The rich tradition and history of the Durham Bulls illustrates, in many ways, how the minor leagues in the United States have evolved. Durham has been a baseball town since 1902, when the Durham Bulls took the field for the first time in George Lyon Ball Park as a member of the North Carolina State Professional Baseball League. The Bulls' name came from the town's most successful industry at the time -- tobacco -- and most popular brand of tobacco, Bull Durham. (The movie came later!)
Early leagues opened and folded and shut down on several occasions due to World War I, the Depression and World War II. The team won its first league championship in 1924. And the ballpark, which had undergone two name changes, echoed the team's moniker with the new name, El Toro ("the bull" in Spanish) Park in 1926.
Durham began its first major league affiliation in 1933 with the New York Yankees. Following that season, local philanthropists donated $20,000 to the city, which purchased El Toro and renamed it once again -- this time to Durham Athletic Park, or what locals call the DAP. This park, located near downtown Durham's tobacco warehouses (now used for other functions), became an integral part of the community, drawing families and sports fans from across the region to the charming, traditional baseball park. (Locals so loved the DAP that the Bulls feared they would not accept the new, larger DBAP (Durham Bulls Athletic Park), when it was opened in 1995).
Over the years, the Durham Bulls have been affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds (1936-40), the Brooklyn Dodgers (1941-47), the Detroit Tigers (1948-61), the National League expansion team Houston Astros (1962-66), the other National League expansion team New York Mets (1967-69) and the Philadelphia Phillies (1969-72). The Bulls' longest relationship (to date) was with the Atlanta Braves, starting in 1980 and ending in 1996, when the Bulls were granted a Triple-A franchise with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for a team in the International League.
Other historic moments over the years included:
- June 1939 - Fire burned the DAP to the ground, resulting in $100,000 in damage. (According to Bulls' official history, groundskeeper Walter Williams, who slept under the stands, escaped through the center field gate.) After an amazing two-week reconstruction project, the Bulls were back playing in the DAP. Photo courtesy Durham Bulls Crash Davis, the player whose story inspired the movie "Bull Durham," throwing out a Durham Bulls game ball in 1999, more than 50 years after he played on the team Photo courtesy Durham Bulls The famous bull, with his flashing eyes, wagging tail and smoking nostrils, was left to the Bulls after the making of the movie "Bull Durham."
- 1987 - "Bull Durham," starring Kevin Costner as a minor league player on his way out, was done primarily at the DAP and other area locations. The story was loosely based on the life of Durham minor leaguer Crash Davis, who played in the late 1940s. The movie's 1988 release put the Durham Bulls -- and other minor league teams -- in the national limelight. (The famous snorting bull, originally intended as a prop for the movie, remains at the DBAP, where his eyes flash red, his tail wags and smoke pours from his nose when the "good guys" hit a homer. Last season for the first time, the guy who "operated" the bull from inside its wooden frame, was relieved from duty when technical improvements enabled staff to remotely operate El Toro.)
- June 1989 - Team owner Miles Wolff asked the City of Durham to build a new, larger ballpark so that Durham could qualify for a Triple-A franchise. (Triple-A ballparks have to have the same dimensions and characteristics as major league parks.) The city agreed to pay for a new ballpark using certificates of participation -- a financing plan that later changed to include $11.28 million in county general obligation bonds, which would require voter approval and $5.02 million in city money. The voters rejected the bond issue for the new stadium, and the debate about whether the city should build a new ballpark raged among fans and in local government meetings.
- August 1990 - Average game attendance of 6,202 at the DAP (considerably beyond its seating capacity) pushed Durham's attendance to 300,499, making it the first Carolina League team ever to pass the 300,000 mark. (Today, Bulls' attendance continues to place them, along with Triple-A teams in Buffalo and Indianapolis, in the top half dozen minor league teams in the nation.)
- March 1991 - Jim Goodmon, president of Capitol Broadcasting Co., bought the Bulls from Wolff and made plans to shift the team to a new park he would build on a site near Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Later that year, Durham leaders rallied to the cause of keeping the team in town by offering millions to renovate the DAP or help build a new stadium.
- 1991 - Infielder Joe Morgan became the first (former) Durham Bull to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
- May 1992 - The City of Durham agreed that the new park would be built on a 10.28-acre site just off the freeway in downtown Durham and negotiated a 20-year lease with the Durham Bulls. The council agreed to finance the project -- which ended up costing more than $16 million -- using certificates of participation (and avoiding another bond referendum).
- July 1992 - The Bulls unveiled their new mascot, Wool E. Bull, the winning entry in a local contest to name the lovable mascot. (The "E" in his name stands for "Education" and he lives up to that name by his annual involvement with children, schools and community groups, Crichton says.)
- April 1995 - Seven years after Wolff's original proposal, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park opened its doors for its inaugural season. Fans, mollified by the fact that the beloved old DAP would be used for other local concerts and athletic events, turned out en masse.
- November 1996 - After a couple of near-misses, a joint application of the Bulls and the Devil Rays was accepted and Durham was granted a Triple-A franchise by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.
- April 1998 - The Bulls took to the field in their first season as the Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. (The ballpark had undergone additional renovations -- such as raising the left field wall to make the degree of hitting difficulty comparable to that of other Triple-A parks.)
Minor leagues expert Lacy Lusk told HowStuffWorks that the Durham Bulls were among the early leaders of the modern-times minor league "boom." "The Bulls -- even before the movie "Bull Durham" came out -- were a popular team. Since the same players rarely stay with a team for more than a couple of years, loyalty should definitely be built up around the brand, the ballpark or simply the entertainment value of the game," he said. "Winning and losing has little to do with a minor league team's success at the gate, and the Bulls' operators understand that. With a new ballpark and their name recognition, the Bulls have been one of the teams at the front of the minor league boom we're still experiencing."