manager and field manager of the Nashville Vols. In the winter of 1958, a campaign was organized by a group to take over the financially-distressed Nashville Vols. Led by civic leaders Herschel Greer, Dr. Cleo Miller, country music star Eddie Arnold, shares in Vols Inc. sold at $5.00 per share. Nashville had been led on the field by manager Dick Sisler during the previous three seasons, but attendance at the gate had begun to dwindle. In 1959 the team lost only $2,300.00, but in a move that was enormously popular in Music City, Jim Turner took the reins of the ball club not only to improve the performance of the team on the field but also to improve paid attendance.
The decision to attain Turner almost did not happen. “It was necessary to act quickly to get Jim Turner,” said Vols, Inc. board member Jack Norman told the Nashville Tennessean, “Jim has had several attractive offers. One particularly was pressing closely. It was therefore necessary to make an immediate decision.” Turner never divulged the offers that he had received.
With full control of the team, Turner managed the Cincinnati Reds-affiliate Vols with a roster that included catcher Johnny Edwards, utility man Rod Kanehl, and pitchers Jim Maloney and Jack Baldschun. Turner’s 1960 Vols team finished sixth in the Southern Association, with 71 wins and 82 losses. The crowds continued to decline throughout the season, and Turner resigned at the end of the year. He returned to the majors with assignments by the Reds that included becoming pitching coach in 1961 until his retirement in 1973.
Returning to Nashville, he continued to attend college and sandlot games and was a season ticket holder with the Nashville Sounds with their inception in 1978 until his passing on November 29, 1998. In 1988 he was given the Nashville Old Timers Baseball Association’s inaugural “Mr. Baseball” award.
© 2019 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.