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.