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Another hit sound in Music City U.S.A.

Conway Twitty's minor league team is humming at the gate and in the field

In the early 1950s the best professional baseball prospect around Helena, Ark. was a kid named Harold Jenkins who came from across the big river, down in Friars Point, Miss. Jenkins busted up local pitching, hitting around .450, and the Phillies' bird dog offered him a contract, which the kid was going to sign—but his draft board snapped him up instead. Jenkins played service ball, and after his discharge he was again ready to sign with the Phillies, until one day when he was listening to the radio he heard another Mississippi country boy, name of Presley, from out of Tupelo, sing a song called That's All Right Mamma, and he said to himself, "I can do that." Jenkins had been singing and strumming a guitar since he was four. He had also done some freelance preaching at Baptist revivals, so he knew his way around a stage as well as he did a baseball diamond. He had himself a pompadour and a gritty-growly kind of voice, and on a slow afternoon he picked up a road map and saw the towns Conway, Ark. and Twitty, Texas. Perhaps this explains why the Phillies haven't won a pennant in all these years.

Conway Twitty has become, of course, one of country music's most durable performers. During one 10-year stretch, every recording he made—33 in a row—climbed to No. 1 on the country charts. Twitty sticks to the basics, to his specialty. He doesn't flirt much with TV or Vegas; he doesn't party or drink spirits. He has stayed with the same wife for 22 years, and he stayed with the same lubed hairstyle, too, until he modified it a few months ago after making an agonizing policy decision. Baseball was the sport he always stayed close to. It's the everyday game at which the fans can still buy general admission, drink beer and argue strategy. Baseball is a lot like country music because the themes concern the prosaic struggles of life. One way or another, every country song is about taking a good lead.

A few years ago, a man named Larry Schmittou came out to Twitty's big house on a lake in Nashville. Schmittou was the baseball coach at Vanderbilt and a recruiter for the football team, but the NCAA had cut back on football staff numbers, so now he was out of a side job and was looking for something else to do. His idea was to bring minor league ball back to Nashville, which had been without a franchise since 1963.

A great many sensible moneyed people in Music City U.S.A. turned Schmittou down. Among the necessities Nashville lacked was a stadium. But Twitty liked what Schmittou had to say, even though his financial guys thought he was crazy. The advisers patronized the singer by telling him he might buy a tiny piece of the club just so he could say he was an owner and wear a cap. Twitty replied that he was sorry, that he believed in baseball and that he was going to buy Schmittou his team for Music City.

In the end, Twitty only had to spring for 20%, because after word got out that he was in, shares sold like a hit record. Twitty also dragooned songwriter L. E. White and singer Cal Smith into the enterprise, making them write out checks before he would reveal what they were buying. Schmittou took over as managing partner and landed a franchise in the Double A Southern Association. The owners built an 8,800-seat stadium, and the fans named the team the Sounds and helped sod the field the night before the 1978 opener. The team finished ninth.

But here is the flip side. The Sounds drew 380,159 paying customers, easily the most in the minors and in that part of the majors that embraces Oakland, Calif. And the Sounds made more than $300,000, a lot of money for bush league ball. Why, a man fishing for a phrase could say it was only make believe.

Well, the Sounds are making a different kind of music in Nashville this year: the team is now in first place and the financial tune is even sweeter. The partners reinvested last year's profits, increasing the capacity of Greer Stadium to 13,500. Crowds as large as 20,000 have shown up, overflowing onto the warning track and all but repaying the $2 million investment. Unless bad weather between now and season's end spoils things, Nashville will beat the alltime minor league attendance record of 467,800, which the Triple A Hawaiian Islanders attracted in 1970. As the head of the Music City Chamber of Commerce might verbalize: I've never been this far before.

In Twitty's opinion, credit for the astonishing attendance belongs primarily to Schmittou. "I don't want any thanks, because this really helps fill my cup," Twitty says. "Being able to watch my own baseball team in my own city is going to add 10 years to my life. All I take credit for is being smart enough to see Larry's capabilities."

Schmittou is 39 and a native of Nashville. He's known around town as Smokey, and like most Smokeys, he is a nice, big, open fellow. He is also very thorough. Before he started approaching potential backers, he had commissioned a market survey. Later he visited minor league teams—successful and otherwise. His promotional ideas appear to be boundless. Nary a game goes by that Schmittou doesn't have something working. When a local newspaper recently wanted to photograph a kid wearing all the items the Sounds had given away so far this season, Schmittou replied, "Sorry, you'll need three kids for that."

Some nights the Sounds give away a used car every inning. If the team scores in a designated inning, the price of eatables is cut in half. The render-unto department: on the Sabbath a church program can be exchanged for a half-price ticket. Pretty young things in shorts and halters usher patrons and clean off the bases. You can answer the trivia question on the scoreboard and win a prize. Several times the winner has been Drew Alexander, who goes to the games with his father Lamar, the governor. There are discount nights for senior citizens and for teens, as well as for men and ladies—which takes in just about everybody in Nashville except for a few gentlemen and women. And hey, teeners, on your nights, a local radio station gives away record albums every 92 seconds. There are also Junior Sounds nights. There are Victory Nights, on which a Sounds win will get you back in on the cuff to see another game. And moving right along: Break the Bank Night, Back Pack Night, Disco Night, Tote Bag Day, Gym Bag Night, Baseball-Hot Dog-Apple Pie-and-Chevrolet Night, Poncho Night, Picture Day, Frisbee Night and so on and so forth.

Schmittou himself patrols the premises, soliciting fan reaction. "We just copied country music," Schmittou says. "We have a script each night, a complete show." There is, as you might expect, a Country Music Night, too.

Twitty is there just about every evening that he and the Twitty Birds are not on the road. Like most fans who come to Greer Stadium, he tends to eat too much. One out of every three Sounds rooters buys a Red Hot, compared to one out of four in other ball parks. Schmittou is so devoted to the concessions that he has put his wife, Shirley, in charge of them, and he has his four oldest children helping prepare the specialties. Three different kinds of grilled hot dogs are available: the regular, the super and the Big Red Smokey. The Sounds prepare their own pizza. Schmittou originated the practice, now common, of selling ice cream replicas of miniature major league batting helmets. "A healthy kid can eat his way through a whole division in a night," he says. Beer vendors are sent to a special school to learn how to pour a proper head, and the schooling must pay off because good ones can make $100 a game. Nashville! magazine, while no Guide Michelin, has nonetheless given Greer Stadium highest culinary honors, calling it "the most successful restaurant in town," and declaring that "cuisine alone makes it worth going to a game." The Sounds cleared $150,000 on concessions last year. "Why no big league club runs its own concessions is beyond me," Schmittou says.

The Sounds make money even when they are trying to lose it. This year the franchise decided to host the NAIA baseball tournament, figuring the losses would make a nice write-off. The plan fell through when a college named Grand Canyon won its regional. It seems that some of the Grand Canyon players, in the time-honored tradition, took a few sips of champagne to celebrate. But because Grand Canyon is a Baptist college, the administration ruled that the team, sullied by the grape as it was, could not go on to Nashville. So at the last minute the NAIA invited David Lipscomb, a small Nashville college, to fill in for Grand Canyon. David Lipscomb won the tournament, drawing such good crowds that the Sounds were forced to pocket eight grand.

This provides additional evidence to support Schmittou's contention that Nashville is an outstanding baseball town. This has been true since the days of Sulphur Dell, one of the most famous ball parks in America. As a quaint local attraction, Sulphur Dell was second only to Rynum Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry was located. Long the home of the Nashville Vols, Sulphur Dell was jammed into a city block, with most of right field consisting of a steep hill that rose to meet the fence a mere 265 feet from home plate. But the Vols were supported well in their crooked little emporium. Amateur baseball usually thrived in Nashville, too.

In fact, given this heritage, the success of the Sounds and Smokey's natural optimism, there are already rumblings that Music City is worthy of a major league franchise. The Nashville metropolitan area has a population of 761,000, half a million fewer than the Kansas City area, which is the smallest in the majors.

But there are other facts to consider. Nashville is a well-heeled city, with low unemployment. Almost a million and a half people live within 100 miles of Greer Stadium, and Nashville is the ideal state capital, located smack in the center of Tennessee and accessible by Interstate to citizens of Memphis, Knoxville and' Chattanooga.

Most important, with the Opry and the country music recording industry, Nashville is a celebrity city vital far beyond its size. Opryland, the giant theme park, attracts nearly 20,000 visitors a day and is glibly known as "the fifth largest city in Tennessee." Yet apart from Opryland and various other country quasi-shrines, there is little else to occupy the wide-eyed tourists who flood Music City, anxious to leave money behind in the metropolis of their dreams.

Country fans are terribly loyal folks, and, as the music's adult themes indicate, they tend to be grown up, heads of families—the ideal sort of long-term supporters to nurture a ball club. Rock fans do not a franchise make. If big country stars like Twitty owned a major league Sounds' franchise, one could visualize its becoming the favored team of country music fans all over the U.S.—as the Dodgers were once a national team for blacks and as Notre Dame still is for Roman Catholics. Because Greer Stadium is patterned after the Texas Rangers' park, it could easily be expanded to major league size should the bigs ever want to take a flyer on little Music City.

In the meantime, Nashville cannot rest on its laurels. Greensboro, North Carolina, is suddenly challenging it as the nation's top minor league town. Greensboro had been without professional baseball for a decade when the Hornets arrived this spring, under the direction of a former umpire named Tom Romenesko. The Class A ball club is on its way to drawing 170,000, which would exceed Greensboro's population and perhaps make Romenesko the choice to succeed Schmittou as The Sporting News Minor League Executive of the Year.

There is a kicker, though. It just so happens that the Hornets are owned by...ta-daa...the Nashville Sounds. Schmittou sold the Greensboro city fathers on his ideas, chose Romenesko, and then helped him apply the same principles that have worked in Nashville. Well, hello, darlin', it looks like Mr. Twitty is building himself the world's first minor league empire.


Twitty (above) is having a ball as an owner because Schmittou (below left) and Romenesko are on the ball in Nashville and Greensboro.