Written by Roger McCredie | Photos by Anthony Harden & Courtesy of the Asheville Tourists
On a foggy morning in March, McCormick Field is part empty theater, part haunted house. Stand on the pitcher’s mound and look westward towards home plate and beyond at the ranks of mist-shrouded seats. In just a few weeks the stands will be alive. The crowd’s movement will be constant; its noise punctuated by announcements over the PA system and organ fanfares (“da-da-da-DAH, da-DAHHHHH!”).
But for now there is silence; drop your gaze to the plate itself, exactly sixty feet and six inches away. If you squint into the veil of fog, you may see a series of ghostly figures walking over from the on-deck circle. Men in uniforms of baggy, dirt-smeared flannel, with curiously antiquated knee socks and shoes with wicked-looking spikes.
Here’s one, a tall fellow, heavily suntanned, with an easy gait and a pleasant Dutch grin. (That would be Gehrig.) And another, black and powerful, with eyes that have seen much, swinging a 34-inch bat in vicious little warmup arcs. (That would be Robinson.)
Or squint a little harder and you’re standing in not-yet-McCormick Field, looking down the first-base line at the makeshift dugout of the Asheville Moonshiners. There among the players is the manager, not-yet-a-legend, Jack Corbett. During the season he stays at Mrs. Wolfe’s boarding house, Dixieland. And the gangly, falling-all-over-himself kid with him? That’s Mrs. Wolfe’s youngest boy, Tom. Corbett recruited him as batboy. Tom’s older brother, Ben, sometimes mans the scoreboard, swapping out the numbers for runs and innings and cracking wise at the fans around him. Everybody likes Ben.
If that’s what you’re seeing, you’ve squinted yourself back in time exactly a century. It’s 1915. Next year Tom Wolfe will go off to college and later he’ll write books. He’ll write about Ben’s death from influenza three years from now, and he’ll rename Jack Corbett “Nebraska Crane” and make “Crane” one of his best-drawn characters.
A hundred years. That’s a long time to play baseball.
League baseball actually came to Asheville around 1897, when the Asheville Moonshiners (honest) took the field, and it has been played continuously, in one form or another, by one organization or another, ever since. The Moonshiners morphed into the Redbirds, who were replaced by the Mountaineers. Then, in 1915 – the same season that Jack Corbett secured Tom Wolfe’s services as batboy — some wag observed that the entire roster was composed of players from “off” and quipped: “Hell, these guys are nothin’ but a bunch of tourists.” The name stuck. And it was in that same banner year that Asheville’s own baseball team, with its nickname now made official, brought home its first championship.
But it was nearly a decade before the resident ball club actually had a residence. In 1924, at a hefty cost of $200,000, the city constructed a proper stadium and named it for Dr. Lewis McCormick, who was at that time the only bacteriologist in town. McCormick had garnered notoriety and the thanks of the city for his “Swat That Fly!” campaign, which educated folks as to how the common housefly was a vector of all manner of disease and encouraged them to be aggressive in destroying them. Naming the field for McCormick was doubly appropriate, in that young men have been swatting flies in the Old Ball Yard ever since.
The city lost its baseball franchise (along with pretty much everything else) during the Great Depression. But in 1934 the Columbia Sandlappers upped stakes from the banks of the Congaree and moved, bags, bats, baggage, and franchise, to McCormick Field. As FDR had promised, happy days were here again. Furthermore, during the same period, arc lights were installed at McCormick Field. With the arrival of night baseball, local productivity increased in proportion to a decrease in worker absenteeism on game days.
One day in 1926 a stocky man with a peculiar waddling gait visited the new stadium. He stood here on the pitcher’s mound, where you are still staring into the mist, and said: “My, my, what a beautiful place to play. Delightful. Damned delightful place!” That was Babe Ruth’s take on McCormick Field.
On his first visit to Asheville, the previous year, Ruth hadn’t even made it to the ballpark.
The New York Yankees, who were traveling back north from spring training in Florida were scheduled to meet the Brooklyn Dodgers at McCormick Field for an exhibition game to mark the opening of the 1925 season on April 14. But it was a green-around-the-gills Ruth who disembarked at Asheville the day before. In fact, the first thing he did upon entering the station was to faint.
[quote float=”right”]“Our job,” Brian says, “is to market what’s on the front of the uniforms, not what’s on the back. The name and numbers – that’s the Rockies’ department. The logo – that’s ours.”[/quote]
Now The Babe had not been feeling well for several weeks, but those familiar with his larger-than-life persona, including his extravagant fondness for booze and rich food, put his peakiness down to partying. But Babe had contracted the flu just as the team was leaving Sarasota and had been feeling woozy during the whole trip. He was whisked off to his suite at the Battery Park Hotel, where he was watched over by a local doctor, A. S. Jordan, and was shipped on to New York the next day.
By that time the rumor mill was in overdrive and the press reported that Ruth was believed to have died in Asheville, his corpse spirited away to avoid publicity. This came as news to Ruth, who had arrived at New York’s St. Vincent’s Hospital and promptly underwent surgery for what was described as an “intestinal abscess.” (He missed the first few weeks of regular play, but joined the team on June 1 and finished the season without incident.) The media laughed at themselves (they did that in those days) and called the whole incident “The Bellyache Heard Round The World.” Five years later, Babe and the rest of the Yankees, including Babe’s pal and alter ego, Lou Gehrig, were back in town, winning another exhibition game.
The 30s were team-building years for the Tourists, first under former major league outfielder Possum Whitted, then under Billy Southworth (who would go on to guide the St. Louis Cardinals to two World Series), and finally under ex-White Sox fielder Hal Anderson. Anderson’s 1939 Tourists brought home the league championship trophy.
World War II forced the suspension of regular league play, but Asheville had its baseball nevertheless. Ad hoc Tourists teams shared McCormick with the recently formed Asheville Blues of the old Negro League. And in 1948 Ashevillians got a look at the future: The Dodgers came to town again, bringing with them big Number 42, Jackie Robinson, who had single handedly broken major league baseball’s color barrier. That was the same year that the Tourists, under former Cubs pitcher Clay Bryant, walked off with the Tri-State League championship.
But darkness descended again in the mid-50s, when the Tri-State League folded after several years of declining health during which it had been kept alive by contributions from Community Baseball, Inc.(CBI), a nonprofit formed expressly to keep the local game from going under. By 1955 CBI had done all it could and McCormick’s gates were locked, to remain so for three years. That was when a local business owner, Wesley Talman, stepped up to the plate and helped establish a farm club relationship with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Once it became obvious that Asheville loved its baseball and would avidly support it given the opportunity, other national clubs actually bid for the right to associate with the little team in the nice stadium in the beautiful place. During the 1960s the tourists served as a double-A farm club, with both the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds, bringing home another championship in 1968 under the aegis of Sparky Anderson, who would go on to a long and colorful career as manager of the Reds themselves. The seasons came and went, as did the players, many of whom went on to make it in the majors. And McCormick sat tucked into the side of its wooded hill and hosted the fans, the out-of-towners looking for something to do and, even more, the locals, who came to spend an evening or a summer Sunday afternoon at the Old Ball Yard.
And now you may be aware that the fog has lifted, the morning sun is shining brightly on a very modern structure, built in 1992, with a cantilevered roof, three types of modern, comfortable seating, and a concourse running behind the whole structure, housing space for various vendors who, come April, will be selling everything from beer to hot dogs to funnel cakes. The sprinklers are on now in the outfield and a platoon of workers is raking and rolling the infield dirt and meticulously weed-eating along the base lines. McCormick Field emerging from winter is a study in manicured emerald grass and groomed red clay. The ghosts have fled with the fog, and it’s time to meet the present inheritor of the Great Tradition.
That would be Brian DeWine, a slender Ohioan and offspring of a baseball-loving family who were in the seed and twine business.
That’s right: seed. And twine. And baseball. To those who know the DeWines’ family history (of which you, gentle reader, are about to be one), it all makes sense.
[quote float=”right”]He stood here on the pitcher’s mound, where you are still staring into the mist, and said: “My, my, what a beautiful place to play. Delightful. Damned delightful place!” That was Babe Ruth’s take on McCormick Field. [/quote]
The DeWines hail from Greene County, Ohio. Brian’s father, Mike, is a former United States Senator from Ohio and is also presently serving as that state’s attorney general. And Mike’s parents (Brian’s grandparents) were Dick and Jean DeWine, who owned DeWine Seeds and later acquired the Ohio Twine Company. The senior DeWines both died in 2008.
In 2010 the family, led by Mike DeWine, formed an LLC called DeWine Seeds Silver Dollar Baseball. And shortly thereafter, that company acquired – wait for it – the Asheville Tourists franchise, which by now was affiliated with the Colorado Rockies. Brian, a 2002 graduate of Clemson, was installed as president.
“It took about a year for us to get our legs under us,” says Brian from his office near the outfield. “We let that first season play itself out while we sort of sat back and took notes. Then we started making adjustments that we thought would improve attendance and the Tourists experience. So far we’ve been right.”
One change was the moving of Saturday evening game time back an hour to six p.m. “At six, during the season, the sun is still up,” he says. “People with kids can have them home and in bed by nine or so. Also, it’s suppertime. They can eat out right here at the park. It’s easier for them, the kids love it, and the food’s good.” (The DeWines own the concessions, which are overseen by a third-party business, and they are in charge of operations at the park; all baseball and administrative decisions are made by the Rockies organization.)
By concentrating on family attendance, Brian continues the family-friendly policy instituted by Ron McKee, the promotion-savvy manager of McCormick Field during the 1980s and 90s. McKee’s philosophy was, “I want to treat the fans like I had invited them into my living room.” It was McKee who introduced merchandise giveaways and between-innings fan contests; the former induces the parents to buy programs, the latter to keep restive kids amused.
“We’ve introduced more merchandise giveaways, more fireworks, – everybody loves fireworks – and upped the kids’ free ticket age from two and a half years to five years. That’s a greater inducement to get young families out here,” Brian says.
Branding has also undergone a change. The team mascot and logo, Tedd E. Tourist, a teddy bear in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, has stepped into the background. The merchandise for sale in the well-stocked team store, next to the ticket office, features a logo changed from the familiar swash “A” to a more formal block “A” with mountains behind it, and the full insignia now also includes a moon – homage to the old Moonshiners. “Our job,” Brian says, “is to market what’s on the front of the uniforms, not what’s on the back. The name and numbers – that’s the Rockies’ department. The logo – that’s ours.”
“We’re like all teams,” Brian continues. “Our biggest challenge is the weather. The field will be tarped early on if it starts to rain, but we can untarp it instantly when the rain lets up. If it looks like the rain will hamper attendance, though, we’ll go ahead and call the game. Once we’re on the field, though, and fans are in place, we’ll play in anything short of a hurricane.”
“This is definitely a baseball town,” he continues, “even if the great percentage of attendees don’t follow the team’s progress. They’re here to watch real baseball – maybe baseball at its purest level— in person instead of on television. They can be passionate about the Yankees or the Dodgers or whoever at home. They come here for the experience of sharing in the game first hand. I’ll bet you ninety percent of them couldn’t tell you next day what the score was. But they had a good time. At least that’s what we hope.”
Leaving this historic place, it’s hard to avoid looking up at the currently unlit scoreboard. The top row of numbers is marked “Visitors.” The bottom is marked “Tourists.”
People get a kick out of that.
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