Although Memphis fielded a professional baseball team in 1877, organized minor league baseball in Tennessee dates to 1885 and the founding of the Southern League of Professional Clubs (SL), a circuit that lasted through 1899. From 1885 to the present, twenty-six Tennessee towns and cities have had entries in a number of leagues, including the Southern Association (SA), Appalachian League (Appy), South Atlantic League (Sally), Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League (Kitty), Pacific Coast League (PCL), and the “new” Southern League organized in 1964. From 1902 to the present, both large cities and small towns in Tennessee have fielded teams in minor league circuits.
Formally organized in 1911, essentially out of the 1910 Southeastern League, the Appalachian League was a Class D circuit, with Morristown, Knoxville, Cleveland, and Johnson City as the inaugural Tennessee representatives. The designation “Class D” reflected a classification scheme based on the population of a team's city (the largest was A, the smallest D), established by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues in 1902. The Johnson City team–called the Soldiers in honor of the local Soldiers' Home–won the pennant in the Appy League's first year. Throughout the Appy's existence as a Class D league (to 1962), and as a short season Rookie league (1963 to present), Johnson City and Kingsport have been the mainstays of the league. Beginning in the 1930s, Appy League teams ceased to be independent and became farm teams of major league teams. Today, the Appalachian is a ten-team circuit with teams from Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee. Tennessee teams include Johnson City, Kingsport, and the smallest of the league cities, Elizabethton.
In West and Middle Tennessee, a number of smaller towns organized teams in the Kitty League, a Class D loop that existed from 1903 through 1906 and intermittently from 1910 through 1955. Jackson, Clarksville, and Union City fielded teams in this league.
Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga have extensive baseball histories. Memphis's first professional team, the Red Stockings, played in 1877 in the League Alliance, a circuit that lasted only one season. Between 1878 and 1885, Memphis fielded a number of semipro teams including the Blues, Riverdales, and Eckfords. In 1885 the Memphis Leaguers became a charter member of the original Southern League. The team played in Olympic Park, located at the present site of the Memphis Area Transit Authority Bus Terminal. Subsequently known as the Grays, Fever Germs, and Giants, the team won the 1894 pennant (as the Giants). But in 1895 the team disbanded as the result of poor financial support.
When the Southern Association began play in 1901, Memphis again entered organized professional baseball with a team known either as the Egyptians or the Leaguers; in 1907 they became the Turtles. Eight years later, after a string of dreadful seasons, the team changed its moniker to “Chicks,” probably to recall the successes of an 1890s amateur team called the Chicks–short for Chickasaws. The Egyptians played at Red Elm Park (or Bottoms), a three-thousand-seat facility built in 1896. In 1915 owner Russell E. Garner renamed the park Russwood and increased the seating to six thousand (later increased to eleven thousand). The Memphis entry in the Southern Association won pennants in 1903, 1904, 1921, 1924, and 1930. The 1944 Chicks were known for their one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray, who earned MVP honors that year. On April 18, 1960, Russwood Park burned down. The Chicks played at Hodges Field and Tobey Field, but both proved unsatisfactory. Financial losses, the fire, and lack of a home playing field caused the Chicks to withdraw from the SA after the 1960 season.
In 1968 Memphis became a member of an expanded Texas League as the Blues, who played at a field located at the fairgrounds near the Liberty Bowl. This facility was rebuilt in 1967-68, and christened Blues Stadium (later Tim McCarver Stadium and Chicks Stadium). The Blues left the Texas League and entered the Dixie Association for one year, 1971, and returned to the Texas League for one last season in 1972. The following year, the Chicks entered the AAA International League as a farm team of the Montreal Expos. In 1977 Avron Fogleman purchased the team to be a farm club for the Kansas City Royals. The Chicks entered the SL. The Chicks subsequently changed parent club affiliation, first to the San Diego Padres and then to the Seattle Mariners, the parent team in 1997. By 1998, however, the team was set to move to Jackson, and Memphis prepared to receive new team.
By 2000 the new teams were playing to record crowds in new stadiums, and both were champions. The former Memphis Chicks became the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx, playing at Pringle Park along Interstate I-40 outside of Jackson. The Southern League affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, the Diamond Jaxx won the 2000 Southern League Championship. The new Memphis franchise, the Memphis Redbirds, became the only professional baseball team owned by a not-for-profit foundation, the Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation. A member of the Pacific Coast League and the AAA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, the Redbirds won the 2000 PCL Championship. They play at AutoZone Park, a new attraction and anchor for downtown Memphis.
Nashville, like Memphis and Chattanooga, was a charter member of the original SL in 1885. Prior to that the city fielded club teams in the late 1860s and 1870s. Some sources contend that the occupying Union army brought baseball to Nashville in 1862. The Nashville SL team, the Americans, played at Sulphur Spring Bottom at Athletic Park. The Americans became the Blues in 1887 and left the SL at the end of that season. Nashville fielded the Tigers in 1893-94 and the Seraphs in 1895.
Nashville's next foray into organized minor league baseball came in 1901 with the founding of the Southern Association. From that year until the league's disbanding in 1961, Nashville boasted an SA entry called the Volunteers or Vols–although the 1901 and 1902 teams may have been called the “Fishermen,” for manager Newt Fisher. Nashville teams won pennants in 1901-02, 1908, 1916, 1939-44, 1949-50, and 1953.
After a one-year sojourn in the Sally League in 1963, Nashville did not have a professional baseball team until 1978, when the Cincinnati Reds placed a SL team, the Sounds, in Herschel Greer Stadium. In 1980 the Sounds changed affiliation and became a New York Yankees farm team. In 1985 the team moved to the AAA American Association when owner Larry Schmittou bought the Evansville Tripletts and moved that team to Nashville. The SL moved Nashville's franchise to Huntsville, Alabama. From 1985 to 1986 the Sounds were a Detroit Tigers farm team, from 1987 to 1992, a Cincinnati Reds team, and from 1993 to 1997, a Chicago White Sox team. In 1998 the Sounds joined the Pacific Coast League and became the AAA affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. From 1998 to 2000 the Sounds endured two twelfth place finishes in three years.
One of Chattanooga's first organized, and probably semipro, teams was the 1880 Chattanooga Roanes, which represented the Roane Iron Fence Company. Five years later Chattanooga became one of the charter members of the SL. The city fielded teams in 1885-86 and 1892 before its entry was sold to Mobile, Alabama, in 1895.
Chattanooga was also a charter member of the Southern Association when it began play in 1901. After the 1902 season, however, owner Mims Hightower sold the team to interests in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1909 O. B. Andrews brought baseball back to the city with a team called the Lookouts in the Sally League. The Lookouts returned to the SA in 1910, where the team remained except for a two-year absence in 1943-44 until the league folded in 1961.
Andrews and Z. C. Patten engineered the team's return to the SA in 1910 when they purchased the Little Rock SA franchise and moved it to Chattanooga. Andrews built a field–which he named for himself–at Third and O'Neal Streets, later the site of Engel Stadium. Andrews owned the club until 1919, when Sammy Strang Nicklin purchased it. Initially successful, the team consistently finished near the bottom of the SA standings by the end of the 1920s.
In 1929 Clark Griffith bought the Lookouts to be a farm team for the Washington Senators and sent Senators scout Joe Engel to run the team. Engel built a stadium on the Andrews Field site (Engel Stadium), which was first used during the 1930 season. Engel quickly established himself as the “Baron of Ballyhoo” for his game promotions. Attendance soared, and in 1932 Chattanooga won its first league championship in twenty-two years and then defeated Beaumont of the Texas League in the Dixie Series.
From 1933 to 1938 the Lookouts recorded five consecutive seventh place finishes. Attendance plummeted. Griffith put the team up for sale in 1937, but Engel saved the club by offering the public five-dollar shares in the team. The team rewarded its fans, and its seventeen hundred shareholders, by winning the 1939 SA pennant. Griffith reclaimed ownership in the early 1940s and held the team throughout the World War II years. In 1952 the Lookouts won the SA championship and attracted 252,703 fans, who watched such future Major League stars as Harmon Killebrew and Jim Kaat.
In 1960 the Lookouts became a farm team of the Philadelphia Phillies. After the SA dissolved in 1961, the city did not field a team in 1962. In 1963 another Lookouts team joined the Sally League, which had been elevated from A to AA. Team success, however, did not follow, and attendance declined. There was no franchise in the city after the 1965 season. SL baseball returned to Chattanooga in 1976 when the Oakland A's sponsored a team in the newly renovated Engel Stadium. The Lookouts subsequently affiliated with Cleveland (1978-82), Seattle (1983-86), and Cincinnati (1987-present). In November 1998 club officials announced plans to construct a new ball park on Hawk Hill in downtown Chattanooga. Construction on BellSouth Park began in March 1999.
Perhaps as early as 1878, Knoxville had “base ball” clubs, the most famous of which was the Reds team, the result of a merger of the East Tennessee University team and a local team. The original Reds and their successors played from 1878 through 1880 at the Asylum Street grounds. In 1894 Frank Moffett organized the city's first professional team, the Knoxville Reds or Indians, who played at Baldwin Park. In 1902 and 1903 Moffett organized and managed a “New Reds” (later Indians) team. Knoxville had an entry in the 1904 Class D Tennessee-Alabama League, but it is not clear if the 1905 Knoxville Indians played in the non-sanctioned Interstate League or as a city club. The city had no organized minor league team from 1906 to 1908, but in 1909 Knoxville fielded the Appalachians, a replacement for the Charleston team in the Class C Sally League. The following year, Moffett led the Appalachians into the Class D Southeastern League, where the team won the pennant.
With the 1911 formation of the Appalachian League, Moffett led a team called the Pioneers into the new circuit. The Appy disbanded in 1914, and Knoxville did not have another professional entry until the 1921 reorganization of the league. In that year, owner/manager Moffett fielded a team which played at Caswell Park and won the 1923 and 1924 Appy League pennants before withdrawing from the league in 1925.
From 1925 through 1930 the Knoxville Smokies played in the Sally League, now a Class B circuit. Financial difficulties forced the withdrawal of the Smokies in 1930, but the following year the Mobile SA team transferred its franchise to Knoxville, where the team played in the new Smithson Stadium, built on the site of the razed Caswell Park. The Smokies remained in the SA until midway through the 1944 season, when the franchise returned to Mobile. From 1946 to 1952 the Smokies played in the Class B Tri-State League, which consisted of teams from Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. In 1953 the club switched to the Class D Mountain States League before returning to Tri-State in 1954. In 1953 Smithson Stadium burned and was replaced on the same site by Knoxville Municipal Stadium (later Bill Meyer Stadium).
From 1956 to 1958 Knoxville's SL team affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles, then the Detroit Tigers from 1959 to 1963. Knoxville entered the new AA Southern League in 1964 as a Cincinnati Reds team, an affiliation that lasted through 1966. From 1967 through 1971 there was no minor league team in Knoxville. But in 1972 the Chicago White Sox moved its AA Southern League franchise from Asheville. The Toronto Blue Jays, the current parent team, replaced the White Sox in 1979. During these years, the team name changed three times and is now the Smokies. In 1996 the Knoxville city government voted to provide money for a new stadium, but no construction took place either in 1996 or 1997, and the team moved to a new location on the outskirts of Sevierville along Interstate I-40 and took the name Tennessee Smokies. Still an affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, the team plays in the six-thousand-seat Smokies Park.
Robert Obojski, Bush League. A History of Minor League Baseball (1965); Bill ONeal, The Southern League: Baseball in Dixie, 1885-1994 (1994); Marie Tedesco, “Appalachia Becomes Mainstream: From Down-Home Baseball to the Rookie League in Johnson City, Tennessee,” Journal of East Tennessee History 64 (1992)