As a lifelong Memphian, some of my greatest memories are great moments in Memphis sports: catching American Basketball Association games featuring the Pros, Tams and Sounds.
Experiencing my first Liberty Bowl in 1968. Watching Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson lead the Memphis State Tigers in the 1973 NCAA National Championship. Being in the Pyramid for the first Memphis Grizzlies’ game in 2001. Attending the Memphis Open at the Racquet Club every February for 41 years.
But here’s the thing about sports in Memphis: the excitement and intrigue unfolding off the playing field has at times rivaled what’s happening on it. Though we’ve come to love our teams, sometimes they’ve left us. Other times, we never even had the chance to prove our loyalty. Think back to the 1990s: our Minor League Baseball team left for Jackson, Tennessee, as our minor league hockey team departed for Southaven, Mississippi. Attendance was dwindling at Tigers games inside the Pyramid while enthusiasm was building in Nashville over a new NFL team. We wondered if professional sports were all but dead in Memphis.
Then Dean Jernigan made a proposal—not only to bring professional baseball back to Memphis, but to build a facility that would rival any Major League Baseball stadium in the country. And, against all odds, to locate the stadium in a part of Downtown Memphis that was shuttered. “This was intentional placement. It’s where Memphis needs to be focusing its thinking,” Jernigan explained at the time.
As you’ll read in the pages that follow, AutoZone Park accomplished more than bringing pro ball back to Memphis. The stadium became another symbol of downtown’s comeback and a beacon to other franchise owners—including former NBA Grizzlies’ owner Mike Heisley. This reminds us that some of our heroes are made off the field. It’s taken visionaries, generous local corporations, supportive civic leaders and a cheering section of everyday citizens to make sports a dynamic part of life in Memphis. In moments of agony and exhilaration, we’ve made quite a team.
With winding country roads and the tree-shrouded, undulating acres of Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park, Millington offers a place to slow down just outside the city—unless a race is on. In 1986, Ed Gatlin purchased 400 acres of land in the area. In 1987, Memphis International Motorsports Park opened on the site. The drag strip, 1.8-mile road course, dirt track and go-kart track attracted widespread attention—in 1996, the entire facility was acquired by the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, California. The association introduced changes that garnered even more attention.
First, the original dirt track was replaced with a paved tri-oval three-quarters of a mile in length. Then in September 1998, before a sold-out crowd and a live national television audience, Memphis International Motorsports Park hosted its first NASCAR event, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Memphis 200. IRG Entertainment took note and acquired the facility in 2011. New ownership brought a new name, Memphis International Raceway, and a new affiliation: the facility would now be sanctioned by the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA). NASCAR has stayed on course, too: in 2017, Memphis International Raceway hosted NASCAR’s K&N Series East in the Memphis 125 presented by AutoZone. Through the years, the raceway has hosted other high-profile events including the Original Super Chevy Show, the Hot Rod Power Tour and the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) Series. Yet the thrill is just as electric during regular Test N Tune sessions, when fans zip their own cars, trucks and bikes down the historic drag strip. Memphis International Raceway’s all-inclusive schedule of events proves that whether you’re watching internationally-known drivers or your own neighbors, motorsports has the power to bring our community together.
Putting (and Running) for Good
In 1958, local restaurateur Vernon Bell helped to tee off the PGA Memphis Open at the old Colonial Country Club. The great Billy Maxwell was its first champion. From 1972 to 1982, the tournament moved to Colonial’s current location in Cordova. I spent my summers working the event back then. Those were the days when Al Geiberger shot his 59, setting the gold standard for the lowest score in a PGA event and cementing the 1977 tournament’s place in history. That same year, former President Gerald Ford sunk a hole-in-one during the tournament’s pro-am.
Through the years, the tournament has adopted a new name and affiliation, reflecting two of Memphis’ greatest philanthropists and corporate citizens. In 1970, the event became the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic, signaling its support of St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital. In 1986, a partnership with FedEx was struck, relocating the tournament to TPC Southwind and cementing the FedEx St. Jude Classic as a symbol of summer in Memphis. In our bicentennial year, we’ll applaud as the event evolves into the World Golf Championship FedEx St. Jude Invitational, bringing the sport’s most elite players to Memphis.
Another local sporting event, the Memphis Express Marathon established in 1977, announced its affiliation with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in 2002. The St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend, held annually the first weekend in December, has grown to become the hospital’s largest one-day fundraising event of the year. It brings some 20,000 participants, who raise approximately $10 million for St. Jude, to Memphis annually.
Our bicentennial year doubles as the inaugural season for Memphis’ new United Soccer League team, Memphis 901 FC. With the Memphis Redbirds, the team will share AutoZone Park as its homefield. But soccer in Memphis will forever be associated with the name Mike Rose. Memphians may remember Rose as the chairman of Holiday Corp. and First Tennessee Bank. However, for the thousands of players and fans who visit Rose’s namesake recreational complex each year, he may as well be a soccer star. In Memphis at least, he is.
The Mike Rose Soccer Complex began as a plea to Mayor Jim Rout by John Talley and other local soccer boosters. As a Morgan Keegan executive and soccer dad, Talley knew first-hand the trials of traveling to tournaments—and what a game-changer it would be to have a first-class facility located right here at home.
A discovery phase resulted in renderings and a cost estimate of $5 million—without the stadium! The boosters strategized. They would find sponsors for the individual fields to help raise the required funds for their project (working title: the Shelby County Soccer Complex). Mike Rose was one potential sponsor the group approached. Rout recounts what happened next: “I got a phone call from Mike Rose who said, ‘I’m going to make you a deal you can’t refuse. If you promise me that [the project] will look just like the rendering, I’ll raise and/or give half the money.’” Rose offered such a deal because he, like Talley, wanted the complex to be first-class. His pledge eased the county’s indebtedness enough to make the project feasible.
At the dedication in 1998, I saw the look on Rose’s face when the complex, and the decision to name it after him, were unveiled. He was surprised. But as Rout explains, “It was Economics 101. The guy said he’d put his money where his mouth is and he did it.” Coincidentally, the year the facility opened was the same year that Talley’s son, Carey, was drafted out of college to play Major League Soccer. Today, Carey and his mother, Kim, help direct the soccer complex envisioned by John Talley, Mike Rose and so many others.
America’s Pastime in Memphis
For more than half of our city’s history, Memphis has fielded a minor league baseball team. (Prior to the sport’s integration, we actually fielded two teams at a time.) Our teams have gone by different names, but we’ve always been there to cheer them on. In 1901 and 1902, it was the Leaguers. From 1903 to 1914, we were the Turtles. From 1915 to 1917, we cheered on the Chickasaws; 1918 to 1960, the Chicks. Within the same time period, Memphis was home to the Negro League Red Sox (1923 to 1950).
In 1960, the epicenter of baseball in Memphis, Russwood Park, burned to the ground. With no suitable facility, minor league baseball in Memphis was out.
The period that followed marked an on-again, off-again relationship between Memphis and America’s pastime. In 1968, the Texas League Memphis Blues brought baseball back to the city—to an expanded facility at the Mid-South Fairgrounds, to be exact—but after the Blues jumped to the International League, we were once again without a hometeam.
In 1978, Memphis businessman Avron Fogelman remedied that. He acquired a Southern League franchise, pressed the Chicks name back into service and hired Allie Prescott as general manager. Fogelman went on to become part-owner of the Kansas City Royals, helping to forge affiliations for the Chicks with a number of MLB franchises. Yet at the end of the 1997 season, the Chicks’ new owner announced that he was moving the team to Jackson, Tennessee. As I’ve said, the 1990s were a trying time for sports fans in Memphis.
When local business leader Dean Jernigan announced that he was bringing baseball back bigger and better then, we welcomed the news. Jernigan’s plan was ambitious: secure a Triple-A franchise with the St. Louis Cardinals, arguably the most popular team in our region. Play two seasons in Tim McCarver Stadium at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. Build the best, most fan-friendly ballpark in the Minor Leagues and move the team to Downtown Memphis. Talk about a big idea! Skeptics told Jernigan that a downtown ballpark would be a disaster. Nevertheless, he delivered. On April 1, 2000, the Memphis Redbirds opened their season in brand-new AutoZone Park.
In 2014, the City of Memphis and the St. Louis Cardinals committed $6.5 million to capital improvements at AutoZone Park. The ballpark, already consistently praised for providing one of the premier fan experiences in the Minors, got even better with cutting-edge LED video displays, new berm seating to ensure affordable ticket options and upgraded concession and suite areas. BallparkDigest.com ranked it the Best Ballpark Renovation in its class when the upgrades debuted in 2015.
The Memphis Redbirds haven’t merely ushered in a new era for Minor League Baseball in Memphis. The team’s presence at AutoZone Park has proven a catalyst for further development downtown. Special thanks to Dean and Kristi Jernigan, Rita and Willard Sparks, Allie Prescott, Avron Fogelman and George Lapides for keeping America’s pastime alive and well in Memphis.
A Monumental Mascot
At the turn of the 20th century, it was a retired Memphis baseball mascot that inspired the creation of the Memphis Zoo. The mascot? A black bear named Natch, found tied to a tree in Overton Park.
A Photographer in the Field
The photography of Ernest C. Withers has been exhibited from Washington D.C. to Berlin. Withers is credited with producing the largest body of work documenting the 20th-century civil rights struggle in the U.S. Many of the images were captured right here in Withers’ hometown of Memphis. Yet did you know that one of the photographer’s earliest jobs was making portraits of players and fans at Negro League Baseball games? Withers had no studio at the time, so he would develop prints in the bathtub of his Memphis home and dry them in the family’s oven. Today, some of Withers’ most iconic images are displayed in his former studio, now the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery on Beale Street.
Playing the Long Game
Intermittently for more than a century, football fans in Memphis have had a hometeam to cheer for. On and off the field, we’ve made some big plays. Some have brought us victory; others, defeat, but even those managed to create new opportunities for our city. That’s why I like to call football in Memphis the long game.
The Liberty Bowl
A.F. “Bud” Dudley played halfback at Notre Dame before serving in World War II. He returned home a decorated veteran, signed on as athletic director at Villanova University and made a declaration: to start a football bowl game in the name of liberty, the ideal for which he served our country. The first Liberty Bowl was played in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1959.
By the early 1960s, Dudley was searching for a new home for his bowl. He planned to travel to several cities to find the perfect fit. Memphis was one of his first stops; Memphis Memorial Stadium had opened just a few years earlier as the home of the Memphis State Tigers. Our Southern hospitality must have kicked in as Bill McElroy, Tim Treadwell and other local business leaders convinced Dudley to look no further.
The city and county agreed to rename Memphis Memorial Stadium as Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. On December 18, 1965, Memphis hosted its first Liberty Bowl: University of Mississippi vs. Auburn.
For decades, the Liberty Bowl was a highlight of every football season. I attended for the first time in 1968 and have only missed a couple of games since. Over the years, I’ve watched Bear Bryant coach his last game and standouts including Bo Jackson and Doug Flutie play.
By 1994, financial troubles plagued the bowl. Once again, a group of Memphians intervened. Bob Martin, Admiral Al Sackett, Olin Morris and Les Dale convinced Billy Dunavant to take over. Dunavant had owned the Memphis Showboats, a United States Football League team. He tapped his partner, Steve Ehrhart, who’d run the Showboats and served as president of the Colorado Rockies, to manage the bowl. Ehrhart’s team secured new sponsors, renegotiated television deals and affiliated with major conferences, restoring financial stability to the bowl.
More than 60 years after its founding, the bowl is sponsored by AutoZone and can easily be credited with making the greatest economic impact of any sporting event in Memphis. Its partnership with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital puts the AutoZone Liberty Bowl into a category that goes beyond sports. Each year, players and coaches from both teams visit the hospital to encourage patients.
Southern Heritage Classic
In the 1980s, two college football programs were seeking a neutral spot where their students, alumni and fans could gather for a spirited rivalry. The teams, both Historically Black College and Universities, were Jackson State University of Jackson, Mississippi, and Tennessee State University of Nashville. Memphis, positioned about halfway between the schools, was a logical choice for hosting the rivalry. A discussion took place with Memphis entertainment promoter and producer Fred Jones. Jones saw the potential and then some—more than a game, he’d make a weekend of the event. Jones worked out a deal with the University of Memphis to use Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. He imagined a whirlwind of activity surrounding the game to enhance the experience for visitors: big-name musical entertainment; a parade, golf tournament and fashion show; tailgating and a half-time spectacular showcasing the schools’ marching bands. From big-picture planning to perfecting the smallest details, Jones was invested in the event’s success. Even in 2001, when the September 11 tragedy paralyzed our country and postponed the bowl festivities by two months, Jones made it work. Thanks to him, the weekend following Labor Day has become a big one for Memphis.
Speaking of Memphis’ strategy for nabbing an NFL football team, you could say our plays have been incomplete. Clarence Saunders was the first Memphian to have a shot. The founder of Piggly Wiggly owned a professional team named the Tigers. They played the likes of the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers. When Saunders’ Tigers were invited to join the NFL, however, he declined the request—he only wanted to play home games!
In the 1970s, John Bassett, a Canadian sports team owner, brought an upstart World Football League team to Memphis from Toronto, Ontario. With the move, the Northmen changed their name to the Southmen (their mascot remained a grizzly bear). I was at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1975 when we rallied behind the Southmen to catch the NFL’s attention. Our strategy was to sell 40,000 season tickets in order to convince the league to add our team. The NFL was not convinced.
I was also present in 1992 when we helicoptered in the NFL expansion committee, landing them on the 50-yard line of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium to preview what Memphis could do for them. Even though we fielded a crack ownership group led by Billy Dunavant and a who’s-who of local business leaders, the NFL passed on us a second time.
Again, the 1990s were a grim period for sports in Memphis. After being rejected by the NFL twice, we had to watch as Nashville made a successful play for the Houston Oilers. There was a snag, however: Nashville had committed to build a stadium for its new team. This would take time and Vanderbilt Stadium, the logical interim location, wasn’t an ideal fit by NFL standards. Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis was. For two seasons’ worth of construction—and a $2-million payment to the City of Memphis—the Oilers would practice in Nashville during the week and show up a day before each game in Memphis.
It seemed like a decent plan. Then Oilers management raised ticket prices until they were among the highest in the NFL. The team took a beating by the Memphis media for the way it handled its time in town. As a result, turnout for the games was mediocre. Those who did turn out were more likely to root for the opposing team; Memphis had never had an NFL team for them to follow.
I remember standing in the suite of Oilers owner Bud Adams as his team played the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s widely known that the Steelers have a loyal fan following that travels in big numbers to away games. On this particular Sunday, it started raining a few hours before kick-off. The only ponchos that the stadium had to sell were bright yellow. When Adams looked out from his suite to see the biggest crowd of the year, all he saw were a lot of Steeler fans and what appeared to be a sea of yellow around the stadium. At that moment, I could see his frustration. I’m convinced that Adams decided as a result of that game that the Oilers would not return to Memphis for a second season as planned. (On another occasion, USA Today ran a picture of just one person filling a section of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium during an Oilers game. The picture made the gag reel of The Tonight Show.)
Season two approached and the Oilers played at Vanderbilt Stadium. Nashville celebrated its Titan accomplishment. Meanwhile in Memphis, we decided to content ourselves with college football and double-down on our efforts to attract other pro sports to our deserving city.
A Bear of a Bowl
When it comes to bowl games coached by Bear Bryant for the University of Alabama, the Liberty Bowl was his first and last. Bryant first took the Crimson Tide to the 1959 Liberty Bowl at its original location in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He returned with his team to the bowl’s Memphis home in 1982. The game would be his last.
“We fight like tigers!”
The University of Memphis fielded its first football team in 1912. Early on, the team was nicknamed the Blue and Gray Warriors. However, during the 1914 season, some fans began to chant “We fight like tigers!” and a new identity for the team was born. The university officially adopted the Tiger name in 1939.
In 2001, I hailed a cab from LaGuardia Airport to Times Square. It was raining and cold. The driver asked where I flew in from and when I replied, he almost stopped the taxi. He turned toward me in the backseat and asked, “Did you hear that both Vancouver and Charlotte want to move their basketball teams to Memphis?”
I knew that landing a major league sports franchise in Memphis would have a profound impact on our city. But I’d already witnessed two attempts to lure an NFL team fail. To hear this New York City taxi driver proclaim that not one but two NBA teams were fighting to relocate to Memphis . . . it was a dream come true.
Did Andy and Staley Cates prompt the Grizzlies’ move to Memphis? Ask them and they’ll only say that they helped create the dialogue. A pursuit team was formed that put local community boosters to work. Our political leaders of the day went to work, too: Mayors Willie Herenton and Jim Rout; their liaisons Rick Masson and Tom Jones; our City Council, County Commission and state government. Corporations led by FedEx and First Tennessee Bank got on board.
These early champions of the cause personified grit and grind. They persisted when the Pyramid, only 10 years old, was deemed obsolete according to new standards of professional basketball, and when citizens placed “No NBA Tax” signs in their yards as a protest against using public money to build a new arena.
A man named Mike Heisley shared their persistence. When his Grizzlies franchise failed to excite fans in Vancouver, British Columbia, Heisley decided to give it a go in Memphis. As he recollected, “I quietly came to town and attended a Redbirds game. I saw the excitement and the energy of the crowd and I saw the potential of the city.” You see, Heisley visited during the Redbirds’ inaugural season at AutoZone Park, the year they led the Minor Leagues in attendance.
Key Memphians pledged their support of Heisley’s move: Dean Jernigan and Willard Sparks (our baseball revivalists) and John Calipari, then head basketball coach at the University of Memphis. If these three individuals had spoken out against Heisley’s plan, the deal might have died. Relocating the Grizzlies to Memphis was, as they say, meant to be.
The move coincided with the 2001-2002 season. The Grizzlies played three seasons in the Pyramid until FedExForum debuted, just in time for their 2004-2005 opener.
Since that time, we’ve shared some incredible highs. Remember the year that we surprised everyone by making it to the NBA Western Conference Finals? It was 2013 and Downtown Memphis was booming with fans and national news trucks. Among them, attending a pep rally on the arena’s plaza, was Heisley. He turned to me and said, “This is what sports can do for a community. The citizens of Memphis deserve this.”
Heisley passed away the following year. I’m forever grateful for his big-league vision, and to our government and community leaders who helped to see it through.
For the local leaders driving our NBA ambitions, landing a team was just the first step. The group agreed that philanthropy should underline any Memphis team’s playbook. Through the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, that call is honored. In 2004, the foundation gifted $5 million toward the construction of short-term housing for patients of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and their families. The entire Grizzlies organization continues to raise money for the hospital as a true community partner. The foundation’s primary focus, however, is mentoring Memphis youth. Mentoring programs and support of Grizzlies Prep, the first public charter school in the nation branded by an NBA team, are prime examples.