Robert Burgess (TMP Photo/D. Whittle)
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series.
SMYRNA, Tenn. -- Let’s take a trip back in time, back to 1944 when the opening day lineup for the Nashville Vols took the field at Sulphur Dell Ballpark.
We’ll make the journey with 85-year-old Robert Burgess, who at age 15, was a public address announcer employee in from 1944 through 1946 for the Vols. The Vols were Nashville’s professional Southern League team from 1901-1963.
Burgess’ recall of old Vols teams is uncanny.
“The opening day lineup in 1944 was Charley Brewster at shortstop, ‘Steady’ John Mehalic, second base; Mel Hicks, first base; Manny Salaterie, center field; Pete Elco, third base; Moses King, left field; Jim Riggio, right field, and Al Leitz, catcher,” noted Burgess from his days as the Vols PA announcer.
“Pitching that day was Charley Cueller, who later in the year pitched his heart out to win the Dixie World Series over in Memphis.”
In the interview, Burgess reverted back to his PA style of announcing: “Number 9, pitching today, Charley Cueller … Cueller.”
It was Cueller and one or two other Spanish-speaking Vols who resulted in Burgess being promoted from running the scoreboard and moving over in the “press box to the microphone.”
“My boss, Leo Wise, a Jewish fellow who really impacted my life on and off the baseball diamond, heard me rolling some ‘Rs’ in my talk one day, when he asked if I knew Spanish” Burgess stroked his baseball memories back in time. “I told Mr. Wise I was taking Spanish over at nearby North High School.”
“So, after that, when Leo was out of town on business, I took over the mic. Some days, I’d go down to the field, and they’d drop the mic down to me from the press box, and I’d do my announcing there behind home plate,” Burgess recalled. “Someone asked me how I had the confidence as a mere teenager to do public speaking. My parents always told me I could do anything, including public speaking, but that I had to know what I was talking about, and not appear foolish.”
Present-day interest by Tennessee sports fans is renewed regarding the old Sulphur Dell, located on Fourth Avenue, which brought professional baseball to Nashville dating back to 1870. The big logo sign over the left field wall stated: “The Sulphur Dell, Baseball’s Most Historic Park Since 1870.”
“Even as a boy, I felt a keen sense of history, for I was getting to know professional baseball players,” Burgess said. “In that era, it was just about every boy’s dream of playing in the Major Leagues. I played baseball at North High, as a pitcher mostly, and I could play the infield, including summertime sandlot baseball around Nashville.”
He credits the late Hickman Duncan as another “man’s man” who greatly impacted him as a youth.
“Hickman Duncan, the football coach at North High, saw me walking through the dressing room one day and asked what I was planning on doing for the summer of 1944,” Burgess, a resident of Azalea Courts assisted living in Smyrna, noted. “I told him I was going to play some sandlot baseball, and he asked if I’d be interested with job for the Nashville Vols. I didn’t hesitate, and said ‘yes sir!’
“That’s when he gave me Mr. Leo Wise’s phone number, and when I met Mr. Wise at the ballpark, he immediately hired me to keep up with the balls and strikes up in the press box ‑‑ a pretty heady job for a boy of 15, but I was pretty confident in myself. I’ve never tried to be anything but myself. Besides my parents, Hickman Duncan and Leo Wise really inspired me to be all I could be in life. They were each a ‘man’s man.’”
The boy received 50-cents per game, and 75-cents for a double-header.
The late Roy Campanella, Major League baseball’s first black catcher, also impacted young Burgess’ life.
“He was the best baseball player I ever saw in person,” Burgess judged. “I first witnessed him play when he was only 18-years-old, in the old Negro League when those teams came to play at Sulphur Dell when the Vols were on the road. He was a nice man, and beautiful to watch.
“When the Negro League teams came to town, I’d estimate 80 percent of the spectators were black folks,” Burgess noted. “Another great player was Jackie Robinson, who left the Negro League to break the color barrier in Major League baseball in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.”
Campanella followed Robinson to play for the Dodgers.
“When I’d meet players like Campy and Jackie in the dugout, I’d ask ‘How you doing today, Mr. Robinson?, or how you doing Mr. Campanella?’” Burgess said. “I don’t remember ever being racist, for they were great baseball players, to be admired as professional athletes.”