Baseball history alive in Carolina

Antique ballparks and local museums keep fans educated

Museums in North Carolina host a wealth of local baseball artifacts. (Ben Hill/

By Benjamin Hill / | July 28, 2011 1:13 PM

North Carolina may be lacking a Major League team, but professional baseball in the Tar Heel State is alive and well.

From Asheville to Zebulon, Rookie-level to Triple-A, the state is home to a diverse array of Minor League Baseball entities.

Discerning travelers looking to experience North Carolina's thriving baseball present would also do well to explore the past. What follows are just a few of many destinations for the historically-minded fan.

Durham Athletic Park: The International League's Durham Bulls have played in Durham Bulls Athletic Park ("DBAP") since 1995, a gleaming 10,000-seat facility in the heart of the city's American Tobacco Historic District. But less than a mile to the north sits the team's previous home, the similarly-named but oh-so different Durham Athletic Park (commonly referred to as "The DAP").

Built in 1926 and originally named El Toro Park, the DAP went on to become the most well-known stadium in Minor League Baseball history thanks to its prominent inclusion in the classic 1988 film Bull Durham. But whereas that film depicted a decaying facility populated by colorful and oft-past their prime Minor League archetypes (Nuke Laloosh, Crash Davis, Annie Savoy, et al), today's DAP is a breeding ground for the future.

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The city of Durham, in partnership with Minor League Baseball, embarked on an ambitious renovation campaign in 2008. While iconic elements (such as the box office's conical roof) remain, the improvements included a new scoreboard, seating upgrades, a new drainage system and a new visitor's clubhouse. The DAP is run on a day-to-day basis by Minor League Baseball, which uses the facility as a training center. Sports turf clinics are run several times a year, as are umpire clinics conducted by employees of the Professional Baseball Umpires Corporation (PBUC).

And on any given day, one can stop by the DAP and witness an actual baseball game. Teenage participants in the Long Ball Program (geared toward under-served local youth) play many of their games at the DAP, as do local high school, colleges and a local Senior Men's League.

But the most high-profile event on the calendar is the "Back to the DAP" ballgame, in which the Bulls' return to their old haunt for a nostalgia-drenched International League contest. This season's version was played on May 9, and in preparation for the event, the team issued a press release that included the following suggestion: Watch Bull Durham -- it'll get you in the mood for some DAP fun."

Crash Davis lives on.

North Carolina Baseball Museum at Fleming Stadium: Fleming Stadium, located in the midst of a sleepy residential neighborhood in Wilson, N.C., currently hosts the Wilson Tobs of the collegiate Coastal Plains League. But the stadium boasts a rich professional baseball history that dates back to its 1939 inception (as a project of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration).

The opportunity to stroll through Fleming Stadium's dusty concourse and rickety grandstand is reason enough to make the trek, but the real attraction can be found in an unassuming one-story, two-room structure located along the third base line. There resides the North Carolina Baseball Museum, a 3,300-square foot shrine to the state's role in our national pastime.

Established in 2004 and operated by volunteers, the museum is a tightly-packed treasure trove of memorabilia. Game programs, ticket stubs, vintage equipment and stadium artifacts jockey for position within the back room, while the front showcases memorabilia related to North Carolina's Major League alumni (more than 400 in all).

Special attention is given to the North Carolinians now enshrined in Cooperstown, an illustrious septet comprised of Buck Leonard, Enos Slaughter, Catfish Hunter, Gaylord Perry, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rick Ferrell and Luke Appling.

"We're currently trying to raise money to build another room," said volunteer Eddie Boykin, who was working at the museum on a Saturday afternoon. "Not so that we can go out and get more stuff, but because we've already got too much."

Not that this is stopping the museum from acquiring even more.

"We'll get stuff in the mail from people who don't even live in North Carolina, and sometimes people will leave anonymous donations in front of the Tobs front office," Boykin said. "Recently a guy dropped by with a seat cushion that dated back to the '30s... Hey, we'll take it!"

A visit to the museum as well as a self-guided Fleming Stadium tour won't take much more than an hour, and Boykin recommends following it up with a lunch at nearby Dick's Hot Dogs. The 90-year-old frankfurter emporium is operated by museum organizer Lee Gliarmis and packed with wall-to-wall memorabilia.

"The guys down there can tell you a lot of stories," said Boykin. "Just be ready to pull up a chair and stay awhile."

Burlington Athletic Stadium: Current Minor League stadiums can be repositories of history as well, of course, and this is certainly the case at Burlington Athletic Stadium (home of the Appalachian League's Burlington Royals). The bleacher seating, comically steep entrance ramps, corrugated tin rooftop press box and cramped dugout tunnels (lit by single bulbs mounted horizontally on the walls) are about as far from "The Show" as one can get, but big league journeys do indeed start here.

Members of Burlington's "All-Time Team" are commemorated with their own plaques on the concourse, and the roster includes the likes of Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and CC Sabathia (all hailing from the team's long stint as a Cleveland affiliate). This connection is further emphasized in the men's room, of all places. Above each urinal are paintings of famous jerseys of the past -- the three luminaries mentioned above as well as Bartolo Colon.

Ernie Shore Field: The Winston-Salem Dash currently play at BB&T Ballpark, an amenity-laden downtown facility that opened in 2010. But in their previous incarnation as the "Warthogs," the Carolina League entity played at the far more rustic Ernie Shore Field, which was built in 1956. The stadium is now owned by Wake Forest University, which made various improvements and renovations, including the installation of an artificial playing surface. Wake Forest also changed the park's name to the unwieldy "Gene Hooks Field at Wake Forest Baseball Park."

Shore hasn't been completely forgotten, however, as he features prominently in a mural located within the Dash's "Womble Carlyle Club" inside seating area. The Winston-Salem native played in the Major Leagues from 1912-20, and upon retiring was a staunch advocate for professional baseball within his home town.

Shore's greatest claim to fame as a player was the "perfect game that wasn't" that he pitched for the Red Sox on June 23, 1917. None other than Babe Ruth started the game but was ejected after physically assaulting the umpire following a leadoff walk to Ray Morgan. Shore came on in relief, and after Morgan was caught stealing the eventual stadium namesake retired the next 26 batters consecutively.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow him @BensBiz on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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