With pill and willow, Phoenix of East Nashville is helping keep vintage base ball alive
It’s trivia night at Drifter’s BBQ, and members of the Phoenix of East Nashville vintage base ball team appear fully braced for two hours of competition.
It is the 85th Monday this assortment of men has met at the popular 5 Points bar and restaurant to field questions on categories ranging from sports and movies to inventions and anatomy. Tonight’s team consists of eight players who will do brainy battle against 10 other groups poised for action. Stakes are rather high, as the winning team is awarded $50 toward the following Monday’s bar tab.
“There’s a natural competitiveness that arises when we play this each week,” Jay “Shaggy” Watson, one of the Phoenix players, says. “When we don’t win at trivia, we go home pretty upset.”
As it turns out, the team finishes third and leaves with a collection of beer koozies for their efforts, yet satisfied that there’s always next week. When asked how many nights of the 85 Phoenix has finished in first place, Steven “Chicago” Schryver shrugs and admits he doesn’t really know. “It’s hard to say,” he says. “We’ve had winning streaks of four or five weeks, but I’m not sure how many total wins we’ve had.”
While Watson, Schryver, and the other Phoenix players may be drawn to Drifter’s each Monday by a competitive spirt, it’s really their sense of camaraderie that brings them out. It’s a connectedness that dates to how they all met in the first place, as members of the Phoenix of East Nashville club that’s part of the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball (TAVBB).
Established in 2012, the TAVBB combines history with baseball as it was played in the 1860s (and was at that time the two-worded “base ball”). Players wear uniforms similar to ones that would have been worn some 150 years ago, play by 19th century rules, and demonstrate an air of civility. “No spitting, no swearing,” as Schryver puts it.
The game is similar to modern baseball, with a few subtle and some not-so subtle differences. The ball is a tad larger and softer than baseballs of today, and players do not wear gloves. There is no home run fence, stealing bases isn’t allowed, and the batter is called out if the ball is caught by a fielder on one bounce, which is known as the “bound rule.” And in keeping with the tradition of the 1800s, every player has a nickname.
“What we’re trying to do is to recreate what a baseball experience would have been like in the 1860s,” says Chris “Snookie Roy” Hoff, captain of the Phoenix squad and a member of the league since it first began. “In that respect, even though we’re playing a game and we’re competing, and there is a winner and a loser, what we’re really doing is, we’re base ball reenactors.”
The 2016 season of TAVBB gets underway in April and features 10 teams — the Nashville Maroons, the Franklin Farriers, Travellers Club of Brentwood, the Stewarts Creek Scouts, the Highland Rim Distillers, and Phoenix in Middle Tennessee, and Emmett Machinists of Knoxville, the Knoxville Holstons, the Mountain City Club of Chattanooga, and the Lightfoot Club of Chattanooga in East Tennessee. The season runs through Sept. 10- 11, when it culminates with the championship tournament known as the Sulphur Dell Cup. Instead of typical baseball diamonds, games are played at historic locations such as Mansker’s Station in Goodlettsville, the Sam Davis Home in Smyrna, and Carnton Plantation in Franklin.
Phoenix of East Nashville plays its home games at Bicentennial Mall. Though historical documents show that base ball was played in Edgefield as early as 1860, Phoenix members have been unable to find a suitable spot on the East Side for 21st century games. “We would love to play home games in East Nashville, but I’m just not sure we can find a place,” Hoff says. “Everybody on this team is proud to be representing that community.”
That pride shows, in part, through the players’ uniforms. When Hoff and others were planning for the team’s first season — in 2014, when the TAVBB expanded from two teams the year before to eight — they wanted to be sure that Phoenix reflected the aura of East Nashville.
“We had to figure out what the uniforms were going to look like, the team colors,” Hoff recalls. “My first idea was to go to the East Nashville High School website and find out what their colors are. Turns out they were red and gray. Someone showed me a drawing of a uniform with gray shirts and red pants, and it looked great. So we went with the red pants.”
And then there’s Drifters. Even though all the Phoenix players don’t reside on the East Side and home games are played across the river in downtown Nashville, they’re all loyal to the community their team calls home. Besides, they needed a good neighborhood hangout where they could knock back a few beers after a match, as well as gather during the TAVBB offseason for more competition and camaraderie.
“The trivia idea just came out of a discussion we were having during our first road trip a couple of seasons ago,” says Schyler, who lives in Donelson. “I was in the car with [teammates] Horse-Fly (Jack Chambers), Crash (John Niedzwiecki) and Hammer (Curtis Piatt). We were talking about trivia and wondering if there was a place we could meet for trivia night. Someone mentioned Drifter’s and it seemed to be a natural fit. It was on a Monday night when nobody really had anything going on. It was the place where we typically meet on Sunday afternoon after a match at Bicentennial Mall. So we’ve got kind of a core group that meets there every Monday.
“We’ve got that camaraderie on game day, after a match at Drifters on the deck, and on Monday nights.”
Some of the players are, indeed, from East Nashville, a fact that has certainly ingrained a community pride. “I definitely feel that,” says Watson, an Inglewood resident whose “Shaggy” nickname comes from his mild resemblance to the lanky hippy from The Scooby-Doo Show. “When I joined the league, there was the opportunity to join just the league and you would be on any of the teams where there was an opening. And I really wanted to be on the East Nashville team because I wanted to play on the team from my community.”
For Watson, the team has become a bit of a family affair. His wife, Candi Henry (aka “Black Widow”), was the league’s first female umpire (or arbiter) last year and returns to help out this year. Their youngest son, 7-year-old Eliot, has been named bat boy for Phoenix this season. Nicknamed “Toot Toot,” one of his duties will be to blow a wooden train whistle when a player scores. Eleven-year-old Jamie is the team’s official scorekeeper. While his son’s method of using an iPad and a special scoring app may not exactly adhere to the 1860s way of life, Watson says “it’s been fun for him to learn the different rules the vintage game has.”
As for the age range of Phoenix players, it basically mirrors that of the league. The median age of the East Side club is around 44-45, with one player in his 20s and a couple in their 70s. Seniors on the team are John “Caboose” Harmon, 71, and Lacey “Magic Hands” Spivey, 70. “If you add the ages of those two guys together, it goes back to the time of the Civil War,” quips Paul “Nails” Clark.
The good-natured ribbing of the seniors notwithstanding, they can bring a certain wisdom and discipline to the game. And especially in the case of Spivey, they bring quite a bit of athleticism. A 23-year resident of Inglewood, Spivey has medaled four times in five years of competing in the Tennessee Senior Olympics. When he was 40, he rode across the country on a bicycle.
The TAVBB continues to grow and attract more interest. Fans can enjoy a family-friendly environment, catch a little 1860s-style base ball, and soak up some of the charm from local historic places. Likewise, as more and more East Nashvillians learn about the league and their “home team,” the greater the enthusiasm, Watson says.
“We’ve done some events to promote our team and the league,” he says. “For instance, we were at the East Nashville Beer Festival last year, and had a table set up where people could learn more about it. Everybody who heard about it was interested. I feel like there’s lots of support when people know about it.”