Grantland Rice was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and his family moved to Nashville when he was a young boy. Rice earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Nashville’s Vanderbilt University in 1901 where he played on the football and baseball teams.
After graduation, he had an opportunity to join Nashville’s professional baseball team, but his father disapproved, and Rice soon began his career as a sports journalist. He worked for the Nashville Daily News before moving to the Nashville Tennessean.
Sports Journalist Career
In February of 1908, Rice was the first to refer to a name change of Nashville’s ballpark, originally known as Athletic Park, located in the Sulphur Springs Bottom area. He suggested “Sulphur Springs Dell,” soon shortened to “Sulphur Dell.” The name stuck – it was a good fit for newspaper headlines – and had an acceptable flamboyance.
Rice was a learned scholar of romantic languages and often wrote in stylish prose. He is famous for giving the backfield of the 1924 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team the name the “Four Horsemen” in his October 18th article in the New York Herald Tribune, describing the Notre Dame vs. Army game played at the Polo Grounds:
Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.
Fred Russell, sports editor of the Nashville Banner from 1930 until the newspaper became defunct in 1998, once wrote that he believed Rice wanted to change the name to Sulphur Dell as Rice probably had a challenging time finding anything to rhyme with “Bottom”.
I have researched poetry that Grantland Rice had written which included “Sulphur Dell.” The only one I have found to date is one entitled “The Daily Spiel of the Times,” published in the September 26, 1908, issue of Sporting Life on page 3:
THE DAILY SPIEL OF THE TIMES
By Grantland Rice
I rode down with a learned judge upon the car to-day,
And at some well known legal case I tried to make a play;
I spoke of the “unwritten law,” and asked him if he thought
A man was really guilty with his nerves so overwrought;
He looked up absent-mindedly, and then with lighted eye
“If we clean up this Chicago bunch, we’ll cop,” was his reply.
I called in at my tailor’s with my usual eclat
(I’m kidding you on this dope, Bo, but let it go at that)
To buy a sixty-dollar suit. “What is the latest style?”
I asked him, writing on his cuff he answered after while
“If we can bag three out of four from Chicago, in a pinch,
While old Brooklyn knocks down two, we win, and that’s a cinch.”
I found my system carried quite a healthy pain to-day,
And so I dropped around to see my doctor right away;
I piped the symptoms off to him, explaining that I felt
As .if three pies of big league size were bunched around my belt;
He wrote out something on a pad, and this is what I read
“We need about six of eight to wiggle in ahead.”
I called to see a lady friend, and every thought was rife
On asking her to take a chance and darn my socks for life;
I asked her if she’d marry me, and countered with a kiss,
And while I waited eagerly she countered back with this:
“If we can stick somewhere around the top until we get
That bunch of Chance’s to Sulphur Dell we’ll bag that pennant yet.”
Ach Lieber Gott Du Himmell! With my brain upon the blink
I fled away to try and drown my massive woe in drink;
I slid into the first saloon and caught the barkeep’s eye
“Say, what’s the strongest stuff you’ve got?” He answered in reply
“If we – aw, what’s the blooming use? He flashed the same old gag –
And having lost all hope of peace I stayed and “chewed the rag.”
Dean of American Sportwriters
Having written about him on numerous occasions, it is not my intent to belabor Grantland Rice’s influence on Nashville baseball. His influence on sports is much greater on the national level.
He spent time with Knute Rockne on the night before the Notre Dame-Army game he wrote so eloquently about, cavorted with Babe Ruth the night before his famous “called shot” World Series game in Chicago, and saw Jesse Owens performance in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Occasions such as those are left to the exceptional, those with talents which are graced by God to a very few, who know how to tell stories uniquely. Rice knew his readers and how much more they wanted beyond the score, the home run, or the time.
They wanted the color of the sky, the tale of the tape, the hum of the crowd, and Rice gave it to them, and he has given Nashville a placeholder from more than a century ago. “Sulphur Dell” has withstood the test of time to this very day, and we have to remind ourselves how gracious he bestowed the legacy of a grand old ballpark to us.
Rice passed away in 1954. To be acknowledged as “Dean of American Sportswriters,” with his influence on Fred Russell, he can be claimed as “Dean of Nashville Sportswriters,” too.
© 2023 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.