Naming Nashville’s Baseball Club

Team nicknames are commonplace today, but in the early days of baseball, it was not so. Cities claimed the team’s identities by including the name of the leagues they played in, such as New York Americans, St. Louis Nationals, and so on.

Tongue-in-cheek references by sportswriters often caught on. “Trolley Dodgers,” for one, stood for exactly what it meant. Shortened to “Dodgers” for the Brooklyn team in the National League and then carried with them to Los Angeles.

Nashville’s 1885 baseball team had a first name, “Americans.” One of the local newspapers, The Daily American, claimed the team’s title as it gave the most thorough coverage of Nashville’s first professional team in the newly-formed Southern League.

The league failed and re-organized throughout the remainder of the 19th Century, and names for resurrected Nashville clubs included “Seraphs,” “Blues,” and “Tigers.”

Grantland Rice, born in Murfreesboro, on November 1, 1880, earned his Bachelor of Arts from Vanderbilt University in 1901, where he played on both the baseball and football teams. Although he had an opportunity to join the Nashville Baseball Club soon after graduation, his father would not approve, and Rice soon began his long career as a sports journalist at the Nashville Daily News before moving over to the Nashville Tennessean.

Rice was the first to refer to a name change of the city’s favorite baseball venue. Athletic Park was in Sulphur Spring Bottom, and as Rice often wrote in prose and poetic style, his protégé Fred Russell claimed Rice failed to find a proper word to rhyme with “Bottom” and christened the ballpark “Sulphur Spring Dell” in January 1908.

Shortened to “Sulphur Dell” in subsequent columns, the name stuck forever as the designation for the local ballpark. It was a good fit for a newspaper headline and had an accept flamboyance.

In February of the same year, Rice held a contest with fans to give the Nashville club an official team name. No nickname was officially recognized when Nashville joined the newly-formed Southern Association beginning in 1901. Usually, sportswriters used a name based on the tutelage of its managers, such as the Fishermen (when Newt Fisher was in charge), the Dobbers (Johnny Dobbs), and Finnites (Michael Finn). One flippant remark to the quality of the team’s performance in 1907 was “Hustlers”; apparently, there was much lack of it.

Rice and others came up with three names from which voters could choose their favorite: “Rocks,” Lime Rocks,” or “Volunteers” as the state capital was near the ballpark, and Tennessee is known as the Volunteer State.

All three local newspapers, Nashville TennesseanNashville Daily American, and Nashville Banner, participated in calling for votes be accumulated by Nashville manager Bill Bernhard who tallied them.

As Rice’s newspaper was the first published each day, on February 29, 1908, his column was the first to notify the public of the name selection. His column validated there were 950 votes for “Volunteers,” far-outdistancing the other choices. He even stated the name would stick, “…no matter who the manager or owner may be.” In later editions that day, the other newspapers joined in to pronounce the winning team name.

The name did stick: Nashville remained a member of the Southern association from until it closed up shop after the 1961 season. For those 54 years, the team was known as “Volunteers,” often shortened to “Vols.” Even the new ownership group formed in 1959 to rescue the team took on “Vols, Inc.” for the name of the modern corporation. The club was revived for one additional season in 1963 as a member of the South Atlantic League.

When fans failed to support the team, the team folded; the Nashville Vols would be no more.

But for one brief time in 1908, many could agree on one thing: “Volunteers” was the name that fit, and it remains in Nashville’s baseball history.

 © 2020 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved. 

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