Last year, Johnny Pesky, the legendary short stop for the Boston Red Sox known affectionately as “needle-nose,” passed away at age 92 following 60+ years in professional baseball.
I am a lifelong New York Yankees fan and by the time I came of age as a sports fan in 1956 -- about the age my grandsons have now -- Pesky was long-gone from the Red Sox and managing the Durham Bulls. These were the years before the team was made famous by the 1988 movie which hit the screen less than a year before Durham, North Carolina became my adopted home.
My claim to fame as a Bulls fan is that I was first to suggest suggest the 1965 hit song Wooly Bully by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs as the team’s theme song during games. That in turn inspired the team’s mascot, suggested by a friend and Durham Innkeeper, Jim Vickery.
I also reminded the new ownership when I arrived that Hall-of-Fame second baseman and broadcaster, Joe Morgan, whom I had met in Oakland just before relocating to Durham, began his career here in 1963, when things were still segregated in the southeast. The team retired his number in 1993.
In the mid-1950s, as I was growing up in the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho and coming of age as a sports fan, there were no major league teams in the West, so you had favorite teams back east such as the Dodgers in Brooklyn, the Yankees or Giants in New York or the Red Sox in Boston.
However, you also had favorite teams in the Pacific Coast League (PCL), then almost as famous. Pesky had cleaned the bullpens for the PCL’s Portland Beavers as a youngster and later broke into pro baseball with the Hollywood Stars, which went on to become the San Diego Padres.
During my recent break, my memories were refreshed while reading the late David Halberstam’s 2004 book, The Teammates – A Portrait of Friendship. He tells the story of Pesky, Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr and Dom DiMaggio -- all west coasters -- as two of the friends traveled one last time to visit the failing Williams. Doerr’s wife had had a stroke in Oregon, so he could not accompany them on the trip.
In 1956, with Pesky managing the Durham Bulls, I was out in Idaho and got home from school on October 8th to the family ranch in time to see Don Larson complete pitching a perfect game in the World Series in which the Yankees went on to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers for the fourth time in five years.
By 1958, the Dodgers and Giants had relocated to the west coast and the PCL was bringing pro baseball to the Intermountain West, admitting the Salt Lake City Bees and the Spokane Indians, farm teams then for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the LA Dodgers respectively.
I remained a Yankees fan but I remember as I helped friends stomp out room enough to play in five-foot-drifts of snow, hearing them debate whether their allegiances would move west as well.
I didn’t learn until later that greed was the reason for the Dodgers move. They were drawing well in Brooklyn but the owner demanded a new stadium and LA obliged. But MLB owners agreed to the move, only if the NY Giants would also move, something the owners hoped would jumpstart that team in San Francisco.
Pro football came to the west coast much earlier but in my younger years, college teams such as Idaho, Oregon, Montana, BYU and the University of Southern California were more popular.
The National Football League (NFL) Los Angeles Rams (now St. Louis) relocated there in 1946 after winning the NFL championship the year before. They had played as the Cleveland Rams since 1937. That’s the year my dad was released from the US Army following the end of WWII and pre-history for me.
As I came of age I liked the Rams, but for some reason I was much more drawn to the former teams of the All-America Football Conference such as the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Colts (until they stole away to Indianapolis in the middle of the night.) That league also spawned the original Cleveland Browns (until they moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens.)
The NFL absorbed those teams from the defunct AAFC in 1950 before I became conscious of sports, but I’ve never been a fan of the “musical chairs” sports franchise owners play or for that matter the “musical chairs” free agency has brought to player loyalty.
I had no consciousness of the Durham Bulls until I saw the movie, but I hadn’t been in Durham more than an hour after having been recruited to jump-start the community’s first official marketing agency, before it became abundantly clear the identity of the team and the community were inseparable.
Just over a year later Raleigh interests bought the Bulls and were promised funding if the team was moved to Raleigh/Wake County setting of a campaign to undermine Durham efforts to accommodate the team and the new owners.
Fans -- half of whom lived in other communities such as Raleigh -- weighed in, telling researchers they would not be as likely to attend if the team was separated from its Durham context.
All is redeemed today as the Bulls play in the City of Durham’s larger, more contemporary but retro-ballpark. Those same Raleigh-interests have ingratiated themselves in Durham by surrounding the ballpark with real estate developments including the impeccable adaptive-reuse of the Lucky Strike and Old Bull tobacco factories, incentivized by the City and County of Durham.
Durham residents didn’t turn their back on the old Durham Athletic Park which was too small to permit the new Bulls’ ownership from moving to Triple A. Unfortunately, that was done in part to exercise a Minor League clause to clear a radius from Durham sure to deny a team in Raleigh.
Recently, the historic DAP was lovingly restored using voter-approved bonds and is now home to the NCCU Eagles baseball team.
The late Art Model, who infamously moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, is quoted by authors Michael Leeds and Peter von Allen as saying, “The pride and the presence of a professional football team is far more important than 30 libraries.”
Having some background in the creation and measurement of both community pride and community and economic development, I think that is an incredibly absurd and self-serving claim for any business person to make.
I look forward to an era, where like with the Durham Bulls, owners come to gain an appreciation of how important their home communities are to their success, regardless from where they draw fans, rather than just how important the teams are to communities.