The sun was shining, the temperature was in the 70s, and the crowd of over 2,000 was in a festive spirit at McCormick Field the afternoon of April 16, 1959. After a three-year absence, professional baseball was back in Asheville.
Playing their home opener, the Class-A Tourists fell to Georgia’s Columbus Pirates that day. But the loss didn’t seem to dampen the community’s mood.
“The fans came to see a game and they saw a good one,” sportswriter Richard Morris wrote in The Asheville Citizen the next day. “In the main they were pleased with what they saw and they’ll be back again.”
That sunny afternoon 64 years ago marked a milestone in Asheville sports history. Every season since 1959 that minor league baseball has been played, McCormick Field has been home to a team, usually called the Tourists. The city has hosted multiple franchises across multiple leagues during that span, but it never has been without a professional ball club.
That could change in 2024.
The Tourists’ ownership group is seeking about $30 million from the city of Asheville, Buncombe County and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to pay for renovations to McCormick Field. The upgrades are needed, club officials say, because Major League Baseball implemented a rigorous set of facility standards for minor league stadiums in 2020.
Without a financing plan in place by the start of April, the team says, the Tourists will relocate to a new city after the upcoming season. The Tourists are owned by the family of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and DeWine Seeds Silver Dollar Baseball and lease McCormick Stadium from the city for $1 a year.
Those parties continue to talk, and Asheville City Council is scheduled to take up a resolution regarding McCormick Field funding on Tuesday, Jan. 24. Council member Sage Turner is optimistic an agreement can be reached.
“I get concerned that we are losing family amenities,” Turner says. “My inbox has been filled with hundreds of emails of families recalling outings they’ve enjoyed over the years. This is obviously a community asset in the most communal, celebratory way.”
The specifics are new, but the story is familiar. Over the past six decades, Asheville has come close to losing a minor league team several times, with the condition of McCormick Field often cited as the reason.
Time after time, a combination of private investors and civic leaders has led the charge to make sure the city has a team. City and county governments have spent money on improvements to the ballpark over the years, says Bill Ballew, author of A History of Professional Baseball in Asheville. But the most significant investment they’ve ever made, he argues, was building the original McCormick Field in 1924.
1950s: Meet the new Tourists
Professional baseball in Asheville dates back to a team called the Moonshiners in 1897; the Tourists name was first used in 1915. In 1924, a team by that name started playing at McCormick Field, which was built into a downtown hillside by the city for $200,000 (about $3.5 million in today’s dollars). For 18 of the next 19 seasons, the stadium was home to a club called the Tourists.
Asheville had no white minor league team from 1943-1945 due to World War II — although the segregated Asheville Black Tourists and Blues continued to play pro ball — but in 1946, yet another iteration of the Tourists started competing in the Tri-State League.
By 1955, the Tourists were one of just four teams left in the league, later described by Asheville Citizen sports editor Bob Terrell as “a fly-by-night operation.” The league folded after that season, leaving Asheville without professional baseball. Few people in town mourned the loss.
“For the past few years operation of the Tourists has been a sadly losing proposition,” Terrell wrote in 1956. “Attendance declined steadily; fans found other entertainment at their fingertips; even the special night attractions failed to lure enough cash customers through the gates.”
With no professional team in town, the city built a quarter-mile, dirt-surfaced oval track around the baseball diamond and began holding weekly stock car races. But the national pastime was never far from the mind of Fleming Talman, president of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. Talman also headed up nonprofit Community Baseball Inc., a group of business leaders that had first banded together in 1955 to try to keep the Tourists in town.
Through the efforts of Talman and others, Asheville was awarded an expansion team in the Class-A South Atlantic League in late 1958. The new team initially was dubbed the Ridge Runners, but public outcry forced a change. The Tourists lived again.
The city first had to terminate its lease with the racing promoters and make McCormick Field playable after three years of stock car races. City Council agreed to make the necessary changes, which City Manager J. Weldon Weir said were “not a great financial burden.”
Asheville landed the team mostly by default, says baseball historian Ballew. The Sally League was expanding, and few other cities in the region had a viable ballpark.
“McCormick Field wasn’t in terrible shape; it wasn’t in great shape,” he explains. “It was just a ballpark. But that’s what things were back then. They weren’t these palaces that a lot of the teams have nowadays.”
1970s: Birds fly the coop
Minor league baseball’s future in the city was once again in jeopardy when the Chicago White Sox moved their Class-AA farm club from Asheville to Knoxville, Tenn., following the 1971 season. And once again, local baseball was saved through the efforts of Talman and private investors.
Al Harazin, a former lawyer from Cincinnati, paid $10,000 for a controlling stake in the team, while Talman and local banker George Chumbley Jr. organized a stock sale of $10 per share to match Harazin’s investment. In 1972, Harazin’s team became affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles, and its name was changed to the Asheville Orioles.
“Frankly, if you want a straight opinion, the name is for the Birds!” Terrell wrote in the Citizen-Times in January 1972. “A new identity is not what the team needs. What it really needs is more law enforcement and better lighting around the park during games to protect fans and their automobiles.”
As part of its lease with the Orioles, City Council did agree to several improvements to McCormick Field, including upgraded lighting and refurbished right field bleachers. “Those improvements alone would have been necessary to get any major league outfit to take a second look at Asheville,” Citizen-Times Sports Director Larry Pope wrote at the time.
From 1972-74, the Class-AA Asheville O’s were managed by Cal Ripken Sr., whose son, Cal Ripken Jr., served as bat boy and starred as a pitcher and infielder for the Matthew’s Ford team in the West Asheville Little League. The younger Ripken would go on to a Hall of Fame baseball career in Baltimore.
But by the end of the 1975 season, the Orioles were ready to leave the mountains. Asheville AA Baseball Inc., the group headed by Chumbley that owned the team, had $18,000 in debt, and the big league Orioles had no intention of absorbing it. The franchise moved to Charlotte.
“It is difficult to find fault with the Asheville operation,” Pope wrote on Nov. 6, 1975. “The local leadership was energetic and McCormick Field had become a fine place to spend a family evening, comfortable and colorful. The [Baltimore] Orioles had everything a club could want at a pittance. Asheville paid for a new clubhouse. Asheville paid for maintenance. Asheville paid for rebuilding the infield.”
Asheville was without a team for the first time since the 1950s — only for a month or so.
In December 1975, Chumbley struck a deal to bring South Carolina’s Anderson Rangers, part of the Class-A Western Carolinas League, to Asheville. City Council approved a lease agreement for the team to move to McCormick Field for $2,000 annually, with the Texas Rangers paying up to $700 a month for water and lighting. The team was renamed the Tourists.
Once again, Asheville was in the right place at the right time. Anderson’s ballpark was in terrible shape, and the struggling Western Carolinas League was happy to move into a bigger market with a viable stadium, Ballew says.
199os: Tear it all down
By the early 1990s, McCormick Field was on its last legs.
“It is rusted and rotted beneath patchwork repairs and cosmetic coats of paint,” Pope wrote in the Citizen-Times on Feb. 24, 1990. “It is an archaic structure in terminal condition.”
At the time, Buncombe County controlled the stadium because of a complex deal struck with the city in the 1980s. County commissioners were faced with the reality that major changes were needed if Asheville hoped to keep the Tourists, by then an affiliate of the Houston Astros.
Officials mulled the idea of building a new stadium on a 30-acre site in Arden. Eventually, however, commissioners approved spending $2.5 million to tear down McCormick Field’s rotting wooden grandstand, along with the rest of the ballpark, and replace it on the same site with a brick-framed concrete structure. The cost eventually rose to $3 million (about $6.3 million in today’s dollars).
Among the features of the new stadium were more comfortable and less obstructed seats, expanded concession areas, brighter lighting, a large plaza area, nine 22-foot arches over the plaza walkway and a cantilevered roof covering the middle portion of the grandstand.
When it opened in 1992, many praised the new stadium, but Ballew says corners were cut during construction. He says the facility was obsolete almost from the moment it opened because a slew of minor league parks with “all the bells and whistles” were constructed soon after.
“Most people will tell you it’s absolutely terrible; it’s one of the worst facilities in baseball,” Ballew says. “With these draconian demands Major League Baseball is making, it’s kind of a difficult situation for Asheville. But whether MLB had done these things or not, [the Tourists] still needed to have improvements made to McCormick Field in order for them to stay there.”
Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.