Incredible Season for the 1940 Nashville Vols

Nashville’s 1940 season was one for the record book, and few teams can compare. The ball club won 101 games and lost 47 for a .682 winning percentage, a mark never matched during the league’s existence, and the team clinched the pennant with six games to go yet still finished the season with 13 consecutive wins.

When it was all over, Nashville Banner sportswriter Fred Russell laid out the accolades.  

“Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, they still will be talking about Nashville’s 1940 ball club. There’ll never be another just like it. Through the seasons to come, it will stand as the yardstick by which all Southern Association teams are measured for greatness.

“Some club of the future may get in front on opening day and stay on top all the way. Some team may be able to pound out a group patting average of .311 or better. Some skilled infield may pile up more than 208 double plays for a new record. Some well-balanced outfit may achieve a higher winning percentage than .682, and a more remarkable road average than 50 victories against only 23 defeats.

“Some club may reach the postseason playoffs, when the blue chips are down, and grab eleven of fourteen of those money games. Yes, some may do any ONE of these things, but will any club ever be able to perform ALL these feats?

“Never. At least, it’s about a million to one shot.”1  

The Vols led the Southern Association in the following categories:

Batting

.311 team batting average

5,345 times at-bat

960 runs

6.27 average runs per game (opponents average: .464

54 games were settled by one run, Nashville one 30 of them

1,660 hits

2,371 total bases

343 doubles

89 home runs

630 base on balls

Fielding

.970 fielding percentage

1,806 assists

Least number of errors: 170

208 double plays. The major league record was 195, set by Cincinnati in 1931 in 154 games.

The Vols were shutout only once when Chattanooga’s Ken Ash beat them in the first game of a doubleheader on August 17, 9-0. Nashville was scoreless for 15 innings that day before scoring once in the seventh inning of the second game, losing 4-1.

With 50 triples by the team, it was the fewest of any team in the Southern Association. Eight batters in the league had over 100 RBI; five of them, Gus Dugas (118), Bob Boken (118), “Greek” George (109), Arnie Moser (104), and Mickey Rocco (101), were Vols. Dugas and Boken tied for the league lead.

Moser led the league with 216 hits, and Dugas tied for the home run championship with 22. Oris Hockett (.363), Moser (.347), and Dugas (.336) were the batting average leaders on the team.

The pitching rotation included Cletus “Boots” Poffenberger (26-9), Leo Twardy (17-11), Ace Adams (13-5), and George Jeffcoat (14-6). Johnny Sain (8-4) and Russ Meers (6-3) rounded out the staff. Adams and Jeffcoat led the league with 121 strikeouts. The pitching staff had nine shutouts and 62 complete games.

Except for one player, the opening day starting lineup was the same for the final game of the season, against Houston in the last game of the Dixie Series playoffs, won by Nashville, 5-3, in 10 innings. Tommy Tatum started in the first game and was replaced by Arnie Moser, who joined the club from Montreal that day, and was in the lineup on the last day.

And to boot, during the entire campaign there was one roster change: Tom Drake replacing Lee Rogers.

The Vols won that first game of the season and were never out of first place the entire year. On July 24, they had a .005 lead over Atlanta but won 43 games while losing 11 the rest of the way. Fred Russell charted the performance of the Vols over their rivals for each month:2

In receiving a new automobile between doubleheader games on the final day of the regular season, manager Larry Gilbert, who was in his second season as skipper, expressed his thanks to the 6,400 Sulphur Dell fans on-hand, giving credit to the entire team for their success.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank each and every one of you who has had a part in this. Words fail me in attempting to express my appreciation.

“In the last week many have asked me who is most responsible for our winning the pennant. I answer ‘everybody.’ We have a well-balanced club. The boys hustle and try to do their best all the time. All of the players are due this honor.”3

After winning over Chattanooga and Atlanta in the league playoffs, Nashville won its first Dixie Series championship against the Houston Buffaloes, 4 games to one.4

During the 100th anniversary celebration of the minor leagues in 2002, the team was named the 47th best of all time.

And here we are, Fred Russell, still talking about it and admiring how incredible it was.

In addition to baseball-reference.com, newsapapers.com, and southernassociationbaseball.com, the author referred to The Southern Association in Baseball 1885-1961 by Marshall D. Wright (2002: McFarland and Co., North Carolina)

Notes

1 Fred Russell, “There’ll Never Be Another Like It,” Notes on a Notable Season,” Sideline Sidelights column, Nashville Banner, September 9, 1940, 9.

2 Fred Russell, “Notes on a Notable Season,” Sideline Sidelights column, Nashville Banner, September 9, 1940, 9.

3 Fred Russell, “There’ll Never Be Another Like It,” Notes on a Notable Season,” Sideline Sidelights column, Nashville Banner, September 9, 1940, 9. George Leonard, Vols’ Average is Highest in Majors, Leading Minors,” Nashville Banner, September 9, 1940, 9.

4 O’Neal, Bill (1994), The Southern League: Baseball in Dixie, 1885–1994, Eakin Press, pp. 306–308

© 2020 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.