Exactly 50 years ago, the Nashville Vols were ready to open a key four-game, Southern Association series with their big rival, the Memphis Chicks. But little did anyone know that the Vols were about to provide something extraordinary on a muggy Friday night at old Sulphur Dell ballpark.
It was May 8, 1959, and things did not start out well for the Vols, who fell behind early and eventually found themselves trailing 7-0, going into the bottom of the ninth. Many of the fans left early, but the more fortunate ones stayed around and will be forever glad that they did.
One of those who didn’t leave was Cohn eighth-grader Farrell Owens, who stayed around with his father Leonard and uncle Clifford.
“Dad’s exact words were that we would be seeing ‘the class of the league’ because the Chicks were in first place,’’ said Owens, a lifelong player and fan of the sport, who was a standout player for Cohn High, then Lipscomb, and was named to the Lipscomb Hall of Fame in 1992.
The Chicks obviously were holding up their end over the first eight innings.
“Dad said that we should go to the top of the stands near the doors and stand there and watch before we got a jump on the crowd leaving,’’ said Owens, who competed in Junior Knothole, American Legion and Stan Musial ball.
In the ninth, Nashville had the bottom of its order coming up — not a great recipe for success. But Buddy Gilbert opened the Vols’ last at bat with a single, followed by a double by Phil Shartzer. The next batter, Haven Schmidt, belted a pinch-hit three-run, opposite field homer that hit the top of the left-field fence and bounced over.
“We still didn’t expect to win, but we were happy we didn’t get shut out,’’ Owens said.
Then, in quick order, Carlos Castillo, Tommy Dotterer and Marv Blalock all singled, and the score was suddenly 7-4. Crawford Davidson singled to load the bases, then Chico Alvarez singled, making it and two-run game.
“At that point, you could feel it,’’ Owens said.
Catcher Eddie Irons, who ironically was a former Memphis Chicks player, strode to the plate with the bases loaded. Irons laced a hard line shot at the centerfielder.
“The centerfielder took a quick half-step in, and the ball then sailed over his head,’’ Owens said, reliving the unbelievable moment.
Irons’ ball rolled into deep centerfield and, before the centerfielder could retrieve it, three runs had crossed home plate on Irons’ triple, the Vols had won 8-7 and Sulphur Dell turned into bedlam.
“I can still see (Vols manager) Dick Sisler putting a bear hug on Eddie Irons as he came in to third base,’’ Owens said. “What a great memory that I got to share with my dad and my uncle.’’
The improbable rally remains unique and special because:
• All eight runs scored with no outs — no Nashville batter was retired.
• There were nine straight hits (with none hit to the 262-foot porch in right field): six singles, one double, one triple, one home run.
• There were no walks, no errors and no hit batters.
Considering that the winning team had failed to score at all prior to it, perhaps no other rally in baseball history came about quite the same way this one did.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,’’ Owens said, shaking his head. “May never see anything like it again.’’
The Vols went on to sweep the four-game series, rallying again for a 6-5 win Saturday night, then sweeping a Sunday doubleheader.
Of the many great historical nights at Sulphur Dell, the one on May 8, 1959 took the cake.