On the Road: Burlington's ballpark journey

B-Royals' Burlington Athletic Stadium was built in Danville, Virginia

Burlington Athletic Stadium, home of the Appalachian League's Burlington Royals. (Ben Hill/MiLB.com)

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | July 26, 2016 10:00 AM

Approximately one hour prior to July 4's ballgame at Burlington Athletic Stadium, Danville Braves catcher Trey Keegan bounded into the visitor's dugout to share some strange information he had just acquired.

"Fun fact!" he exclaimed to the small group of D-Braves gathered therein. "This ballpark used to be in Danville."

Keegan's teammates openly doubted this assertion, but he wasn't about to back down from this particular fun fact. He then turned his attention to Burlington Royals general manager Ryan Keur, who I had been interviewing in the far corner of the dugout about this very same topic.

"Isn't that true?" asked Keegan.

Keur assured him that it was, allowing Keegan to walk away triumphantly from his once skeptical teammates.

***

File under "strange but true": Burlington Athletic Stadium began life as Danville's League Park, which hosted the Carolina League's Danville Leafs (as in, tobacco leafs) through the 1958 campaign. The Leafs won three championships at League Park over an 11-season span -- in 1945, 1953 and 1955. More notable, however, is the bit of Danville baseball history that begins Bruce Adelson's Brushing Back Jim Crow (subtitled "The Integration of Minor League Baseball in the American South"):

"As August [1951] began, several of Danville's wealthiest white citizens, including Leafs owner Jim Peters, decided to shake the town and the surrounding tobacco country out of their summer torpor," wrote Adelson. "To spark greater interest in their team and increase revenues by attracting more fans, particularly African-American ones, they decided on a stunning course of action -- hiring the Carolina League's first African-American ballplayer."

That player, Percy Miller, played in just 19 games for the Leafs. But he paved the way for future African-American Danville standouts such as Bill White (1952) and Willie McCovey (1956).

The Leafs ceased operations following the 1958 season and League Park was sold to a group from Burlington, North Carolina. Burlington is located approximately 40 miles south of Danville.

"They thought it would be a little bit easier and cheaper to disassemble the stadium up in Danville, put it on a train piece by piece and reassemble it here in Burlington," said Keur, currently in his third season as B-Royals general manager and sixth overall with the franchise. "Obviously not the whole bleachers, and nothing of the field, but the main grandstand itself."

Reassembled in Burlington, the ballpark was rechristened Fairchild Stadium and went to host Carolina League teams through the 1972 campaign. Minor League Baseball returned to the ballpark in 1986 -- in the form of the Appalachian League's Burlington Indians -- after then-Durham Bulls owner Miles Wolff brought a franchise there. Since 2007, Burlington's Appy League entity has been affiliated with Kansas City and, therefore, known as the Royals.

This season, new sets of bleachers have been installed on both the third and first base sides of Burlington Athletic Stadium. The scoreboard and sound system were recently upgraded as well, and Keur made note of other improvements made to the city-owned ballpark that might not be as evident to the casual observer.

"Prior to the 2015 season we pretty much gutted everything underneath the ballpark," he said. "We wanted to use the space, the somewhat limited space we still had, into making a bigger visitor's clubhouse.... We've had a great relationship with the city, and over the past three years they've put in some serious money here, a lot of investment. In turn the [Kansas City] Royals signed a five-year deal this year to stay with us through 2020. So we're excited about the progress we've made here at the ballpark."

Given these developments, it appears that Burlington Athletic Stadium will continue to host Appy League baseball for years to come. But if and when the city gets a new ballpark, don't expect history to repeat itself.

"I think if we're looking for a new stadium, we'll try to build it ourselves this time," said Keur.

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

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