In an age of Sod Poodles and Rumble Ponies, Trash Pandas and Vibes, the Durham Bulls have reached into the past for an alternate identity and come up with a name as fitting -- and unexpected -- as any in Minor League Baseball.
On April 13, the Rays' Triple-A affiliate took the field as the Durham Tobacconists for the first time. They'll do so again on May 18, June 27, July 13 and Aug. 31, balancing the goal of providing a family-friendly experience while taking on a name that offers a nod to their city's history.
"Tobacconists" was the name of the first professional Durham baseball team, in 1902. The original Tobacconists, so called because tobacco production was the city's economic engine, disbanded after a few games, but the name popped up again intermittently before the Bulls ballclub was established in 1913. (The 1920-33 Durham Bulls played in the Piedmont League, which sometimes featured the Danville Tobacconists, as well as other clubs with industry-tinged names, such as the High Point Furniture Makers and the Norfolk Tars.)
Durham created a "fauxback" uniform for its Tobacconists nights, and it had to be designed from scratch -- no pictures of the original team or its logos have been found.
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"We designed everything in-house. Amy Zirkle, our production designer, took the lead on product design, and we started with a blank slate. ... We said, 'OK, if we were to create this uniform, what would it look like?'" Bulls director of marketing and communications Matt Sutor said. "That's why we used muted colors. With the crimson red, we took it into the 21st century a bit. But with the muted yellow, and a simple tobacco leaf, the simple DT, we went with [a vintage feel]. It was her design, and for the most part we were all in agreement about the DT style to go forward. We all knew that was what we wanted, and it was her brainchild. ... In terms of actually building a brand, building a style guide, this was the most in-depth [design work] she's done for us."
But the uniform was just the beginning. Throwing out the first ball on April 13 was 19th-century tobacco industrialist Washington Duke -- or somebody dressed as him, anyway. Throughout the game, the videoboard ran Durham history trivia.
Tobacco industrialist Washington Duke was brought to life to throw out a first pitch. (Durham Bulls)
The Bulls had long been aware of the Tobacconists franchise and were looking for the right time to launch some kind of throwback promotion. Throughout 2019, businesses, non-profit organizations and municipal agencies across the city are celebrating the 150th anniversary of Durham's incorporation, creating the perfect opportunity for the Tobacconists to take the field. Although Sutor admitted that the team got "some backlash" online, the in-stadium response to the April 13 game was overwhelmingly positive.
"The [tobacco] industry has obviously transformed and it's not as big a part of the region -- it's actually a big tech center now," he said. "But if [tobacco was still the central industry in Durham], I think we would have gone about this entirely differently. Because it's not as prominent in the area now, we felt comfortable saying, 'Hey, this is about the history of [baseball in Durham],' especially with the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the city."
From the conception, though, the Durham front office was mindful that some people might jump to conclusions about their intentions in branding themselves this way.
"One of the things we were sensitive about was the name Tobacconists. We, in Durham and as a Minor League team -- and really, all Minor League Baseball teams -- are sensitive to tobacco-product use," Sutor said. "We wanted to make sure everybody understands that we're not trying to promote tobacco. ... But people here do understand that the city was, in some ways, built around tobacco.
The Bulls' ballpark is located in the American Tobacco Historic District. (Kevin Pataky/MiLB.com)
"Right across the street from the ballpark, there are two large office buildings, but up until the '80s, they were tobacco warehouses. Depending on where you are as you're walking around town, you can see the old bull, which harkens back to Bull Durham, and ... the movie ['Bull Durham'] is named after Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco. It's not lost on people what tobacco used to be here. ... For us, this was a way to honor the city's history and the first pro franchise here."
During one frame, especially, the team tried to transport fans back in time to give them a sense of that first franchise.
"We did a silent inning," Sutor explained. "In the second inning, the batter was introduced via our PA, but there were no sound effects, no walk-up music, no promotions, no sponsor [announcements] from the first batter of the top of the second to the last batter of the end of the second. We did have our videoboard.
"The way we presented it was, 'This is the way baseball was played back in 1902, plus our fancy videoboard.'"