What's the best state for a Minor League Baseball road trip? An argument could certainly be made for North Carolina, which boasts 11 teams representing Rookie ball to Triple-A.
Those exploring the state's robust baseball present would do well to learn about its storied past, which is on display at the North Carolina Baseball Museum in Wilson, North Carolina. Located on the grounds of Fleming Stadium -- a nearly 80-year-old ballpark currently hosting the summer-collegiate Wilson Tobs -- the museum is a well-curated, volunteer-run labor of love.
I first visited the North Carolina Baseball History Museum in 2011 and made a return this past Aug. 18 while en route to that evening's Down East Wood Ducks game in Kinston. Admission is a wallet-friendly $3, with kids (under 18) and seniors (65 and up) costing a mere $1. The main room is largely dedicated to information and memorabilia related to the more than 400 Major League players who are North Carolina natives, with an adjacent room containing dozens of jerseys and all manner of ephemera. The seven North Carolinians who have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame -- Luke Appling, Rick Ferrell, Jim "Catfish" Hunter, Gaylord Perry, Buck Leonard, Enos Slaughter and Hoyt Wilhelm -- are celebrated throughout both rooms via clubhouse locker-sized display cases.
Baseball obsessives could spend hours in the museum, poring over the copious minutiae and memorabilia, while the less committed might be more inclined toward a 20-minute pit stop. Regardless, you'll be greeted at the door by one of the museum's volunteer workers. On this particular Tuesday, it was amiable retiree Eddie Boykin.
"We get people here from, literally, all over the world. And I do know what 'literally' means," Boykin said with a self-deprecating chuckle. "Maybe they're here on vacation, visiting friends, or whatever. But they find out about the museum and just stop by."
Boykin, a native of nearby Rocky Mount, said that, the way he understands it, the museum came to be as a result of idle chit-chat at a locally renowned fast-food joint.
"You ever hear of Dick's Hot Dog Stand?" asked Boykin. "Lee Gilarmis owns it, and the way I understand it is he said, 'Look, I've got so much in the restaurant, walls full of stuff. I can't put anything else out, and I've got so much in the house packed up. We need to start a museum.'"
The effort snowballed from there. Financing was obtained, a location secured and a small group of dedicated local collectors all donated items.
"We come away with a lot of stuff since then," said Boykin. "People hear about the museum, and send it in."
The North Carolina Baseball Museum is located on the grounds of Fleming Stadium, home of the Wilson Tobs.
The most interesting items in the collection? Well, Boykin said "that depends on what you're interested in." He pointed out a few of his favorites, ranging from 19th-century tobacco cards featuring North Carolina players to photos of Ted Williams playing a 1956 exhibition game to a copy of Buck Leonard's contract for the 1944 National Negro League season. He also expounded on notable, if comparatively obscure, feats accomplished by North Carolina-born Major Leaguers. Lincolnton's Tony Cloninger is the only pitcher to hit two grand slams in one game; Charles "Red" Barrett, who lived in Wison, threw a record-low 58 pitches in a complete game; Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, immortalized in Field of Dreams, was born in Fayetteville as part of a distinguished North Carolina family.
2017 Road Trip
In short, the North Carolina Baseball History Museum is a rabbit hole. And it's up to the visitor to determine how lost within it he or she gets. Boykin said the dedication evident throughout the facility is simply the Wilson way.
"A lot of towns are big on sports, but Wilson really supports it," he said, mentioning the Tobs as well as myriad high-profile youth tournaments hosted by the town. "Wilson's just really big into helping the kids do whatever they want to do."
And if those kids one day achieve any measure of professional baseball success, it's a good bet they'll find their exploits immortalized in the North Carolina Baseball Museum.
"We've already got enough stuff to fill up another room," said Boykin. "Now we just need the money to pay for it."