From There’s a Bulldozer on Home Plate: A 50-Year Journey in Minor League Baseball © 2023 Miles Wolff by permission of McFarland. These excerpts have been lightly edited.
Durham was ready.
For years, it has been the blue-collar angle of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle. Raleigh was the state capital with government jobs and North Carolina State University. Chapel Hill had the University of North Carolina and prided itself on being the “Southern Part of Heaven.” Durham had American Tobacco and Liggett and Myers tobacco factories along with textile mills and minimum-wage workers.
Duke University was part of Durham, but barely. It isolated itself on the western edge of the city and rarely interacted with the town. By 1980, folks were turning away from Chesterfield and Lucky Strikes, and the two huge tobacco factories in downtown Durham, which had at one point been running three shifts a day, had barely enough business for one shift. The huge tobacco auction warehouses near the historic Durham Athletic Park were mostly shuttered, and most of the textile business had moved to Mexico.
The city could have become like many Northeast Rust Belt cities, hanging on with little hope for the future. But there was energy in Durham. The citizens knew that Raleigh and Chapel Hill turned up their noses at their poor relation, but civic leaders believed Durham had something special.
The mix of people was real. A Black entrepreneurial tradition, fostered by North Carolina Central University, had been part of the city for decades. Duke University graduates were no longer leaving the city after graduation but staying and starting businesses. The sons and daughters of tobacco workers were also staying in the city and looking for better opportunities. City government was progressive and encouraging new business in the community.
Durham needed a spark to ignite this energy. No one element or incident caused this growth from dying tobacco town to major city. A combination of efforts and individuals helped the city transform itself. But many would argue that the Durham Bulls provided one of the first sparks.
Arriving in Durham in the fall of 1979, I had no visions of what Durham could become. My goal was simply to survive. With 10 years of experience in the business, I knew what I could do as an operator. With a city the size of Durham, then 100,000, I believed the team could average around 1,000 fans a game, which would be enough to break even. I now had the franchise, a working agreement with the Atlanta Braves, and a lease with the City of Durham on the ballpark. The one thing I didn’t have was money.
Fortunately, no one asked to see financial statements. I did have enough to pay the league $2,417, the price of the franchise. No further investigation was done on my financial background.
I did understand that enough money was needed to get to Opening Day, and I started efforts to raise capital. Local ownership can be important in the success of a club, but Durham businessmen had owned prior teams and no one in the city seemed willing to invest in another minor league venture. Two friends and former minor league owners, Van Schley and Joe Helyar, each put in $5,000.
Schley suggested that a friend of his on the West Coast, Thom Mount, might be interested. Mount was a producer for Universal Pictures and originally was from Durham. I made contact, and Mount also was willing to put in $5,000. To gain further funds, I sold much of the stock my mother had left me, and by the end of these efforts I had a little over $30,000 to set up and run the Durham Bulls baseball club.
Durham seemed to want the team. I had always liked cities that had a baseball history, with fathers passing on the love of the team to their sons and daughters. Fans started stopping by the office to buy tickets and some made the comment that their fathers brought them to Bulls games when they were young. Now these fans would be able to bring their children and experience the same joy they had found at the ballpark.
That winter Mount came to Durham to visit his parents and he stopped by the ballpark to view his investment. Thom was very personable, and he was excited about the potential of the Bulls. As a young boy, he attended many games. He proposed that one of the costume designers at Universal Pictures, Marilyn Vance, could design the uniforms and he also suggested that artists at MCA Records might be able to design the logo. We had made no headway on uniforms or a logo, and our answer was a quick yes.
Then, in a thoughtful mood, he proposed an idea: “Miles, someday we should make a movie here. Wouldn’t that be good?” You nod yes, but silently wonder if this wasn’t just Hollywood talking. Movies aren’t made in minor league ballparks.
The operation clicked into gear and was running smoothly. Everything was positive except in one area. We ran out of money in March.
We were selling well, but sponsors were waiting until Opening Day to pay. I found myself waking up at 4 a.m. most mornings, unable to go back to sleep, wondering if the operation could make it to April and Opening Day.
Opening Night in 1980, a Tuesday, was cold, 45 degrees at game time. The usual pre-game festivities with bands and speakers were held, and the ceremonies only lasted 10 minutes past schedule. I had no feel for the potential crowd, but the fans kept streaming in, and the stadium with a listed capacity of 5,000 looked full. We announced 4,410, and the money was outstanding.
Murphy’s Law is written for minor league openers, and disasters were part of the Opening Night experience. In the sixth inning, the toilets stopped working. Apparently the city had installed the wrong sized water line into the ballpark, and the toilets could not keep up with the crowd. In the seventh inning the field lights cut out, and the field was bathed in darkness. The wrong circuit breaker had been installed. A city electrician was on site and his short-term solution was to stick his screwdriver in the breaker to keep the connection open.
The first month was spectacular. The team was in first place and at one point won 12 straight games. Manager “Dirty Al” Gallagher had the team stealing bases at every opportunity, and the speed was intimidating other teams. The crowds were happy and into the games. An important reason was beer.
This was the first time it has ever been legal to sell beer at a baseball game in Durham. North Carolina was fairly regressive when it came to liquor laws, and the City of Durham had passed liquor by the drink only a few years earlier. A few bars were opening up in the city, and one newspaper headlined Durham Athletic Park as “The Best Bar in Town.”
The first season ended as well as it started. Everything seemed to go our way. The team finished in first place in their division for both halves of the season and made the playoffs.
I was on a wave, and I was going to ride it as far as it would take me. The fun of running any business is to see it succeed, but with a minor league club, involvement in the community is important and ownership becomes a great way to know the city and the people.
The Bulls continued to grow. Attendance kept increasing as concession and restroom space were added. Parking never increased but our fans did not seem to care.
The Bulls were riding high. Everything seemed to be bouncing our way. It was difficult to think that the organization could do much better. Then the movie came to Durham.
In the summer of 1986, Mount called and let me know that he was sending a screenwriter to Durham to get a taste of minor league baseball. No indication was given that plans were in the works for a movie in Durham. Thom simply had a baseball script on his desk that needed more minor league flavor.
The screenwriter was Ron Shelton, a former player in the Baltimore Orioles organization. He was good enough to have reached Triple A, but the call to the big leagues never came. He changed professions and ultimately became a screenwriter. Ron certainly knew the minor leagues, but the two weeks he spent with the Bulls brought him back to his first passion. He sat on the bench for most games, and at times would take batting practice.
He was in his element. He wandered around Durham, and by the end of his trip, he was convinced his script should be made in the city. He appreciated the grittiness of the old tobacco factories and a ballpark that was pure minor league. He adjusted his script. It did not take much convincing to have Mount agree that the picture should be made in Durham. Ron was named director of the picture although he had never directed a film before.
Mount became the producer for the Shelton film and the studio gave him an $8 million budget—not particularly generous for a full-length feature film. The leads were Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins, fringe stars at the time. Durham Athletic Park became the main setting for the film, and the Bulls received a minor location fee.
Filming started in September, after the Bulls’ season had finished, and the front office staff was dedicated to helping the movie people. Many of the players stuck around to be part of the different baseball teams in the filming, and the grounds crew set up and put the field in condition for the different scenes.
The working title on the script was Bull Durham. This was the name of the leading smoking tobacco at the turn of the 20th century, produced by tobacco factories in Durham. The name was taken by the local baseball team in 1902. Another title was expected to be given the movie, but as production moved along, the name just seemed to fit.
Many point to Bull Durham as the reason for the Bulls’ success. The franchise was doing extremely well before the release and was one of the top minor league clubs in the country.
However, the movie increased attendance beyond capacity and often made the ballpark difficult to manage. Concessions stands and bathrooms had been added over the years, but these facilities were now inadequate with the growing crowds.
Almost every night fans sat on the grassy bank behind the left field wall, with grandstand and bleacher seating full. The push for a new ballpark started as city officials realized the inadequacies of the old park. Raleigh’s push for a team also gained steam, and Durham wanted to protect the Bulls.
Success often brings competitors, and the Bulls success was being viewed in Raleigh with some amount of envy. By 1983, fans from that city would make the 20-mile drive to view the games. The News and Observer began sending a reporter to cover the games, and the three major TV stations for the market covered the team regularly. The Bulls continued rise in attendance was due in large part to the fact that the team had become a regional attraction.
Raleigh viewed Durham as the weak sister of the Triangle region and began their own plans for a new stadium. A local businessman, Steve Bryant, pushed these plans, and he purchased a Class AA team in Columbus, Georgia, for the purpose of moving it to Raleigh.
I viewed these efforts with much alarm. I had developed a successful team that was a regional draw. If Raleigh obtained a team at a higher level than the Class A Carolina League, the media for the region that was centered in Raleigh would undoubtedly desert the Bulls for the new team.
Professional baseball has what are known as territorial rules to protect franchises and their markets. The rules for minor league baseball at that time stated that no team’s city limits could intrude within ten miles of the city limits of another team. When the Raleigh battle began around 1986, the city limits of Durham and the city limits of Raleigh came close to the 10 mile restriction. Hearings were held with the minor league governing body, lawyers were hired and legal threats were made.
Politics were not my strong suit, but I began a lobbying effort to change the territorial rules. My proposal was that protection needed to be 35 miles from home plate to home plate. Thirty-five miles effectively protected a club for fans who lived within a 30 minute drive to the ballpark. Fortunately, most club owners realized that the new rule would give their clubs much stronger protection. The vote passed.
Ultimately, the Columbus, Georgia, club was moved to Zebulon, 36 miles from Durham. Raleigh fans on the east side of that city could go to Zebulon, but for most Raleigh fans, the Bulls remained the dominant and favored team in the market.
Raleigh’s efforts to obtain a team opened eyes in Durham. The capital city had proposed spending millions on a ballpark. Durham city officials saw this and began to appreciate what the Bulls were doing for their city. The reality was that the ballpark was starting to fall apart.
Momentum gathered for a new stadium, and plans were developed for a new Bulls’ ballpark. As with almost all ballpark projects, opposition surfaced. Strong political leadership should have moved forward on a project that was this positive for the city, but Durham’s city council started listening to the naysayers. The council felt they needed cover and decided a public referendum was the safe way to deflect any political negativity.
The campaign for the new stadium was intense. The public was voting on a $7 million bond issue, and the opposition raised objections that really had no relevance. A Raleigh TV executive, Jim Goodmon, took out full page ads in the Durham newspapers urging voters not to support the referendum. He argued that because the Bulls were really a regional team, a new stadium should be placed somewhere near the airport where it would be convenient to all Triangle residents. He was prepared to help fund a portion of the stadium costs if a regional location could be set.
A victory party was planned at a local restaurant on the election night but there was little confidence or enthusiasm for the event. As results came in, a pall-like silence fell on the attendees. It was clear that the new stadium was dead.
The future of the Bulls was now in doubt. I had made the most of Durham Athletic Park over the 10 years of ownership of the franchise, but the DAP was falling apart and could not be home to a professional franchise for the long term. This was the livelihood for my family, and it was time to get out. The week after the referendum, I received a phone call from Goodmon, the TV executive. He wanted to meet and discuss how to develop his proposal for a new regional stadium. I had fought for the Bulls to stay in Durham and could not see moving the Bulls out of the city.
I met with Goodmon for lunch. He began talking about a regional stadium, but I stopped him. I told him that I was tired of political battles and could not see moving the team. However, if he wanted to buy the team, it was for sale. Goodmon hesitated. He asked for a price, and I gave the figure of $4 million. A week later, he accepted the offer.
Lawyers never make things easy, but by the spring of the next year, everything was signed and the deal completed. I was no longer owner of the Durham Bulls. When the news of the sale hit the media, city officials were shocked. An executive from Raleigh was now the owner, and his proposal was that the team will move. Now one of the gems of the city was about to go.
Within months, plans for a new ballpark on a different downtown Durham site were presented. The cost of this new stadium was more than double what had been in the original plans, but it passed with no need of a referendum. Goodmon, who had been serious on his regional site, saw the community come together to keep the Bulls, and he accepted the new proposal. He had the deep pockets to make these plans work, and his organization became the developer for the massive American Tobacco property. He would later build office buildings surrounding the stadium, and the area became the centerpiece of Durham’s revival.
Within a few years, Goodmon purchased a AAA franchise and the Durham Bulls became one of the top franchises in all of minor league baseball. The team was a national phenomenon, and crowds would average a half million attendance in each year.
As a developer, the American Tobacco project set Durham on a significant upward growth spiral. Downtown Durham came alive and the city became the hottest market in the Triangle. The New York Times would name Durham one of the top 50 cities in the world.
As for me, it was the best outcome that could have happened. At the time, I did not feel it, but with my share of the sales price, my family was financially in a positive position. Now there were resources to develop other projects.
In reality, the sale was the best for the Bulls. My strength was in start-ups. For 10 years I had made do in the old park. With a new stadium on the horizon, the organization needed to grow. Without the funds from the sale, I might not have been able to make the upgrades and additions that a new stadium would need.
I certainly would not have been able to purchase a AAA club and build office towers. Goodmon was able to do everything in a first class manner. The Bulls prospered.
Miles Wolff is the former owner of the Durham Bulls, the Quebec Capitales, the Burlington Royals, and ten other minor league, independent, and summer collegiate teams. He is the former publisher and owner of Baseball America. He lives in Durham.