Grave Story: Herschel Greer (1906-1976)

Here lies Herschel Greer, a Nashville businessman who helped to keep minor league baseball in Music City, at least for a little while. The Nashville Sounds played in a stadium named after him until 2014.

Nashville has had baseball even longer than it’s had country music. There have been teams in minor or independent leagues dating back to the 1880s, and the Nashville Volunteers (or Vols) could trace their history to around 1901. They played their games at the venerable Sulphur Dell Stadium.

Herschel Greer was born in Dickson County, Tenn., on August 24, 1906. According to his obituary in The Tennessean¸ he attended public schools and taught at Beech Grove Academy before moving to Nashville in 1927.

Greer founded Guaranty Mortgage Co. and served as its president from 1940 until 1969 and stayed on the Board of Directors until 1974. Prior to that, he had attended Falls Business College and had his first real estate job at C.A. Falk & Co. In 1933, he became the district manager of the Home Owner’s Loan Corp., a New Deal-era federal agency that helped refinance home mortgages that were in default to prevent foreclosure.

More to the point of our story, Greer was a baseball fan. He was a shortstop on a Piney Creek team when he was living in Dickson County, and he later played in a Detroit industrial league with a Dodge Motors team. It was said of Greer that he was a great fielder – possibly good enough to played in organized baseball, but he couldn’t hit at all.

In 1959, the Southern Association was falling on hard times, and the Vols were just one of the teams that had money problems. Major League Baseball had been integrated for years by then, but the SA was still a whites-only league (except for 1 player in 1954). MLB was no bastion of civil rights progressiveness by any means, but this was 12 years after Jackie Robinson played his first game. The minor leagues that were affiliated with the major league teams had the choice of adapting to the changing times or remain bigoted, fading relics of the first half of the 20th Century. The Southern Association had cast its lot with segregation and was paying the price.

Greer led an effort to keep the Vols from moving out of Nashville or folding entirely. He organized Vols Inc. and became its first president. The corporation consisted of 23 area businessmen, most notably country music legend Eddy Arnold, and they sold almost 5,000 shares of stock at $5 each. They raised a total of $200,000 to buy the Nashville Vols and the Sulphur Dell properties from former owner Ted Murray.

“When we found Herschel Greer, we found the key to the success of this campaign, proclaimed fellow board member Jack Norman Sr. Greer was considered an enthusiastic president.

The team that the investors acquired went 84-64 in 1959, which was good enough for third place. That would be the best the team performed under the Vols Inc. ownership. What’s more, infighting among the 23 shareholders began popping up as soon as the first offseason, when some of the investors wanted to fire general manager Bobby McCarthy, and some wanted to retain him. Other investors, Greer included, sold off many of their original shares.

McCarthy and field manager Dick Sisler were replaced by Jim Turner, a long-time Yankees pitching coach. Nashville finished 71-82 in his one and only year of managing in 1960. Along with a losing record, Nashville also had a rather contentious relationship with the Reds, claiming that their parent organization was not supporting them financially.

Twenty-two of the 23 executives of Vols Inc. Herschel Greer is seated in the bottom row, middle. Directly above him in the top row is country music legend Eddy Arnold. Source: The Tennessean, January 27, 1959.

Everything fell apart for the Vols in pretty short order after the 1960 season. Turner resigned from his dual role as manager and general manager. Cincinnati severed its association with the Vols because the Southern Association refused to integrate. Finally, Greer himself stepped down, owing to pressing matters in the mortgage banking business. The team found a parent club with the new Minnesota Twins for the 1961 season and stumbled to a 69-83 record under player/manager Red Robbins.

The whole Southern Association collapsed after the ’61 season, partially due to finances and also due to the backwards politics of the day. Nashville announced it would accept any players from a major league partner in 1962, regardless of race. Other teams followed suit, which forced charter team Birmingham to leave the league. Segregation ordinances in Alabama made it impossible for the Barons to play an integrated team. Other SA teams who refused to integrate, like the Atlanta Crackers, found that no major-league team would work with them. On October 31, 1961, the Southern Association announced that all teams would be allowed to play African-Americans if they wanted to.

“The league has never had any policy or regulation preventing Negroes from playing,” said Hal Totten, SA President and apparent bullshit artist.

It was too little, too late at that point. The Southern Association died on January 25, 1962. All the old SA veterans and team officials, of course, blamed MLB for refusing to financially support the league and decried what would eventually become the modern-day farm system. It was an ignoble end to a league with so much history, but the culprits behind the Southern Association’s death were its own backwards policies and the backwards politics of the American South.

The Vols didn’t play at all in 1962 and joined the South Atlantic League in 1963, but after that year, the team had too much debt to continue operations.

Source: The Tennessean, January 8, 1961.

Herschel Greer died from cancer on March 19, 1976 in the M.D. Anderson Research Institute in Houston. He was 69 years old. He is buried in Nashville’s Woodlawn Memorial Park and Mausoleum. He didn’t get to see baseball return to Nashville, as the Nashville Sounds weren’t formed until 1978. However, Greer’s family did donate $25,000 for the construction of a brand-new stadium. When the Sounds played their first home game on April 26, 1978, they did it at Herschel Greer Stadium.

The stadium itself wasn’t particularly exceptional, but it did have a massive, 53-foot-tall guitar-shaped scoreboard that was installed in 1993. The Sounds played there through the 2014 season. The final game at Greer Stadium was played on August 27, 2014, and the Sounds lost to the Sacramento River Cats 8-5. The following season, the Sounds moved to First Tennessee Park and have been there ever since.

Greer Stadium was quickly vandalized once it was left abandoned. There were plans, backed by developers and music producer T Bone Burnett to turn the place into Cloud Hill, a mixed-use development with park space, music space, housing and retail areas. That proposal raised more than a little ire from residents who didn’t appreciate that city land would be used for a private development. However, Greer Stadium sat close to the Civil War-era Fort Negley, which was built for the Union forces in 1862 after they occupied the city. Archaeologists determined that there was a high likelihood that the remains of the slaves who built the fort are buried on the site, and that revelation effectively ended Cloud Hill. (The irony of a fort built for the Union Army by slaves should not be lost on anyone.)

The stadium finally met its end in 2019, when Nashville Mayor David Briley announced plans to demolish the stadium and incorporate the land back into the Fort Negley historic site. Demolition began in April 2019, and archaeologists will survey the land before it is converted to park space. The land is expected to be fully converted in 2022. The scoreboard was bought at auction by a Chicago real estate developer for $54,815. Plans are, according to the Tennessean, to incorporate it as part of a Nashville Warehouse Company project, a mixed-use development at Fourth Avenue and Chesnut Street.

3 thoughts on “Grave Story: Herschel Greer (1906-1976)

  1. Amazing and disturbing that so many of the major league clubs did nothing to combat or condemn the obvious racism inherent in the lack of black players in the minor leagues post-1947. I’m wondering if when the newly-formed Minnesota Twins acquired the Vols in 1961 – 1961! – they did so because they either actively approved of or were willing to tolerate the racism that had been enabled and exhibited so openly by the Vols and the Southern Association for so long. The league’s collapse and dissolution was fair punishment for its intransigence in admitting black players, coaches, and managers, and the decay of Greer Stadium was a fittingly dismal funeral dirge for a league that didn’t deserve to survive.

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    1. Perry, thanks as always for reading! As for the Twins, check out my Grave Story about Sherry Robertson, who was a part of the Griffith family that owned the team. I feel like they would have gotten along pretty well with the Southern League execs.

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