Bulls Travel Unlikely Road To Baseball Prominence

What Happened Before ‘Bull Durham’

While they likely never realized all the struggles that had led up to Opening Day, Bulls fans turned out in droves from the very beginning

Ron Morris’ new book tells the story of the unlikely rebirth of the Durham Bulls in 1980, and the franchise’s growth into one of the most successful operations in the minor leagues. But it’s much more than a baseball story. The book—which you can purchase here—also looks deeper at all the amazing things that sprang from the Bulls’ success, including a renaissance in the city itself, the overall boom in the minor leagues, and even the rise to prominence of a certain baseball publication. In this excerpt, however, we flash back to the days before the Bulls’ return to Durham, when things were still very much touch and go.

A few weeks before the 1980 season I had a chance meeting with Walt Sorgi, whose claim to baseball fame in Durham was that he played in the Bulls’ first game in the Class C Carolina League. That was 1945. Durham defeated Burlington 5-0 and the winning pitcher that day was Ray Daedlow, according to Sorgi’s vivid memory.

Sorgi knew all about professional baseball in Durham. He grew up in Milton, Mass., and attended Harvard before pursuing baseball professionally. He met and married a Durham girl, Agnes Pleasants, and established his own insurance business in Durham. He played in every old-timer’s game possible in Durham thereafter and kept an eye on the game he so dearly loved.

So when Sorgi stood on the grassy knoll outside Durham Athletic Park and offered his take on baseball returning to Durham in 1980 after a nine-year absence, I figured it was worth listening to. This man wanted baseball back as much as anyone, yet his skepticism shone through. “Not going to work,” Sorgi said as he shook his head. “Not going to work.”

Then he put a couple of exclamation marks on his belief that Durham was not ready to support a professional minor-league baseball team.

“This ain’t no virgin territory!” Sorgi said. “It’s been ****** before!”

Sorgi was hardly alone in his thinking. Professional sports had pretty much died with the advent of the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953 and interest in college basketball was unrivaled nationally. Much like in many areas of the country where college football dominates conversations year-round, talk of college basketball was constant even during the offseason in the Research Triangle.

Any news of Durham’s pending return to minor league baseball was relegated to the inside pages of sports sections in the area. News that Al Gallagher would manage the Durham Bulls? Who knew? And who really cared? Such ambivalence represented part of the uphill climb Miles Wolff, the owner of the Bulls, and Jim Mills, the Carolina League president, faced as they located the franchise squarely in the midst of a college basketball hotbed.

Mills was a North Carolina native, raised in the community of Apex, just outside Raleigh, and educated at North Carolina State. He played for the Raleigh Capitals in the Carolina League during its heyday of 1946 and 1947. Fans would typically fill old Devereux Meadow ballpark in Raleigh one night to see the Capitals play the Durham Bulls, then drive some 25 miles over to Durham the next night to see the same teams play at jam-packed Durham Athletic Park. Devereux Meadow was demolished in 1979 so the city of Raleigh could use the land to park garbage trucks. Durham, fortunately, never tore down its ballpark thanks to the generosity and foresight of the John Sprunt Hill family. As a condition of donating the land that the ballpark was situated on to the city in 1933, the Hill family stipulated that the property could never be used for anything other than recreation.

Durham Athletic Park wasn’t much to look at, but prospective Bulls owner Miles Wolff saw the potential under the decay

Mills took over presidency of the Carolina League for the 1977 season in one of the most difficult periods in the circuit’s history. The Carolina League operated with just four teams during the 1975 and ’76 seasons, with Salem and Lynchburg in Virginia and Winston-Salem in North Carolina playing both seasons. The Rocky Mount, N.C., franchise operated in 1975 and then moved to Hampton, Va., for the ’76 season. The league elected to play an interlocking schedule with the four-team Western Carolinas League (which would become the South Atlantic League) both years.

Mills knew that without expansion the league faced possible extinction. He worked hard behind the scenes to add franchises in Kinston, N.C., and Alexandria, Va., for the 1978 and ’79 seasons. He explored Macon, Ga., which had been without pro ball since 1967; Hagerstown, Md., without a team since 1955; and tiny Red Springs, N.C., which last fielded a team in 1969.

Mills at least had one thing in his favor as the Atlanta Braves were interested in adding a franchise to the Carolina League. The Braves, with only four clubs in their farm system, were looking to expand and wanted to field a team at the high Class A level, diminishing the enormous jump for players from the low Class A Western Carolinas League to the Double-A Southern League.

Durham was attractive on a couple of counts. It was centrally located geographically, but most important the city had a ballpark. Many cities like Raleigh had torn down their old ballparks, believing professional baseball would never be played there again.

As president of the Carolina League, Mills also oversaw its umpires. One young umpire Mills grew particularly close to was Pete Bock, who was reared and still lived in Durham. Mills requested a lunch date with Bock in July 1979 at Bullock’s Bar-B-Cue restaurant, a Durham landmark. Mills, as was his style, did not mince words and got right to the point of the meeting.

“Do you know a lot of people in Durham?” Mills asked.

“Well,” Bock responded. “I’ve never met the mayor, but I know of him. There’s a council person I know. A guy down the street works for the city, and I know the parks and recreation director real well.”

Bock eventually secured a meeting with new Durham mayor Harry Rodenhizer, who owned and operated the Pizza Palace, a restaurant near Duke University’s east campus. Rodenhizer was a man of vision and campaigned on the promise that Durham would enact changes that would enable it to catch up to its neighbors in Raleigh and Chapel Hill.

Both of those cities had prospered with the birth of Research Triangle Park, a high-tech research and development center created in 1959 through the cooperative efforts of state and area governments, universities and business interests. Most of those from outside the area who landed jobs there passed on Durham, which had suffered mightily with the decline of the tobacco industry. By March 1980, Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co. put up for sale two historic warehouses with an asking price of just $450,000, a sure sign that the tobacco industry was dying and Durham would no longer be known as one of the tobacco centers of the southeast.

When Rodenhizer became mayor, he inherited a dormant downtown. He first got approval to expand the Durham Freeway, thus making travel easier from Raleigh and, more importantly, from the Research Triangle Park. He soon came to the realization that minor league baseball might be a viable avenue to draw Durham residents and those from surrounding communities into the city’s center.

Bock met regularly with Rodenhizer and parks and recreation director Alex Gilleskie, reporting back to Mills that there was keen interest from the city. The problem: old, rundown Durham Athletic Park.

Mills offered to bring in a couple of prospective owners who could better assess the viability of Durham Athletic Park and perhaps give Mills and the city a realistic assessment of baseball’s prospects.

In early August, Mills arranged for minor league operators Larry Schmittou and Frances Crockett, who owned and operated successful franchises in Nashville and Charlotte to visit Durham. A year earlier, Schmittou, a former Vanderbilt University baseball coach, had convinced country music stars Conway Twitty, Jerry Reed, Larry Gatlin and others to invest in the Nashville franchise, and the new Sounds ownership group then spearheaded the building of a new, 10,700-seat ballpark. The team promptly drew 380,159 fans in their first year of operation to not only lead the Southern League in attendance by a wide margin, but all of minor-league baseball. In 1979, they boosted that total to 515,482, while also successfully adding and overseeing a new club in Greensboro, North Carolina, of the Western Carolinas League.
Crockett’s father, Jim, was heavily involved in the promotion of professional wrestling for years, and saw a natural tie-in with minor league baseball. He spearheaded the building of Griffith Park in Charlotte for the 1976 season and put his daughter in charge of the club as its general manager. She, too, was interested in helping the Crockett family find another successful franchise.

During their visit, Schmittou and Crockett mentioned to Rodenhizer that they were interested in a partnership to own and operate the proposed new Durham franchise.

Then Bock, Schmittou and Crockett hopped in Bock’s car and drove to Durham Athletic Park. The tour lasted less than a minute, as Crockett screamed for Schmittou to meet immediately back on the concourse.

“Let’s go!” Crockett said

“What?” Schmittou said.

“I just saw a rat that was as big as a dog.”

“Seriously?”

The trio exited the ballpark, got back in Bock’s car and rode in silence to Rodenhizer’s office.

“That didn’t take you long,” Rodenhizer said.

The four then sat down to discuss the ballpark.

“What do you think of our ballpark?” Rodenhizer asked.

“Well, I think you ought to take about 10 sticks of dynamite and blow that damn thing up,” Schmittou said.

“Really?” Rodenhizer said.

“Yes,” Schmittou responded. “We’re not interested.”

Everyone shook hands and parted ways. While despondent, Mills was not ready to give up.

His next phone call was to Wolff, who was recommended to Mills by the Atlanta Braves, who were interested in adding a club in the league. Wolff had succeeded Mills as general manager of the Savannah, Ga., franchise, which the Braves owned and operated, nearly a decade earlier when Atlanta took a chance on a 26-year-old with virtually no experience. In Wolff’s first season, 1971, he earned minor league Executive of the Year honors from The Sporting News. Wolff remained in Savannah for three years but since then was in search of a possible team to own and operate himself.

A couple of weeks following the Schmittou-Crockett fiasco, Mills set up the same kind of look-see with Wolff. This time, the prospective owner had a different outlook. Wolff was enamored of the old ballpark, despite its condition. The grandstand area was solid, for the most part, and Wolff believed a coat of paint, a few nails to broken boards, a new outfield fence, improved lighting, some sod in the infield . . . and Durham Athletic Park was ready for baseball.

Wolff particularly liked the asking price for the ballclub. He was virtually broke from six years of working odd jobs across the Southeast, mostly baseball-related, without steady income. His mother had died five years earlier and left him in the neighborhood of $30,000 in various stocks. So he had enough to cover the $2,417 franchise fee to join the Carolina League. (The league treasury had $14,502 at the end of the 1979 season, meaning each of its six franchises was worth $2,417.)

“They were almost embarrassed to ask me for it,” Wolff said. “Minor league clubs had no value because it was not a way to make money. You were buying a losing business. If you wanted to do it, fine.”

Wolff next needed assurances from Durham officials that the city would contribute to the renovation of the ballpark. Additionally, a $16,000 performance bond was requested from Wolff in the event that the terms of the contract were not met, though the figure was later reduced to $10,000. The city also wanted $6,000 from the club for concessions rights, but that fee later was waived, implemented in the second year and set at 7 percent of concession revenues for every succeeding year. The city proposed $30,479 in improvements to the park, and the club was asked to contribute $4,000. That might sound like a pittance, yet calculated for inflation it amounted to about $100,000 in today’s dollars. When that plan was approved, it signaled the return of professional baseball to Durham.

One week later, Pat Nugent, assistant to Atlanta Braves general manager John Mullen, and Paul Snyder, the club’s director of scouting and player development, toured Durham Athletic Park and offered Wolff their input—and approval. Snyder, who spent his entire 50-year career in the Braves system including seven as a player, loved old ballparks and believed in a baseball philosophy that any park could use a quick, two-step approach to playability: paint and toilets.

If there was a concern for the Atlanta brass it was the right field area. There was no outfield fence at the time of the tour; instead, a slight incline backed up to the base of the Brame Building, a mere 300 feet from home plate. Major league clubs normally desire to get a true measure of their prospects based on their performance in the minors and generally attempt to avoid playing in ballparks where home run totals can be inflated because of a short porch. By putting an eight-foot fence at the base of the incline, the distance from home plate would be reduced to as little as 285 or 290 feet, at most. The right-center field power alley would be a scant 330 feet. Yet Snyder was undeterred as he saw it from a scout’s view. He believed scouts were wise enough to know that unconventional-shaped parks like the one in Durham made hitters look better and pitchers worse than their actual statistics. Furthermore, he liked the way Wolff and Bock planned to rectify the situation: They would have “305 feet” painted on the new fence at the base of the right-field foul pole, and “340” painted on the fence in the right-field power alley. Problem solved.

With a commitment from the city to move forward on the park, and an affiliation agreement from the Braves, Wolff next hired Bock as his general manager.

Unbeknownst to Wolff at the time, he gained an extra measure of free publicity by hiring Bock.

It seems that the past and future of Durham’s Carolina League franchise had a common denominator with the past resting beneath the Durham Athletic Park pitching mound and the future now sitting in the front office. Prior to his death in 1967, former Durham pitcher Claude Charles “Buck” Weaver requested that his ashes be scattered on the park’s pitching mound. Weaver was Bock’s grandfather.

Weaver, the step-father of Bock’s mother, produced an 18-8 record with a 3.93 earned run average in 238 innings of work for Durham in 1947 as a 41-year-old right-handed pitcher. Weaver pitched another three years in the minor leagues to conclude a 12-season professional career. When he died 17 years later in Greensboro, his death certificate in the Guilford County Health Department still listed his occupation as “professional baseball player.”

Weaver was 61 at his death. On April 28, 1967, Bock was not yet a teenager when he gathered with a handful of relatives at Durham Athletic Park. The Rev. Malbert Smith, longtime pastor of Grey Stone Baptist Church in Durham, spread Weaver’s ashes on the pitcher’s mound. Later, Fred McNeill, the Bulls trainer and equipment manager, raked the ashes into the red soil.

(In another touch of fate involving Weaver and Bock, Bock’s son Jeff signed a professional contract with the Braves organization in 1993, and played for the Bulls in 1994, which turned out to be the final year the club used Durham Athletic Park as its playing venue).

On Oct. 7, 1979, the Durham Bulls were officially admitted as the Carolina League’s seventh club. Rocky Mount was approved a short time later, boosting the league to eight teams. That left Wolff six months to get his new team ready for play and raise enough money to cover start-up costs, which he estimated would be about $30,000.

Wolff’s initial phone call was to an old friend, Van Schley, who was willing to contribute $5,000. Schley was living in California and supplying players on the side to a handful of minor league teams that were operating without major league working agreements. Schley had significant Hollywood connections and advised Wolff to contact Thom Mount, who grew up in Durham and was then in his fourth year at age 30 as president of Universal Pictures in California. Mount agreed to toss in an additional $5,000, and recommended that Wolff call his father in Durham to inquire about providing legal assistance in running the club.

Mount’s father, Lillard, was a well-respected Durham attorney and a baseball fan who very much wanted pro ball back in Durham. He took over all legal aspects of the club and charged Wolff a mere $600 a year for his services. Mount recommended that Wolff form a corporation with dues-paying stockholders. Thus, Durham Bulls Baseball Inc. was formed.

Wolff contributed $9,000 himself, making him the largest stockholder. A friend, Joe Helyar, joined Schley and Mount in contributing $5,000. Helyar was working in ticket operations for the Boston Red Sox at the time and previously had owned several minor league clubs. Wolff then solicited $1,000 from each of his two sisters, his father, and three childhood friends in Greensboro to make up the $30,000.

Even with the money, financing operations of the club was difficult. Wolff went without a paycheck until the season began. Bock was hired at $750 a month, which represented a significant drop in pay from his $950 a month salary as an umpire in the Carolina League (and the promise of $1,300 a month the following year in the Double-A Southern League).

Bock was paid on schedule for the months of October and November, and even promised a raise to $900 a month once the season started. Then Wolff ran out of money, and reluctantly asked Bock to go without a paycheck until the season started—or until he could sell enough advertising on outfield fence signs to cover the club’s operating costs. Luckily for Bock, his wife, Cindy, was supporting the family by working a steady job at the Research Triangle Institute outside Durham.

“I would wake up every morning at 4, thinking ‘What have I done?’ ” Wolff remembered. “It was all crashing in. We’ve got to do this, this and this. We’ve got no money. I was a wreck . . . It wasn’t like I could throw in the towel, but it was close. It was a matter of were we going to make it? It was scary.”

So scary that six weeks before the season Wolff sought a bailout from the Carolina League. Mills reached into the league’s coffers and loaned the Bulls $6,000. Had the other owners known of the undocumented transgression, the league very well could have folded.

The Bulls initially gained financial support from Liggett & Myers because the one-time tobacco giant was desperate to strengthen its foothold in the community with its industry faltering. Liggett & Myers purchased an outfield sign, and Bock quickly sold out the remaining 25 signs at $800 apiece, netting $20,800.

The Durham Budweiser distributor purchased eight season tickets. Wolff was thrilled that Bock was selling entire boxes of eight, and the 180 available seats at $125 each quickly were sold out, netting an additional $22,500. At that point, the club decided to add 400 chair-back seats in the grandstand behind home plate and those also sold out at $100 each for 70 home dates, netting $40,000. Wolff was informed that the Durham franchise had historically sold book tickets, or partial season tickets, and the sale of 1,000 of those at $15 for 10 games also significantly aided the cash flow.

“We were generating money, but we still didn’t have enough to get to Opening Day,” Wolff said.

Bock was also securing deals with local merchants to get the ballpark in order. He sold a fence sign to West Durham Lumber Co. in exchange for installing carpet in the home clubhouse. He befriended David Clark, head of maintenance for the city of Durham, and invited Clark and his entire crew to the ballpark one afternoon and presented all with Durham Bulls caps and T-shirts. From that day forward, the crew responded to any needs from Bock without charge to the club.

“You’d change bulbs and they still didn’t work,” Bock said. “We’d call David, they would find a short in the fuse box and fix it.”

The front office, which amounted to two cramped rooms at the top of the grandstand behind home plate, needed furniture. Bock found an office in Durham that was closing and scrounged for a couple of desks and chairs. He persuaded a Durham milk company to convert a couple of its retired delivery trucks into beer stands. Again, at no charge to the club.

A “colored” restroom from days gone by on the first-base side of the main grandstand was converted into a women’s restroom. A closet next to the visitor’s clubhouse became the umpire’s dressing room.

The Braves inquired about building tunnels from the dugouts to an area under the grandstand that served both clubhouses. Wolff refused, believing that it was important for both teams to walk through spectators—and mingle—when entering and leaving the field.

Coca-Cola and Miller beer agreed to provide a scoreboard as long as the club installed it. Bock and Bill Miller, the sales assistant and head groundskeeper, worked a crane and bolted it into place.

Finally, two days prior to the season opener, a health department inspector showed up at the ballpark and informed the club that it could not use bagged ice. The club needed an ice machine, which cost in the neighborhood of $2,000, money Wolff did not have. He sat in the stands behind home plate with his head in his hands, believing the Bulls might be out of business before they even got started. Bock again came to the rescue, persuading the health inspector to allow the club to use bagged ice through the opening homestand.

The Bulls were back in business.

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