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The guardian of Nashvilles baseball history

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 Baseball in Nashville: Images of Baseball, written by Skip Nipper. 

Skip Nipper, a man with a boy’s love for baseball, poses with some of his baseball memorabilia in his Mt. Juliet office. Nipper wrote Baseball in Nashville and created a Web site in honor of Nashville’s old Sulphur Dell ball park.

KEN BECK / The Wilson Post 

 

Nashville’s historic baseball park, Sulphur Dell, was the site of baseball games from the Civil War era until the fall of 1963. This photo captures a game and the crowd in the early 1950s.

Submitted 

Dot & Stell’s Virgil Nipper Group 

What: Gifts, patio furniture, embroidery, silk screeningWhere: 2396 N. Mt. Juliet RoadWhen: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. SaturdayPhone: 773-0980Web site: www.sulphurdell.com 

Play ball! The Major League Baseball season opens Sunday, April 4, as the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox. The game airs at 7 p.m. on ESPN2.The Nashville Sounds’ first home game at Greer Stadium begins at 7:05 p.m. April 16. For more info, go to www.nashvillesounds.com. By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

Get to talking baseball with Skip Nipper and a visitor may just never get away.

The 59-year-old sales representative for New Era baseball caps, who makes Mt. Juliet his home base, is passionate about the sport known as the national pastime. He’s also an expert on the 150-year history of Nashville baseball, so much so that he has written Baseball in Nashville: Images of Baseball (Arcadia Publishing, $19.99).

“It is an image book with 85 photos and captions that describe what the readers are seeing along with a lead-in to different eras of Nashville baseball from the 1880s to 2007,” said Nipper, who also has created a Web site dedicated to Nashville’s historic and extinct professional ball park, Sulphur Dell, at www.sulphurdell.com.

The traveling salesman, who also handles much of his business over the Internet, makes his office in a cubbyhole of sorts in a building behind Dot & Stell’s on North Mt. Juliet Road.

His tiny, cramped nook barely has room for his desk and computer as it is packed to the gills with baseball memorabilia. Photographs of baseball teams of yesteryear and Sulphur Dell ballpark photos command the walls. A bright red, vintage Nashville Vol pennant features a frontiersman wearing a coonskin cap swinging a baseball bat.

A framed $5 Nashville stock certificate from the 1950s bears the mimeographed signature of club secretary (and country music star) Eddy Arnold and Herschel Greer, the man for whom Nashville’s pro baseball stadium is named. Bookshelves boast baseball books, while bats lean in a corner and baseballs fill pigeonholes. Everything’s here but for the peanuts and Cracker Jacks.

Nipper grew up in East Nashville, graduated from Stratford High School and earned a degree in business administration at Memphis State. But as a boy baseball was his game as he enjoyed the game through the age of 18 in the local Connie Mack league.

His father, Virgil Nipper, played minor league ball, and Skip said, “He is still the best baseball player I ever knew.” Skip’s uncle, Walter Nipper, operated Nashville Sporting Goods in downtown from the 1940s until 2004. And his grandfather sold baseballs and softballs for Worth Sports out of Tullahoma, from New York to the Rio Grande from the mid-1920s into the mid -1930s.

“I’ve been a sales representative for New Era for 38 years. I call on minor league teams in my area, sporting goods stores, sporting goods retailers, men’s clothing stores and some college teams,” said Nipper, who this afternoon is wearing a blue Baseball Hall of Fame shirt and a New York Yankee baseball cap, New Era brand, naturally.

Serving a diamond-shaped area that goes from Nashville to Louisville to Memphis to Birmingham, Nipper has such clients as minor league ball teams the Memphis Redbirds, Huntsville Bats, Birmingham Barons, West Tennessee Diamond Jax, Huntsville Stars, Bowling Green Hot Rods and the Nashville Sounds. He also puts baseball caps on the heads of players for Cumberland University, Austin Peay State University and the University of Memphis.

“I enjoy selling. I was born that way. Must be in my DNA. My dad was a heck of a salesman,” said Nipper, whose father went to work for New Era in 1961 and whose grandfather worked for the company in 1932. Skip began his gig in 1972 with New Era, which has headquarters in Buffalo, N.Y.

(The No. 1 ball cap company in the world started in 1920. New Era is the exclusive manufacturer and marketer of the official on-field cap worn by every Major League baseball team and their minor league affiliates.)

Skip has seen an amazing evolution in the baseball caps, as it used to be worn strictly by athletes, fishermen, hunters, farmers, truck drivers and blue-collar workers, but now has become a lifestyle statement from the streets to the night clubs and social scene.

“It’s a part of today’s fashions and clothing trends, and the cap is the crown, if you will,” he said.

Nipper began collecting baseball cards at the age of 10. That was also the same year that his grandfather asked him who he was rooting for in the World Series.

“Granddaddy liked the Pittsburgh Pirates, so I chose the N.Y. Yankees. I’ve been a Yankees fan ever since,” said Nipper, an eyewitness to ball games at Nashville’s Sulphur Dell, which was the oldest remaining baseball park in the U.S. when it closed in 1963.

“I would go with my granddaddy, who wouldn’t let us get anything to eat until after the seventh-inning stretch. ‘We’re here to watch the game,’ he said.”

In 2002, Skip and his father attended a baseball game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, historic home of the Cubs.

“On the plane coming home, Dad said how much it reminded him of Sulphur Dell. I got on the Internet but couldn’t find anything about Sulphur Dell,” Skip said.

So he bought an Internet site template and began his research. One of his best sources was the Metro Nashville Archives in Green Hills where he found photos of Sulphur Dell as well as lots of baseball stories from local newspapers on microfilm.

“My dad knew Nashville Banner sports writer Edgar Allen and some of the group at the Nashville Old Timers Baseball Association. I started gathering photos, oral biographies, newspaper clippings. SABR, the Society of American Baseball Research, had databases with stats on players, plus publications.”

Three or four months later, in September 2002, voila!, Nipper had a lot of the history of Nashville baseball and of Sulphur Dell ball park on the Web.

He set up a booth with Sulphur Dell memorabilia at Nashville’s Octoberfest in 2005, and a number of Nashvillians stopped to tell stories about watching games at Sulphur Dell with their fathers or grandfathers.

Realizing a lot of the older fans, especially those who saw minor league games in Nashville in the 1940s and ’50s, did not have home computers was the inspiration he needed to put his photos and historical data into book form.

Skip dedicated the book to his dad, and both were featured in the 2007 WNPT-Channel 8 documentary, Memories of Sulphur Dell.

In 2002, Skip’s father bought a 100-year-old house on North Mt. Juliet Road, planning on it being the office for himself and his son. However, their wives had another idea.

“My mom, Dorothy (Dot, who died in 2006), and my wife, Sheila, decided to go into the gift shop business. They called it Dot & Stell’s,” said Skip, whose nickname for Sheila is Stell.

“Baseball comes first with Skip, but it’s a lot better than another woman,” said Sheila, smiling. “Baseball is probably my favorite sport. I like to go to Sounds games.”

As for her shop, she said, “We have a little bit of everything. We carry everything from small gifts to outdoor furniture and Vera Bradley handbags.” (She also stocks her husband’s Nashville baseball book.)

Having the run of the shop is another “Stell,” a gray and white cat rescued from the animal shelter. She makes her bed in a basket that sits on the service counter. “We have people who come into the store just to see her,” Sheila said.

Skip and Sheila have seven children and 11 grandchildren. Their son, Chris, 29, has been operating an embroidery business and doing silk screening from the building at back for six years. It goes under the name of the Virgil Nipper Group.

Chris’s business takes up about 95 percent of the space in the back building. But in that other 5 percent is the tiny bullpen that serves as Skip’s office. Well, that is also where you will find the heart of Nashville’s professional baseball history.

Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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