Knoxville has always been a baseball town

Beth KinnaneDowntown, East Knox, Our Town Stories

The baseball Vols just clinched the SEC championship. The team is now taking its 57-3 record as the No. 1 seed into the College World Series. With home games sold out all season, the enthusiasm for the Big Orange sluggers has shown that football isn’t the only game in town.


Whatever happens in the World Series (Go Vols!), there will still be plenty of baseball played in the coming months. And two local teams provide the opportunity for spectators to see the game as it used to be played: the Knoxville Holstons and the Emmett Machinists. Both are part of the Tennessee Association of Vintage Baseball and play most of their home games in an open field at Historic Ramsey House. While they have other teams on their respective schedules, they play each other on Aug. 27.

Samuel Billings Dow, photo courtesy of Dow’s descendant, David Maloney of Denver, North Carolina.

Dr. William E Hardy is an adjunct professor of American history at Lincoln Memorial University. He’s a specialist in 19th century American history, particularly the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. In his spare time, he plays for the Holstons (his team nickname is “Doc”) and takes deep dives into researching the history of baseball in Knoxville.

“The first baseball game in Knoxville was played on May 4, 1867. It was organized by Samuel Billings Dow, who is really the founding father of baseball in the city,” Hardy said.

Dow, originally from Maine, mostly grew up in Exeter, New Hampshire, (where baseball was played at the Phillips Exeter Academy) before his family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, (incidentally, Hardy’s hometown). Having served briefly in the Civil War, Dow eventually came to Knoxville to work in the Revenue Service for the federal government, Hardy explained. A devastating flood in 1867 (when the Tennessee was still called the Holston River beyond the forks) brought business to a halt in many river towns and sparked Dow to organize a baseball club. That first club was called the Knoxville Knoxvilles.

“That team consisted of mostly former Union soldiers, Lincoln Republicans, men in their mid-twenties who, like Dow, had come south to make their way in life as part of Knoxville’s emerging professional class of business men,” Hardy said. “The Holston Club of Knoxville was the second club to form, and these ballplayers consisted mostly of boys who were too young to serve in the Civil War and who belonged to local, wealthy Confederate sympathizing families. Much like the Knoxvilles, the Holstons were a group of young men who would also be counted among Knoxville’s Gilded Age city fathers, merchant princes and captains of industry.”

William “Doc” Hardy

Though the game may have originated among the city’s elites, Hardy explained that other teams started springing up, including teams for Black Knoxvillians as well as women. His research has helped him track down the names of most of the original players, and while he may not find enough to flesh out an entire book, he does believe there’s a paper in the future. In the meantime, he is wrapping up his book “Knoxville’s Million Dollar Fire” for The History Press.

The current vintage baseball teams play in vintage style uniforms, by the 1860s rules (there is no sliding), and try to incorporate the slang of the day into their games, some of which can bring on a case of the middle school giggles. One big difference from the 1860s to now is the egalitarian open-door policy for anyone to play.

Find out more about the league here, the Holstons here, and the machinists here. Both teams play this Saturday, June 4, at Ramsey House for Tennessee Statehood Day. At noon, the Machinists play the Spring Hill Quicksteps with the Holstons taking on the Quicksteps at 2 p.m.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for KnoxTNToday.com.

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