Baseball history can be found in the unlikeliest of places, such as the North Carolina Department of Transportation's Division of Highways' Division Six Office in Fayetteville.
On the grounds of this burdensomely named one-story location, well manicured but otherwise unassuming, one finds a plaque designating it as the site of Babe Ruth's first professional home run. The historic long ball came during a 1914 intra-squad exhibition game, when Ruth was a member of the International League's Baltimore Orioles. And not only did Ruth his his first homer in Fayetteville, it was there that he acquired the nickname "Babe."
Ruth's milestone home run is but one intriguing footnote in Fayetteville's baseball history, which in many ways mirrors the history of baseball in America writ large. It begins in the 1860s during the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, continuing on to the present day via the April 2019 establishment of the Carolina League's Fayetteville Woodpeckers (Class A Advanced affiliate of the Houston Astros).
On March 22, in anticipation of the Woodpeckers' inaugural season, an exhibit entitled "Baseball in Fayetteville" opened at the Fayetteville Area Transportation and Local History Museum. This exhibit, small in square footage but large in scope, provides an entertaining and informative overview of the region's national pastime history. Those visiting Fayetteville to see the Woodpeckers should consider stopping by the museum, located downtown in a restored former railroad depot.
The exterior of the Fayetteville Area Transportation and Local History Museum
"Baseball in Fayetteville" was curated by Bruce Daws, the museum's director. He said that some of the items in the exhibit were acquired on loan, while some were already in its collection. The latter category includes a scrapbook with items dating back to 1909, the year in which Fayetteville's first professional team (the Highlanders of the Class D Eastern Carolina League) was established. By the time that squad appeared on the scene, baseball had already been played in Fayetteville for over 40 years. It was introduced to the city in 1867, when the state of North Carolina was under miltary control in the wake of the Civil War.
"The first team was called the LaFayette Club," Daws said. "We were the first team named after [the Marquis de Lafayette], and the only one he actually visited. Games were played close to where this exhibit is now, on the military green. It was a military parade field."
The first African-American team in Fayetteville was formed in the 1880s; they played games against African-American teams from locales such as Charleston, Greensboro and Wilmington. Haws said that during this era, both white and African-American teams played games during "gala events" such as the Fourth of July. Baseball had captured the hearts and minds of the region, as it had in so many other parts of the country. In 1893, the Fayetteville Observer reported, "[T]here is no more exciting, interesting or manly sport in the world." The 20th century saw a proliferation of teams comprised of textile mill workers, the result of a general population shift from the agrarian to the industrial. Camp Bragg -- now Fort Bragg, the largest military installation in the world -- was established in 1918.
"In no time at all, Camp Bragg had teams that were competing with other teams in other cities," Daws said.
Minor League Baseball has had a long -- albeit sporadic -- presence in Fayetteville. The Highlanders existed in three iterations (1909-10; '28-'29; '53-'56), while other entities include the Cubs, Scotties and A's. One of the most notable Highlanders player was Jim Thorpe, who competed for the team in 1910. Thorpe went on to achieve great fame due to his track and field exploits in the 1912 Olympics, but the medals he won were later revoked because he had been paid to play baseball in Fayetteville (and, prior to that, for a team in Rocky Mount, North Carolina). Notable Fayettevillians who went on to achieve fame in the world of professional baseball include Archibald "Moonlight" Graham (immortalized in the movie Field of Dreams) and relief pitcher Calvin Koonce (a member of the 1969 "Miracle Mets").
In 1987, after a 30-year absence, Minor League Baseball returned to Fayetteville in the form of the South Atlantic League Fayetteville Generals. This team, later renamed the Cape Fear Crocs, operated out of J.P. Riddle Stadium and persisted through the 2000 season. After the Crocs left, the summer-collegiate Swampdogs took up residence in J.P Riddle Stadium and were the only game in town until the 2019 arrival of the Woodpeckers.
The Woodpeckers' brand-new home of Segra Stadium is a far cry from the Cape Fear Fairgrounds, where Ruth hit his first professional home run. (And where the Department of Transportation's Division Headquarters now stands.) While Ruth never played another game at the Fairgrounds, he did return to Fayetteville in his farewell season of 1935. Ruth's Boston Braves played an exhibition game against North Carolina State College at Highland Ball Park, and after the game Ruth was swarmed by autograph seekers at Fayetteville's Prince Charles Hotel. A ball he signed is featured as part of the "Baseball in Fayetteville" exhibition.
"It was enjoyable, digging up all this information and doing a lot of research," Daws said. "I think that we recovered a lot of interesting things that very few people know about."