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by Matthew Gailani
Today, the Nashville Sounds, one of Tennessee’s many Minor League baseball teams, play at First Horizon Park. The stadium is located within walking distance of the Tennessee State Museum, just south of Jefferson Street across from Bicentennial Mall State Park in downtown Nashville. The team is part of the city’s and the state’s history of baseball, which dates to the 1800s. Since the Sounds’ founding in 1978, the team has been a Minor League affiliate of numerous Major League teams including the Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Currently, the Sounds are a Triple A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers. Due to the team’s history and numerous associations, many baseball greats, hall-of-famers, World Series champions, and All-Stars have donned a Sounds’ jersey at one point or another in their careers. One era that was historically important for the Nashville Sounds was the early 1980s. From 1980 to 1984, the Sounds weren’t just any Minor League team, they were the Southern League affiliate of the New York Yankees.
Founded in the early 1900s and known as the New York Yankees since 1913, the franchise currently holds 27 World Series championships, more than any other team. Names like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson, Bernie Williams, and Derek Jeter have all worn the Yankee “pin stripes” during their careers. For New York, the 1980s was by no means the most successful period in their history. In fact, the club failed to win a World Series between 1982 and 1995. However, at the same time, its Southern League affiliate, the Nashville Sounds, were home to a handful of the game’s future stars at their former ballpark Greer Stadium.
The 1981 Nashville Sounds (Tennessee State Museum Collection)
One such player was Willie Dean McGee. McGee was from California and had been drafted by the Yankees in 1977. In his debut season for the Sounds in 1980, McGee played in 78 games and had a batting average of .283. The following year he improved on those numbers by hitting .322 over the course of 100 games and helped the Sounds win the West Division regular season title. McGee’s performances earned the attention of another Major League Baseball team at that time, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards were so impressed with McGee, that they traded for him in late 1981. This turned out to be a great decision for both the team and the player. Willie McGee went on to play in Major League Baseball for 18 seasons, primarily with St. Louis. In 1982, he helped the Cardinals win their 9th World Series title and first since 1967. He made his last Major League appearance in 1999 and has since been inducted into the St. Louis Cardinal’s Hall of Fame. He finished his career with a batting average of .295.
Bat used by Willie McGee while with the Nashville Sounds (Tennessee State Museum Collection)
While McGee was playing in Nashville, another future Major League star arrived at Greer Stadium. His name was Donald Arthur Mattingly, better known as Don Mattingly. Originally from Evansville, Indiana, Mattingly came to the Sounds for one season in 1981 from the Greensboro Hornets in the Yankee’s Minor League system. In his single season for the Sounds, Mattingly played in 141 games and had a batting average of .316. For reference, during the 1981 Major League Baseball season, Bill Madlock (born in Memphis) led the league with an average of .341. Mattingly’s success, along with McGee’s, helped the Sounds finish with a record of 81-62 and a West Division regular season title. As a result, Mattingly did not remain in Nashville long. The next year he moved up in the Yankee’s farm system and played most of the season for the Columbus Clippers. That same year, he made his Major League Baseball debut for the Yanks and eventually became a staple in New York’s lineup until he retired at the end of the 1995 season. After 14 seasons in the Majors, all with New York, Mattingly finished with a batting average of .307 and 222 home runs. Despite never winning a World Series, the Yankees honored Mattingly and his great career by retiring his jersey number 23. Currently, he is still involved with Major League Baseball as a manager for the Miami Marlins.
Nashville Sounds Trading Cards of Don Mattingly and Willie McGee (Tennessee State Museum Collection)
The Museum recently acquired several artifacts pertaining to the Nashville Sounds of the 1980s. The artifacts were donated by Mr. George P. Brown of Nashville. Brown spent time as a bat boy and visiting locker room manager for the Sounds in the early 1980s. He applied for the positions through an advertisement in The Tennessean and was payed three dollars a game. During his time with the team, he acquired numerous Sounds’ memorabilia, autographs, and more. Brown’s generous donation will not only help add to the Museum’s collection but assist the Museum in interpreting the story and importance of sports in Tennessee’s history.
George P. Brown with the Sounds during a rain delay (Tennessee State Museum Collection)
Matthew Gailani is a Tennessee State Museum Educator. He most recenty wrote about Dan Bankhead for the Stories blog.