Mrs. Barnes’ Big Night at Sulphur Dell

Lottery winnings were pretty good for someone the last few days, with the Mega Millions and Powerball jackpots totaling nearly $1.8 billion. Hard to imagine what one could do with one-tenth of that, but I suppose one-tenth of one-tenth might seem more manageable.

Maybe I’ll buy a ticket soon.

Speaking of jackpots, a youngster won his own back in the heyday of promotions by struggling minor league baseball clubs of the 1950s and 1960s.

His mom, who wasn’t present, took home the spoils.

Since baseball was invented, most successful baseball franchises were dependent on many rear ends in the stadium seats, and even better, if the folks those rear ends belonged to got up and purchased a soft drink or popcorn at the concession stands. And often.

To compete with the introduction of air conditioning and “I Love Lucy,” the promise of prizes for the winning admission ticket was often a sure-fire way to get the whole family to the ballpark.

Current minor league baseball teams have utilized promotions and giveaways as part of their marketing strategy to remind fans of the excellent experience baseball has to offer. It’s sorta’ like it was back in the old days, except the old ballparks didn’t have miniature golf, closed-circuit televisions and other social opportunities.

One of promotion guru Larry Schmittou’s many skills was his ability to fill Herschel Greer Stadium, especially in the Nashville Sounds’ early days. The Sounds hosted Used Car Night, Kroger Buy-out Night, Sounds Backpack night, had bobble-head giveaways and many other pitches for just about every home game.

It never was about giving prizes away. It was about selling popcorn and soft drinks, and lots of it; the greater the profit, the merrier the stockholders.

Before going out of business for lack of you-know-what (hint: not enough rear ends in the stands), the old Nashville Vols management used the strategy to bring folks to Sulphur Dell. Mini-baseballs, T-shirts, and cow-milking contests were part of the marketing plans.

The Vols came up with another “Pony Night” in 1963.

It would be Sulphur Dell’s last season as a professional ballpark, and with attendance waning by mid-season, the team was willing to do just about anything to keep fans just coming to games.

I’ll bet the local beer distributor and popcorn supplier sensed declining sales as early as June 1.

Expecting to lose between $18,000 and $20,000 by the end of the year, general manager Ed Doherty received a $5,000 infusion from an unnamed source (probably from one of the local lending institutions or investors in Vols, Inc.) in late July. The extra cash made it possible for “Pony Night,” scheduled for July 29, 1963.[1]

According to Nashville Tennessean sportswriter, F. M. Williams, “This unexpected financial bonanza – which should increase – and other promotions planned before the end of the South Atlantic League season will enable the Vols to meet all remaining expenses, and should help reduce banknotes that have been signed three different times this year in order to continue operations.”[2]

As is the case with any baseball game, the weather is always a factor.

“The plans of every pony-loving boy in Nashville must have been disrupted late yesterday afternoon when a heavy black cloud drifted over the city and let loose with a deluge of rain that forced postponement of the Vols’ battle with Macon,” wrote Williams. “Telephones at the ball park, and in the sports department of the Nashville Tennessean jangled incessantly from the time the cloud made its first appearance until there had been so much rain the general manager Ed Doherty had no choice to call the game.”[3]

A telephone operator at the newspaper’s office had his own pronouncement on the subject. “If every kid who’s called in here about the baseball game had planned to go to the Dell, it couldn’t have held them.”

No wonder the kids were excited. Not only was a pony to be given away, but also bicycles, a sewing machine, and six autographed baseballs.[4]

There was no word on who signed the balls.

“Last time there was a “Pony Night” at the Dell over 9,000 turned out and had this one been last night, at least that many would have been on hand, officials believe.”

Not quite that many showed up this time, on Tuesday, July 30, as Nashville won over Macon, 5-4, on a ninth-inning home run. There were 6,489 on hand. It was the largest crowd of the season except for the opening day when 7,987 attended.

At the end of the season, 52,812 fans spun the turnstiles. The season opener and Pony Night accounted for over one-fourth of the total; no wonder the Vols held special “Nights.”

Cash was king. Still is, I suppose.

In Williams’ description of the game, he included the volume that kids can express, both in numbers and orally. “…before an ear-splitting bunch of youngsters lured to the Dell by the chance of winning a Shetland pony and various other prizes.”[5]

Williams made no remarks about the prize-winners, but on August 1, the newspaper publicized the lucky winner’s names in an uncredited piece.

Alongside former Sounds general manager Farrell Owens at the Sounds opening night in First Tennessee Park on Tuesday, April 11, 2018, we ran into a friend to both of us, Phil Barnes, who had his grandsons with him. We expounded on how great it was to be at the ballpark at the opening of the 2018 season.

Phil and his brother Johnny are great baseball fans and enjoy the history of Nashville baseball. That night Phil told me he won a contest at Sulphur Dell during a Nashville Vols game, and the prize was a sewing machine.

“It was a Singer in a case,” says Phil. “My mom sold it soon after we brought it home. I was six years old, and they made a presentation on the field with me and my Dad.”

Though Phil did not win a pony or bicycle, he held on to the ticket for many years as proof of his lucky night nearly 55 years ago. He no longer has the ticket.

With a new sewing machine to take home to his mom, I’m sure she thought she had won the lottery.

Now, where’s the closest lottery retailer?

Thanks to Phil Barnes for sharing his story, the reason for this one. As always, I am grateful our late friend Farrell Owens for the stories he willingly shared  with me so often.


Nashville Tennessean


[1] F. M. Williams. “Pony Night Payoff Bonanza for Vols,” Nashville Tennessean, July 25, 1963, 42.


[3]Williams. “Pony Night Set Tonight,” Nashville Tennessean, July 30, 1963, 12.


[5]Williams. “Vols Win Dramatically, 5-4,” Nashville Tennessean, July 31, 1963, 16.

© 2021 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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