When the Tourists hosted the Augusta Green Jackets on Opening Day this season, it served as a fitting reminder of McCormick Field's past and present. On the same diamond 95 years and one day earlier, on April 3, 1924, the Asheville Skylanders christened the ballpark by defeating the Detroit Tigers, 18-14, in front of an announced crowd of 3,199. The Tigers were working their way back from their Spring Training camp in Augusta and featured an outfield of Ty Cobb, Heinie Manush and Harry Heilmann, all future Hall of Famers.
There are older Minor League ballparks than McCormick Field, most notably Vermont's Centennial Field (1906) and Daytona Beach's Jackie Robinson Ballpark (1914). Few have opened to more fanfare. Named for the city's only bacteriologist, Lewis McCormick, who died in 1922 after creating the "Swat That Fly" campaign to rid the area of its burgeoning problem with houseflies, McCormick Field was built at a cost of $200,000 to host baseball and football games while also offering a cinder track for races, barnyard golf and a shooting range for both pistols and rifles.
In its June 1924 edition, Southern Tourist magazine reported, "This is the best and most complete athletic field in the South, and the only one this side of Washington that has an electrically equipped score board. This score board is far superior to the one in Washington. There are fully equipped dressing rooms and shower baths for both teams, and private rooms for officials. There is a ladies' rest room with maid and attendant. The plumbing used at this field is the most sanitary, being of the class used in the best hotels of the country."
McCormick Field on Opening Day, April 3, 1924. (courtesy Asheville Tourists)
Despite the variety of offerings, baseball proved to be the primary purpose for McCormick Field. The professional game has remained a constant ever since, excluding three short stretches: the 1933 season during the Great Depression; 1943-45 during World War II; and 1955-58 after the Tri-State League folded. During the game's absence in the 1950s, McCormick Field hosted weekly stockcar races.
The only other significant change at McCormick Field over the past 95 years involves the rebuilding of the original seating area. A fire on March 28, 1935 destroyed the main grandstand, which took much of the first half of the season to rebuild. Then, beginning the day after the close of the 1991 South Atlantic League season, the wooden stands were leveled, and a new concrete bowl was built at a cost of $2 million in time for the 1992 campaign. The new ballpark maintained the layout of the original and kept the playing field intact.
As a result, when the cleats of current Tourists and their opponents dig into the dirt and grass at McCormick Field, they are creating memories on the same spot as many of the game's greatest players. For instance, a year after Cobb and the Tigers came through town in 1924, the Yankees made their first of three visits to Asheville while riding the trains from Florida to New York. Babe Ruth reportedly died in Asheville in 1925 in what became known as "The Bellyache Heard 'Round The World."
Ruth, who had been ill for most of the winter, collapsed upon departing the train in Asheville following the ride from Knoxville. Despite rumors to the contrary, Ruth survived and returned to the city nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains on least two other occasions. In 1926, he stood in the outfield, smelled the honeysuckle and said, "My, my, what a beautiful place to play. Delightful. Damned delightful place!" Five years later, Ruth and teammate Lou Gehrig both homered in an 11-3 win in Asheville on April 8, 1931.
On April 13, 1937, the St. Louis Cardinals played the Tourists, with Dizzy Dean pitching four innings. In 1948, one year after he broke the color barrier in the modern Major Leagues, Jackie Robinson and the defending National League champion Brooklyn Dodgers paid a two-day visit to Asheville, on April 8-9. More than 5,500 fans crammed into the ballpark while braving the rainy weather to cheer for Robinson along with such other legends as Roy Campanella, Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese.
Numerous other players honed their skills at McCormick Field before they became household names. Willie Stargell guided the 1961 Tourists to the SAL title. Eddie Murray became a switch-hitter in 1975 as a member of the Asheville Orioles. Pat Putnam was named the Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year in 1976 when he established current SAL records with 194 hits, 142 RBIs and 305 total bases. Asheville and the Colorado Rockies currently have the league's longest working agreement, dating in 1994. During that time the Tourists have fielded the likes of Todd Helton, Juan Pierre, Matt Holliday, Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story.
Managers have also played a prominent role at the ballpark. Hall of Fame skipper Sparky Anderson guided the Tourists to an 86-54 record during the 1968 season. Cal Ripken Sr. led the Asheville O's from 1972-74, and his sons, Cal Jr. and Billy, served as batboys. Joe Mikulik established the SAL record for wins while managing the Tourists for 13 seasons, from 2000-13, the longest run for a skipper in a full-season league since the Minors were reclassified prior to the 1963 season.
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Promotions also own a big part in the ballpark's history. Ron McKee took over the struggling franchise in 1980 and as general manager over the next quarter-century introduced "Thirsty Thursday" and "Shirt Off Our Back" nights to the Minor Leagues. McCormick Field also had a scene in the movie "Bull Durham" when Crash Davis hits his record-breaking home run in a Tourists uniform.
McKee's legacy continues to this day under the ownership of DeWine Seeds Silver Dollar Baseball, which bought the team in 2010. President Brian DeWine has led the charge in offering numerous promotions that tie in with the Asheville community. One of the most popular is the annual Beer City Tourists Night that began in 2016. For these games the team wears caps featuring their "A" in a pint glass, while this year's jersey included the logos of many of Asheville's more than two dozen craft breweries, which represents the highest number per capita in the United States.
"The craft beer industry created an economic boom in this community over the past decade, and the Beer City Tourists is our way of paying tribute to them," DeWine said.
The team recently wore Beer City jerseys featuring the logos of local craft breweries.
DeWine also has made concessions a priority at McCormick Field. In 2018 the team introduced the State Fair Experience stand that features corndogs, ribbon fries, pretzel-coated cheese curds and deep-fried cookie dough. Previous newcomers to the menu continue to thrive, such as funnel cakes, deep-fried Oreos and deep-fried Moon Pies, a favorite of mascot Mr. Moon.
Mr. Moon, who pays tribute to Asheville's first team, the 1897 Moonshiners, helped commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The Tourists celebrated by offering the Astronaut Sundae, which included a deep-fried Moon Pie, a Neapolitan ice cream sandwich, soft serve ice cream, sprinkles and an American flag in a souvenir helmet cup.
"We try hard to appreciate our past and the history of the ballpark while also offering new and creative ideas that can tie in with the community," DeWine said. "Whether it's our older promotions like Thirsty Thursday or Dollar Dog Night or some of newer ones, our fans have really responded by supporting the team in a very positive manner."
Seth on a streak: Augusta's Seth Corry won his seventh straight start after shutting out Lexington for 5 2/3 innings on July 29. During his current winning streak, the 20-year-old left-hander has an 0.94 ERA (four earned runs in 38 1/3 innings). Selected by San Francisco in the third round of the 2017 Draft, Corry leads the SAL with 129 strikeouts and a 1.85 ERA while limiting hitters to a .165 batting average.
Sweet pitching for power: Devin Sweet tossed the first nine-inning complete game in West Virginia Power history in a 6-1 victory at Rome on July 28. The right-hander from North Carolina Central struck out a career-high 12 batters, one shy of the team's single-season mark set by Tyler Glasnow on August 22, 2013. Since moving to the rotation on June 16, Sweet has 62 strikeouts in 56 innings and is 3-2 with a 2.41 ERA, the fifth-best ERA among qualifiers in the SAL during that span.
Mauricio the man: Columbia shortstop Ronny Mauricio has moved to the top spot among Mets prospects. The 18-year-old switch-hitting shortstop ranked sixth in the SAL with 105 hits through July 30 and had hit safely in six of his last seven games, going 11-for-26 with six runs scored. Mauricio is only five hits shy of tying the Fireflies' single-season record, established by J.C. Rodriguez in 2016.