Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series.
SMYRNA, Tenn. -- Eighty-five-year-old Robert Burgess recalls the old Sulphur Dell as an unusual ball park with an even more unique outfield configuration.
The Sulphur Dell served as home to the Nashville Vols from 1901-1963. The Dell’s right field was labeled as “The Dump” by players and sportswriters of that era. It took strong ball players with “The Dell Stroke” to hit baseballs over the “The Dump.”
“‘The Dell Stroke’ was what we labeled the homerun power hitters, who could put the baseball over the high wall and even higher fence in right field,” noted Smyrna resident Burgess, the former PA announcer for the historic Southern League Nashville Vols from 1944-46. “Players and fans alike called right field ‘The Dump.’
“It was a weird laid out ballpark, especially in the outfield, where after about 100 yards of level playing field the field suddenly sloped up to the fences,” Burgess recalled.
He classifies the late Carl Sawatski with being the best right hand hitter the Vols had. “The newspaper even did a picture series, showing Sawatski’s beautiful swing with the bat,” Mr. Burgess noted. “He hit baseballs with tremendous power. He left the Vols to later play for the Chicago Cubs in the Major Leagues.
Players for the Vols came from throughout the United States and a few from South America in the 1940s, he noted.
“A part of the reason that I became the part-time PA announcer for games was that I spoke Spanish and could pronounce the Spanish named players correctly,” Burgess said.
Right fielder Jim Riggio was described as one of the more colorful players and characters.
“In that era, Hollywood actors would come to Nashville dressed in Zoot Suits,” Burgess described. “Well, when Jim Riggio showed up at Sulphur Dell wearing his Zoot Suit, the players laughed at him.”
But “Steady” John Mahalic, the Vols second baseman in 1944-45, was a player no one laughed at.
“He was named the team captain on the field because he was a real smart player,”Burgess noted. “He was an eccentric type of man, but had a gift for baseball. When an opposing team would play bunt and sacrifice ‘Steady’ John was the one who covered first base for the put out.
“After conferring with other players during a brief timeout, ‘Steady’ John specialized in walking over and tagging out the man on second when they’d venture off the bag,” Burgess recalled.
Perhaps the most colorful team of all time to play at Sulphur Dell was the Zulu Cannibal Giants’ Baseball Tribe. “They were also known as the Zulu Clowns and played baseball a lot like the Harlem Globetrotters played basketball,” noted Burgess. “They played in grass skirts and wore African war paint on their faces and torsos.
“I don’t think the Negro League teams ever felt unwelcome at Sulphur Dell,” Burgess said. “It was entertaining baseball, but it was likely the Baltimore Elite Giants and Birmingham Black Barons who had the most talented baseball players.”
Burgess smiled when describing a typical seventh inning stretch when Negro League teams were at Sulphur Dell.
“When they’d take a break for the seventh inning, some of the teams would hold jitterbug contests atop the dugouts,” Burgess recalled. “Those were very entertaining to the fans.”
He recalled one serious conversation he overheard one day as he stood in the visiting team’s dugout, preparing to announce that Sunday’s afternoon game.
“Four or five players were talking amongst themselves about one of their players warming up out on the diamond,” Burgess described. “They were discussing who would tell that player that he needed to stand in the shower for a while ‑‑ that he was beginning to smell a bit gamey. I left that dugout quickly because that was none of my business.”