As the Carolina League enters its 72nd season in 2016, the future has never looked brighter. The league's all-time attendance record was broken in 2012, and then again the next year. Total paid attendance passed 1.9 million for the first time in 2013.
Winston-Salem got the latest attendance bump started by opening amenity-laden BB&T Ballpark in 2010, causing attendance there to spike and bring the 1995 attendance mark within striking distance. That old record finally fell as the league returned to the Triangle of North Carolina in 2012 after a 14-year absence.
The origins of this growth spurt can be traced back to the '80s. After reaching its present eight-club makeup in 1980, the popularity of Carolina League baseball began an upward trend, and attendance never slowed, at one point growing for 13 straight years. Four new CL ballparks debuted in the '90s, bringing the festive and comfortable experience the public was demanding for its entertainment dollars. When the Carolina Mudcats joined the league in 2012, there remained only one CL venue built before the 90s.
Founded during World War II, the Carolina League's inaugural 1945 season featured two Southside Virginia cites. But throughout the 1940s and '50s it was known as a predominately North Carolina League. In those days it wasn't unusual for talented players to make a career out of Minor League Baseball. Some of the league's colorful greats from that era (many still hold league records) included Muscle Shoals, Willie Duke, Woody Fair, Harvey Haddix and Crash Davis, whose name was immortalized in the movie Bull Durham.
Later in the '50s Willie McCovey, Carl Yastrzemski and Earl Weaver, who all eventually entered the Hall of Fame, were quite the rage throughout the league. During the 60s, the Minors became more closely affiliated with the Major Leagues, as the league crept up into the central Virginia cities of Lynchburg and Salem. During this period, CL stars such as Rod Carew, Curt Flood, Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench found themselves on the fast track to Major League stardom.
Though CL playing talent remained strong with such stars as Wade Boggs, Dave Parker, Cecil Cooper and Dwight Evans, the '70s were a difficult time financially throughout Minor League Baseball. A number of cities found they could not support teams, and CL membership dwindled to four clubs. Winston-Salem hung in, never missing a season. Lynchburg and Salem have not missed a season since entering the league in the '60s.
In a pair of bold moves in the late '70s and early '80s, the CL went as far north as Maryland (first Hagerstown, now Frederick) and re-established the Durham Bulls (now Myrtle Beach) with two expansions in three years. Also coming in during that period were Kinston (now the Carolina Mudcats) and Alexandria (now Potomac).
The gamble paid off at the gate. In 1989, the league went over the 1 million mark for the first time since 1947. New all-time records were set for the next six straight years. Part of this fueled by a new stadium in Wilmington, Del., which opened in 1993 with a club relocated from the Virginia Peninsula. Durham followed suit with its new park two years later.
On the field, the fast track never slowed. In fact, it got faster. The '80s and '90s were the era of Dwight Gooden, Lenny Dykstra, Barry Bonds, Bernie Williams, Moises Alou and Andruw Jones, just to name a few.
After the Triple-A International League moved into Durham, the CL took on its present footprint by going into South Carolina for the first time at Myrtle Beach in 1999. While attendance pulled back a bit, it remained stable through the first decade of the millennium as names like Juan Pierre, Jayson Werth , Brian McCann , Jason Heyward and Albert Pujols were honing their skills in ever-improving Carolina League parks.