Open Durham: DURHAM ATHLETIC PARK

Dec. 22, 2012 @ 08:31 PM

500 West Corporation Street  

Cross street: Washington Street

Built: 1926/ modified in 1939

Architect/Designers: Carr, George Watts Sr.

Construction type: Steel frame

Neighborhood: Central Park

Type: Institutional

Use: Baseball Stadium

Despite the preeminence of basketball in North Carolina today, baseball seems to be far more tightly woven into Durham's DNA.

Local baseball teams were formed in Durham as early as the 1870s -- in 1875, the

"Eno Bottom Rangers" of Hillsborough played against the "Durham Base Ball Club."

Baseball games were a common local pastime, with a bevy of non-professional teams. Across from Maplewood Cemetery (which itself almost became a baseball field) the first night baseball games were played in what was then called the "George Lyon Ball Park." The history of the Durham Bulls seems to have as many versions as there are sources - I've tried my best to summarize the most consistent elements.

By 1901 several local businessmen affiliated with the Durham Athletic

Association attempted to pull together a team to play in the Virginia-Carolina league (or perhaps the Class C North Carolina League.) It seems that by 1902, a

"Durham Bulls" team was established. The Durham Bulls' website inconsistently refers to this early team as the "Tobacconists" or the Bulls. The team evidently played on the Trinity College field - at the north end of what is now Duke's East Campus. The team had disappeared again by July of that same year.

City baseball, however, continued to thrive. By 1907, the Durham Hosiery Mill had fielded a baseball team comprised of employees, and in 1909 the Durham

Traction Company built a ballpark on North Driver Street, at the later site of East Durham Junior High School.

By 1910, a Durham city league was established, with teams from the Hosiery Mill, the YMCA, East Durham and West Durham.

In 1913, a more successful attempt to establish professional baseball in Durham was undertaken. That year, the North Carolina League was re-formed, and the local team was again named the "Durham Bulls" - a Class D farm team for the Cincinnati Reds. The Bulls played in the East Durham ballpark as well.

The games were interrupted for World War I, and then the league disbanded.

The Piedmont League was established in 1919, and the Bulls were one of the members. The Bulls were successful, and in 1926, private funds were raised to build a new ballpark closer to downtown, near Corporation and Morris Streets. The $160,000 facility was known as El Toro

Ballpark. The first game was played at El Toro July 7, 1926.

In 1930, the Bulls won the Piedmont league, but the financial backers of the park were struggling in the Depression. John Sprunt Hill gave the city $20,000 to buy the park in 1933 with the stipulation that, were it ever sold, the funds should be used to buy additional land for recreation. El Toro Park was renamed Durham Athletic Park.

From 1932 to the 1940s, Durham was the headquarters of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. In 1932, the Bulls became a farm team for the Phillies. In 1933, the Bulls became a farm team for the Yankees, but by 1934 the

Bulls had folded due to the Depression. In 1936, the Wilmington Piedmont League team, a Cincinnati Reds farm team, moved to Durham, and was renamed the "Durham Bulls."

On June 17, 1939, the original stadium burned. The city hired

George Watts Carr to design a new ballpark, again paid for by John Sprunt Hill.

The result was the present Durham Athletic Park, with its signature conical tower at the entrance. The wooden structure of the original ballpark was replaced with concrete and steel.

By 1940, the team had become a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers. World War II put a strain on baseball leagues, and the team folded again in 1944. In 1945, the Bulls were re-established as a Red Sox Farm Club in the Class C Carolina League. By 1948, they had switched to the Detroit Tigers.

Interest in baseball slowly waned over the 1950s and 1960s. In 1962, the Bulls became a farm club for the expansion Houston Colt .45s. In 1968, the Raleigh and Durham teams merged, becoming the Raleigh-Durham Mets.

They split home games between the Durham Athletic Park and Raleigh's Devereaux Meadow. In 1970, the combined team was renamed "The Triangles" (inspired, eh) and folded in 1971.

No baseball was played in Durham until 1980, when Miles Wolff developed an expansion franchise in the Carolina League - farm team for the Atlanta Braves named, once again, the Durham Bulls.

The Bulls developed a following again, and attendance grew. The

1988 movie "Bull Durham" made the Bulls one of the most recognizable minor league franchises -- if not the most recognizable.

But the success of the Bulls nearly took them away from Durham again. The 'deterioration' of the Durham Athletic Park had prompted calls for a new facility, and the city made plans to build a new stadium on the University Ford Site downtown. The 1990 referendum failed, in no small part due to strong editorializing by Jim Goodman, who had acquired an option to purchase the team and wanted to move the Bulls near the airport.

Fortunately, the city made a strong and, at the time, controversial choice to build a new ballpark anyway, on a former American Tobacco parking lot to the east of American Tobacco.

This was completed in 1995, and the Bulls moved to their new stadium (the Durham

Bulls Athletic Park) that year; they became an AAA franchise in 1998.

The Durham Athletic Park has hosted its share of events and baseball games since them - semi-pro teams, the Durham Dragons Softball teams, events like the Blues Festival and Beer Fest.