Asheville garnered a large place on the baseball map in 1924 with the opening of McCormick Field. Built for $200,000 and named for Dr. Lewis McCormick, the city's only bacteriologist who started the "Swat That Fly" campaign in 1905 in order to reduce the area's burgeoning problem with the housefly. While McCormick died unexpectedly in 1922, the facility that bored his name was deemed a diamond in every sense of the word.
The Tourists played in the South Atlantic Association from 1924-30, and the Piedmont League from 1931-42, except for 1933, when the city lost its franchise at the height of the Great Depression before receiving the Columbia Sandlappers franchise on June 7, 1934. Asheville fans during this time were privy to exhibition games played by the New York Yankees, featuring Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and other major leagues teams that worked their way north from spring training. One of the biggest events occurred in 1948 when the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson played at McCormick Field. The home nine also fielded competitive clubs, most notably manager Ray Kennedy's 1928 Tourists, which won the SAA by 18 games over the second-place Macon Peaches by posting a 97-49 record, and skipper Clay Bryant's 1948 Tourists, which won the Tri-State League in the team's third season on the Class B circuit.
Arc lights were employed in order to play the first night games in Asheville during the early 1930s. Night baseball disappeared when the Tourists folded in 1932 an did not return until permanent lights were installed at McCormick Field, beginning on July 5, 1940, when 2,574 fans watched Norfolk defeat Asheville, 4-0.
The demise of the Tri-State League after the 1955 season left Asheville without baseball for the next three years. The professional game had struggled for much of the decade, kept afloat primarily by donations from a non-profit corporation called Community Baseball, Inc. Weekly stockcar races kept McCormick Field operational while the city courted another baseball league.
Through the efforts of businessman W. Fleming Talman and Community Baseball, the Tourists returned to McCormick Field in 1959 in the South Atlantic League. Asheville had served as a St. Louis Cardinals' farm club from 1935-42 and a Brooklyn Dodgers' affiliate from 1946-55. After receiving players from the Philadelphia Phillies and several other clubs in 1959, the Tourists were a Phillies' farm club in 1960 before serving as the Double-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1961-66. The Pirates sent numerous future major leaguers to Asheville, as did the Cincinnati Reds from 1968-70, the Chicago White Sox in 1971 and the Baltimore Orioles from 1972-75.
As a Double-A team, just two short steps from the game's top level, Asheville proved to be a gateway to the major leagues. That scenario changed after the 1975 season with the team's management became frustrated with Baltimore over the lack of talent provided during the previous two years. That led the Tourists to drop down to Class A ball, beginning with a six-year run with the Texas Rangers in the Western Carolinas League (later renamed the present-day South Atlantic League) in 1976.
Baseball in Asheville mirrored most of the minor leagues during the late 1970s. Franchises were struggling to survive, and attendance at games could be counted on fingers and toes. Located among the partial sellouts at McCormick Field were several rowdy fans that did little to increase the ambience among the paying customers.
That scenario changed in 1980 when Ron McKee became general manager of the Tourists. A former batboy for the club in the early 1960s, McKee disposed of the rowdies and instituted a more fan-friendly environment. With the help of his wife and team business manager Carolyn McKee, he also brought in special attractions, held giveaway nights and created such innovative promotions as "Thirsty Thursday" and "Shirt Off Your Back Night." Attendance increased to 49,066 fans in McKee's first year; by 1986, the Tourists attracted more than 100,000 patrons for the first time since 1959, signaling the rebirth of the game throughout Western North Carolina.
"All I try to do is treat people the best that I can," said McKee shortly after taking the job in 1980. "When they enter the ballpark, they are entering my living room. I want only the best for the fans. It's like they are in my house."
Nary a day had passed after the final pitch of the 1991 season before McCormick Field's wooden grandstand, built in 1923, was little more than a memory. The building of a new ballpark with a seating capacity of approximately 4,000 was erected by Leader Construction and designed by architects Bowers, Ellis, and Watson. Some observers wondered if the facility would be ready for the 1992 season, but exhaustive hours through February and March and into April made the campaign at the corner of Biltmore Avenue and Charlotte Street a reality.
The new McCormick Field maintained the layout of the original ballpark and kept the playing field intact. For fans, the improvements centered on expanded restrooms, modern concession stands, more comfortable seats and a large plaza area for group outings. New clubhouses and lights served as the major benefits for the players, although one new twist altered the thought process of pitchers as well as hitters from both sides of the plate. Only 301 feet from home plate, right field had always been a target of lefthanded power hitters. The feat became somewhat tougher prior to the 1993 season when the wall's height more than tripled, to its current 36 feet.
The new facility led to a new major league affiliate. The Tourists had been the Houston Astros' Class A South Atlantic League club since 1982 until the organization came to terms with the expansion Colorado Rockies, beginning in 1994. The Tourists continue to be an affiliate of the Rockies today.
In 2010 the team was sold from Palace Sports and Entertainment to DeWine Seeds-Silver Dollar Baseball. While owning and operating the Tourists, the DeWine Family continue to make McCormick Field a family friendly venue.
Today McCormick Field serves the same purpose it did in 1924; to add to the quality of life to the residents of Asheville. The Tourists now draw over 180,000 fans a year to McCormick Field.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.