Will Nashville get an MLB expansion team? Winter Meetings bring spotlight to Tennessee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Dave Stewart is behind the wheel, old-school, soul town hits are filling the air, and his eyes dance with exhilaration as he pulls off Walter S. Davis Blvd. and onto a dirt road, surrounded by cows, water and vast emptiness. 

These 200 acres off the Cumberland River is where Stewart envisions playing in a beautiful, rectractable roof ballpark, across from the Tennessee State University campus, as a Major League Baseball’s expansion franchise. 

The Nashville Stars

It would become one of the most significant franchises in baseball history, the first MLB team to have majority Black ownership, using the old Negro Leagues team nickname and playing near three of the four Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the area.

“This project means everything to me,” Stewart told USA TODAY Sports. “America is trying to be more cognizant of Black leadership in different businesses across the country. You look at baseball, which has been an industry for more than 100 years, and it has been behind in everything. This is big, not just for baseball, but for all industries in America. 

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“We are going to have a franchise that’s truly diverse, and one the whole world can be proud of.”

Stewart, 66, the three-time World Series champion and four-time 20-game winner who’s in the Oakland Athletics Hall of Fame, has spent the past three years spearheading Nashville’s efforts to attract an expansion franchise. He spends two weeks a month in Nashville speaking to government and community officials, civic leaders, investors, educators and youth programs.

Major League Baseball's last expansion teams were added in 1998.

He’s expected to speak to high-ranking MLB officials this week during baseball’s annual winter meetings at the Gaylord Opryland Resort. 

“I wanted to find out what the city is all about, and once I started spending time here and really getting involved in the community,” Stewart said, “I realized how important this is to North Nashville. This is an area that’s economically depressed, a predominant area of African-Americans. So why would we not take the opportunity to extend the economics from downtown to North Nashville? 

“I grew up in an environment in East Oakland that’s similar to North Nashville. I know what this means to the people here. This is why I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into this.”

Stewart is driving along Jefferson Street now, and there’s a few chicken places, a dollar store and little else.

All that remains of the nearby Eldorado Motel on Buchanan Street – one of the few hotels that permitted Blacks to stay during the Jim Crow era and had Dr. Martin King Jr., the Temptations, James Brown and BB King as guests – is the original neon sign. 

“It’s sad to see what has happened to this city, and how it become economically divided,” said Tennessee Representative Harold Love Jr. 

Jefferson Street was once the epicenter of the thriving Black community, filled with businesses and restaurants. This is where Fisk University, Meharry Medical College and Tennessee State opened their doors. This is where Jimi Hendrix, Etta James, Ray Charles and Little Richard played. This is where “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam was raised. 

This is also where Nashville city leaders decided in the 1960s that Interstate 40 should be built, instead of near Vanderbilt University, dividing the community and displacing Black residents. 

“The impact of a baseball expansion team provides the opportunity to help invest in a community that was divided,” said Rep. Love, who is president-elect of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. “It certainly would allow Nashville to continue to develop the type of attractions and tourist activities that would allow the city to grow. 

“There’s a chance for us to be proactive for the location of a stadium in a part of town that traditionally has not been intentionally included in investments. To have a stadium in a traditional African-American neighborhood, you can bring in new affordable housing, shops and grocery stores. 

“This would be an anchor, and make a statement to draw investments in an area where we don’t even have a grocery store within 10 blocks of Tennessee State.”

Country music fans watch live music at the Riverfront Stage during the 50th annual CMA Music Festival in Nashville on June 8, 2023.

Dr. Eddie Hamilton, who has lived in Nashville since 1981 when he attended medical school at Vanderbilt, believes an expansion team would be an overwhelming success in a metropolitan area that has grown to more than two million people, the 28th-largest market in the country.

Baseball luminaries like Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Bryce Harper, Texas Rangers manager Bruce Bochy and Dave Dombrowski, Philadelphia Phillies president of baseball operations, moved to Tennessee recent years and rave about the local culture. 

“The name, the legacy honoring the Negro Leagues is great,” Hamilton said, “but more important is that it will create opportunities and wealth in the Black community. Putting a team in North Nashville will be a boom for all of Nashville. 

“To be awarded a team will be a huge sense of accomplishment for everyone in this city. 

“We are definitely ready for it to happen.”

Stewart turns back onto Jefferson Street, drives past his barber shop, and sees all of the construction cranes above the downtown Nashville skyline. Nashville is booming, one of the top 25 fastest-growing cities in the country, bringing more housing, more jobs, more opportunity. 

The North Nashville community, filled with glorious history, and located just 3 ½ miles from downtown, eagerly awaits its chance to heal, and forever change this city’s economic divide. 

“This is not even really about baseball anymore for me,” Stewart said. “Baseball is there, but it’s more about the development of an area and the uplifting of an area, and the ability to change what’s going on now to be something in five, 10 years. 

“For me, if I have an opportunity to do this in North Nashville, in an area that has being depressed and has been forgotten, I’m telling you bro, this would mean the world to me. 

“We’re here to embrace this community. We’re here to enhance this community. We’re here to make a difference. 

“A lasting, historical difference, that will never be forgotten.”

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