Historic Stadiums

From the Stone Castle (Bristol Municipal Stadium) and its Medieval Gothic architecture to the symmetry and sleek lines of the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, from personalities like General Robert R. Neyland of the University of Tennessee to E. H. Crump, the powerful mayor of Memphis, an overview of the nine historically significant stadiums in Tennessee provides an illuminating glimpse into the state's past.

Even before the Civil War, Tennesseans played baseball and other games at the Sulphur Spring Bottom in Nashville. When minor league baseball came to Nashville in 1885, the team played its games at the Sulphur Spring Bottom site in an enclosed wooden ballpark known as the Athletic Park. The owners of the Nashville club eventually built a new set of stands at the same location. By 1910 Grantland Rice, later a nationally acclaimed sports writer, had penned the name “Sulphur Dell” for the Nashville ballpark. In 1927 the new owners of the Nashville baseball club constructed a new ballpark of steel and cement on the historic site. Described in the Nashville Banner as the “finest minor league grand stand in the country,” the stadium hosted a crowd of 7,535 at its first game on April 12, 1927. As Nashville's population shifted away from downtown, though, attendance at Sulphur Dell dwindled. The 1963 season was the last for professional baseball at Sulphur Dell. At the time of its demolition in the mid-1960s, Sulphur Dell was considered the oldest baseball field in America.

Fortunately, most of Tennessee's historic stadiums have fared better than Sulphur Dell. Chattanooga's Engel Stadium, which opened in the spring of 1930, has benefited from several sensitive renovations in recent years and served as the home of the Southern League's Chattanooga Lookouts through the 1999 season. In late 2000, city and county officials began negotiations with the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, to transfer the stadium to the university for sports and recreational use. Named for Lookouts president and operating officer Joe Engel, the handsome brick stadium seats 11,000 people. During the Great Depression, attendance declined at ballparks around the country. As a result, in 1935 Engel Stadium became one of the first ballparks to be lighted, thereby making baseball accessible to day workers. A year later, Engel staged his most famous promotion when a record 24,839 people attended “Joe Engel's House Giveaway.”

Howard Johnson Field in Johnson City, more commonly known as Cardinal Park, serves as the home of a rookie league affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals and the East Tennessee State University baseball team. Constructed in 1923, the stadium seats approximately 2,000 and beginning in 1994, underwent a major remodeling. Howard Johnson, for whom the park is named, founded the Johnson City Parks and Recreation Board and worked for the city for forty-eight years.

Through the early twentieth century, baseball dominated the interest of sports fans in Tennessee and around the country. When it opened in 1921 with a college baseball game, no one could have imagined that the modest 3,200-seat stadium known as Shields-Watkins Field would become the University of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium, one of the largest football stadiums in the nation. Actually, Vanderbilt University's Dudley Field was the first stadium in the South erected exclusively for college football. Dedicated in 1922, the horseshoe-shaped stadium with its concrete tiers seated 20,000 spectators. The stadium was named for Dr. William Dudley, dean of the Vanderbilt Medical School, who organized the old Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1893 and later helped organize the NCAA in 1906. In 1980 much of the original Dudley Field was demolished, and a new Vanderbilt Stadium was constructed on the same site. Today, the 41,000-seat Vanderbilt Stadium serves as the “Home of the Commodores,” as well as the site of the TSSAA football championship games.

Situated on the banks of the Tennessee River in Knoxville, Neyland Stadium celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary in 1996 with the dedication of its eleventh expansion. The double-decked bowl now seats 102,854. General Robert R. Neyland laid the foundation for this growth by leading University of Tennessee football to national prominence after being named head coach in 1926. The stadium's growth, from a capacity of 6,800 in 1926 to 52,000 at Neyland's death in 1962, reflects his impact on Tennessee football. Later innovations of note included the installation in 1968 of a Tartan Turf playing surface, one of the first two artificial turfs in the nation.

In the 1960s the City of Memphis built the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium at a cost of $3.7 million. Inaugurated in 1965, the 62,380-seat stadium serves as the home for the University of Memphis football program and annually hosts the Liberty Bowl postseason game. The National Football League's Tennessee Oilers played at the Liberty Bowl during the 1997 season.

In 1977 East Tennessee State University opened Memorial Center, one of only seven college-owned domed stadiums in the United States capable of accommodating football. Commonly known as the Mini-Dome, the multipurpose stadium covers approximately 4.5 acres and seats 13,000 people.

Two stadiums constructed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the New Deal, Crump Stadium in Memphis and the Stone Castle in Bristol, are currently still in use. They are best remembered from the post-World War II era, when high school football received top billing around the state. Located directly behind Central High School in Memphis, the modest first phase of Crump Stadium opened in 1926; the WPA built the 1939 concrete structure that seated 28,000 people. Crump Stadium played host to numerous major college teams, including two Delta Bowl games. Nevertheless, the largest recorded attendance came in 1946, when 32,000 fans crowded into Crump Stadium to watch Central High School and Humes High School play. In 1944 Memphis businessman and politician E. H. Crump began a tradition that lasted more than twenty-five years. The E. H. Crump Blind Benefit Game, played annually on the first weekend of December, featured two area high school football teams.

Situated on the campus of Tennessee High School in Bristol, the Stone Castle Stadium opened on October 8, 1936. Officially known as Bristol Municipal Stadium, the Stone Castle served as the home football field for Bristol Tennessee High and Bristol Virginia High, as well as for Slater High and Douglas High, the African American high schools in Bristol, Tennessee, and Bristol, Virginia, respectively. King College also played its home games there. Constructed of coarse rubble limestone from another WPA project at nearby Beaver Creek, the stadium seats approximately 6,000 and features most of the original Medieval Gothic details. Its unique corner towers, arched entries, and crenellated walls clearly make the Stone Castle the most architecturally significant stadium in Tennessee. Like all the stadiums in this study, the Stone Castle accommodates a variety of community activities in addition to its primary function as an athletic facility.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Historic Stadiums
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018