Baseball Town: Knoxville Once a Leader in the Newfangled Competition

Hello,

I was wondering if Doc Knox could shed some light on the history of professional/semi-pro baseball teams in Knoxville. I was reading J. Neely's article on John Gunther and there was a mention of a team called the Smokies in the '60s. Any info about other teams, other stadiums and just the history of baseball on Knoxville would be great!

Love your paper.

Bo Shipley

My Dear Mr. Shipley:

The world may have forgotten—football-happy Tennessee certainly has—but Knoxville played a role in the history of Southern baseball. For at least 60 years, baseball was Knoxville's favorite spectator sport.

It's a little ironic, considering how things have shaken out. East Tennessee was rather slow, compared to the rest of America, to warm up to football. But in 1865, when baseball was just a Yankee rumor in most of the South, Knoxville was home to at least two organized teams. Long ago, some claimed in print that the first baseball game in the South was played on Gay Street in 1865. We know there was some baseball in New Orleans before the Civil War, but what happened along the 400 block of Gay, in the summer of '65, may have been the first baseball game in Tennessee.

Much of what we know of it came down by way of a published interview with the guy who led the effort. Sam Dow, a former Union soldier, arranged to clean up a dump site as an appropriate ball park in a then-undeveloped part of downtown, bottomland beside a steep slope that would be useful as an amphitheater. Home plate was where the Downtown Grill & Brewery is today, and the outfield angled to the north.

Dow attempted to get up a bipartisan team to represent the whole city, but when the fellows convened in a Gay Street saloon, they noticed immediately that the Confederates didn't show up. They'd formed their own team, called the Holstons. The Union guys called themselves the Knoxvilles, and thus the first organized team sport ever played in Knoxville, just months after Appomattox, was between the blues and the grays. As in that other rivalry, the blues won.

Within a couple of years, the amateurs were playing for prize money, and by the 1870s, a group called the Knoxville Reds was more or less a semi-pro team, its matches heartily attended and heavily wagered. Records about league affiliation from that period are scarce, but biased fans later claimed that team was the South's finest, and even a national contender at the minor-league level.

Squeezed out of the original diamond by private development—the east side of the 400 block of Gay was known as the Old Base Ball Grounds for some decades—baseball moved around town, played sometimes at Chilhowee Park, sometimes at a new park cleared at Dale Avenue near Asylum Street, called Baldwin Park.

Around World War I, William Caswell, an elderly veteran of that first baseball game in 1865—he played for the Holstons—established a permanent park on the banks of First Creek, just northeast of downtown. Caswell Park was the home of Knoxville baseball for about 80 years.

Known as the Reds up until the Caswell Park era, Knoxville's team went through spells as the Appalachians and the Pioneers, but for most of the 20th century, our professional minor-league team, which bounced between AA, AAA, and AAAA affiliations, was the Knoxville Smokies. They seem to have gotten that name at about the time of the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Caswell Park was the site of a baseball Event, in April, 1934, when the New York Yankees played an exhibition series there, while staying at the Farragut Hotel downtown. The more than 5,000 Knoxvillians who witnessed the esteemed visitors were not displeased when both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit homers against the Smokies.

At Caswell Park, in the early 1950s, the Smokies' new stadium was named for the much-admired manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Billy Meyer—a Knoxville native and a veteran of the ca. 1910 Knoxville Reds.

That stadium witnessed some splendid seasons, but also a general decline of interest in pro baseball, as Knoxville became more and more preoccupied with UT sports and other pursuits. Writing for Harper's in 1967, Pulitzer-winner J. Anthony Lukas wrote a melancholy story about Knoxville baseball, which seemed to be dying. He blamed the malaise, in large part, on the weekend distraction of TVA's new lakes. The old Knoxville sports fan, it concluded, was spending his time and money on boating.

Knoxville lost its team that year. It bounded back in the early '70s, rebuilding its small but loyal audiences, as the Knox Sox, then the Knoxville Blue Jays, aka K-Jays. Among the talents Knoxville got to witness up close before they were big-league stars were pitchers Todd Stottlemyre and Juan Guzman and catcher Pat Borders. In the late 1970s, Knoxville got to witness the work of a young manager named Tony LaRussa.

They had their ups and downs, but seemed to be experiencing an upswing in popularity in the '90s, just before the organization moved 20 miles east to become the Tennessee Smokies.

But it ain't over, as the sage says, till it's over.

Your obt. svt.

Z. Heraclitus "Shoeless Z" Knox

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