The Durham Bulls are one of the most well-known teams in minor league baseball, in part because of the hit movie “Bull Durham.” But the team was a success on the field and in the stands before the film.
In his new book, “No Bull: The Real Story of the Rebirth of a Team and a City” (Baseball America/2017), writer Ron Morris details the team’s return to Durham in 1980 and how its success sparked a revitalization of baseball in the city.
On the Durham Bulls iconic manager “Dirty Al”: He got [the nickname] because he was a filthy, dirty person, plain and simple. He had tobacco juice that would come off his chin and drip down onto his clothing. He actually picked up the nickname when he was in college. He went out of the stands the night he was going to attend the prom after the football game. He went out of the stands and entered himself in a greased-pig contest. He chased down the pig, went back into the stands and then went to prom with the pig droppings on his suit. But beyond his nickname he was just a colorful character. Most baseball managers were there solely to develop baseball players. He believed that part of managing a team was also entertaining a crowd. If there was an umpire to be argued with, Dirty Al was going to do it. He would charge onto the field and more times than not most of his tobacco would end up on the clothing, if not the face, of the umpire.
On why “beer was key” for the Bulls in 1980: In 1979 the state of North Carolina, for the first time, allowed the public sale of beer, which played perfectly into the Durham Bulls coming back in 1980. On top of that the drinking age was 18. So the owner Miles Wolff recognized this nice little convergence of rules and laws in a college town. He began. Right off the bat they charged $1 for a 12 ounce beer...They didn’t only have the Duke community coming into the ballpark, they had the entire Triangle community of young adults attending games there. It became, quite frankly, the best bar in town.
On the link between the Bulls and Ted Turner, aka “Captain Outrageous”: Who could forget Ted Turner? He, of course, founded CNN, and he purchased the Atlanta Braves. Well the Braves were just another TV show for them. It was TV programming. He didn’t really much care whether they won or lost. He was in the business of providing an entertainment show on his network. One season, this was around 1976, he decided he wanted to manage the Atlanta Braves. So he put on a uniform and went into the dugout and managed one game for the Braves, and they lost. It continued a 13-game losing streak. The commissioner of baseball stepped in and said, “No, there is a little known rule that you can’t both own the team and manage the team.” So Ted Turner took off his uniform for the one and only time, went to front office, and the next week was greeted by many people in the front office staff on the baseball side of it. They had decided they were going to quit. They’d had enough of Turner and the way he was running this baseball franchise. So he sat down with Bill Lucas, who was the general manager at the time — the first black general manager in baseball history. He had a great amount of respect for Bill Lucas. So Lucas told him, “This is no way to run a baseball franchise. You need to stop signing free agents, stop treating it as a TV show and pump all your money into the minor leagues and develop players. Then we will build a consistent championship team.” Part of that need for developing players was more minor league teams, and one of the teams they added was a high-class A team in Durham.
On the origins of the hit movie “Bull Durham”: Tom Mount, who was director of Universal Studios at the time, was a Durham native. Ron Shelton was the director of the movie, and he wrote the script. Tom Mount wanted the movie to be filmed in Durham, but he didn’t tell Ron Shelton that. He sent him out on a two-week mission on North and South Carolina to pick out all the old standing ballparks to pick out which one he thought would fit best for the film. And Shelton came back after the trip, and he told Tom Mount there is no question. It’s Durham.
Morris reads Saturday, June 24 at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh at 2 p.m.