A look back at Asheville’s precarious pro baseball history

ROOT FOR THE HOME TEAM: McCormick Field has been home to multiple minor league baseball teams in Asheville for nearly a century. Photo courtesy of the Asheville Tourists

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.

BOYS OF SUMMER: After a three-year absence, minor league baseball returned to Asheville in 1959 when the city landed an expansion team in the South Atlantic League. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County Special Collections Pack Memorial Library

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.

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About Justin McGuire
Justin McGuire is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate with more than 30 years of experience as a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Sporting News, the (Rock Hill, SC) Herald and various other publications. Follow me @jmcguireMLB

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13 thoughts on “A look back at Asheville’s precarious pro baseball history

  1. Richard P

    So, if the Tourists leave we save the expenditure of $30 million PLUS we either get new park space or we sell the land to develop into much needed housing and add how many millions in tax dollars, which could be used to, say, help repair our decrepit infrastructure? How is there even a debate about this?

  2. Mike Rains

    The current owners are “pitching in” (no pun intended) very little of their own money for the $30M upgrades. And on the upgrades, the public has still not been given a clear list of “requried by MLB” and “desired” by the owners, and the associated costs of each. Finally, the owners so far have been unwilling to release several years of summary fiancial statements for this business, which seems like a totally reasonable thing to do when a private business expects the public to pay $30M to support their business.

    I do agree it would be “nice” to have the Tourists remain in Asheville (actually I doubt there is anywhere else for them to go as minor league baseball is in a freefall, economically); however, like most things Asheville, we seem to have a very hard time differentiating between what is “needed” and what is “desired”; often supporting the “desired” over the “needed”. The City’s water woes are a really great and recent in your face example of that.

    Get the price tag down… substantially. Show us the numbers of the business so we can be confident that all this support from the public is indeed necessary and then let’s talk turkey.

  3. Brooke Heaton

    If you’ve stepped put inside any of our local schools or have talked to families with students in our local schools you’ll understand how desperately underfunded the schools in Asheville are. Not a single penny should be spent on upgrades to this field until we properly fund our schools. Education for our kids is a need. Watching a home run while eating a hot dog in a stadium is a nice to have.

  4. Art Marshall

    That would be unfortunate indeed if the Tourists had to relocate because of local tight-fistedness. A fascinating history- when I look on the red brick from the ’92 rebuild it evokes images of the fabled red bricks of The Cathedral up in Boston. The similarities are striking, McCormick begins to feel like “Fenway of the South”. Just like Fenway, but with Bojangles. Perhaps if more visitors experienced this sense of awe and connection with history it might do something. Perhaps a scaled-down replica of the Cathedral somewhere on site would spark the more stubborn imaginations.

  5. R.G.

    There are a great many regular folks who work as teachers, caregivers, law enforcement, nurses and in other positions essential to the success of this city. Many have repeatedly reached out to Sage Turner and other council members about the importance of protecting community assets such as our forests and close-knit neighborhoods in the face of unreasonably large developments lacking the proper infrastructure. When it serves the personal agenda of council members (and their cronies), they claim that our right to walk or bike safely, or simply maintain some peaceful enjoyment of our homes isn’t that important. But then when wealthy white capitalists need another tax-payer handout to make it easier to sell overpriced beer while watching a farm system (not really a team), then it’s suddenly some incredible irreplaceable community asset we can’t live without. How many of you can name the starting lineup for the Tourists? How many of you can name a few Tourist players who went to the Majors? How many of you can name one Major League Baseball player who was so grateful to the City of Asheville for the opportunity that he donated some of his multi-million-dollar contract to help pay for some of our many needs?

    • NFB

      There are also many regular folks who work as teachers, caregivers, law enforcement, nurses and in other positions essential to the success of this city who enjoy Tourist (big T) baseball games and for who it has been an reasonably affordable form of recreation/entertainment in a town with increasingly limited options of that type thanks, in part, to so much of the city catering to to tourists (small t) with mega bucks.

      Because of this I do not object, in theory, to the city AND the county supporting the needed renovations. This is also something the TDA needs to strongly support to demonstrate that they do have the interest, they always claim to have, of locals in mind.

      The team owners should also offer considerably more support in paying for this project. The fact that they rent to facility from the city for $1 a year should account for a big chuck of what they are asking the city for. After all, the DeWines are good Republicans which means that they support small government, low taxes, self reliance, and personal responsibility.

      Except when they don’t, I guess.

      • R.G.

        I don’t disagree with you on a number of those points (especially your swipe at tourists (little t) whose dollars could fix so much in this town but do not. It’s ludicrous to rent stadiums to rich people for $1/year. If the City had any business sense, they would have charged more for years and years, put the money into coffers for upgrades and repairs (like any other smart landlord would do). Asheville proves again and again to be operating under a pitifully myopic business model.

        I don’t know whether or not the DeWines are good Republicans since I don’t think anyone even knows what a Republican is anymore. As long as they’re not falsifying resumes, balance sheets, or trying to overthrow Democracy, I guess that’s a start.

      • R.G.

        Great guy. Have also had the pleasure of shooting pool with his father on a few occasions. We need more of this kind of giving from those who can afford it. Thanks for directing me to Cam’s site. Hope it will inspire future MLB players to show some love for Asheville.

  6. David Turner

    $3.5 million for the original build, then $6.3 million to renovate (all in current dollar values) but now we need to shell out $30 mil!!?

    The TDA was created to put heads in beds at hotels. How many people come into Asheville for a game(s) and stay in our hotels?

    Memorial Stadium is getting screwed over as well along with the black community who wants a track. They’re keeping the crappy concrete stands, the dangerous pressbox just to put a track around a brand new turf field that will be moved and reduced in width so the new, successful and very exciting Asheville City Soccer Club won’t be able to host any playoff games due to it being too narrow; and, in general too narrow for high level youth soccer, college soccer, semi pro soccer and will prevent the Beer City Cup from hosting the Finals there. That tournament is the largest adult soccer event in the Nation and puts about $3 million into local businesses and hotels yet has to pay 3,000 years worth of McCormick field lease payment for a single weekend of use

    Mike DeWine just supported extrem le anti abortion legislation and is antithetical to everything this city stands for.

    Let the millionaires spend their own money

    And, yes, we must see their financials and know how many hotel rooms are sold for the fans that come to those games.

    • Frank

      McCormick Field would make a great soccer field/stadium. Maybe put the metal stands from Memorial in the outfield for additional seating. Would cost less than a full MLB reno and give ACSC a new home and a proper field.

  7. Dave

    The demand for $30 million dollars in local tax revenue by the owner of the Asheville Tourists (DeWine Seeds-Silver Dollar Baseball) is nothing but sports blackmail. You see it happen again and again, owners say they will leave a community if they don’t get this and that. Personally, I like baseball and enjoy Tourist games but this whole $30 million “or else” demand is a BIG NO. It’s nothing but “smoke and mirrors” blackmail. Where is the detailed list of the MLB required improvements and associated costs? Are they being 100% transparent with exact costs for every single line item? And where are the specific details on all of the “economic impact” details the DeWine group is providing? I’m pretty sure that the MLB required improvements don’t add up to $30 million. If the DeWine group requires $ for additional non-MLB required enhancements, then they should foot the bill for those non-MLB requirements. And “IF” Asheville agrees to the $30 million blackmail demand, does the community receive some type of contractual guarantee that the DeWine group or MLB will continue in Asheville in the future? Or will they suddenly depart the area in a few years for a new ballpark in some other community? I voted YES on the recent bond issues for affordable housing and conservation but not for a cash grab by a private group trying to blackmail a community. I would rather continue spending taxpayer funds to maintain the field and let local HS teams or an adult club baseball league play there before caving to a $30 million dollar blackmail demand.

  8. Robert

    It might be time for this community to ask one simple question: ‘What is the purpose of tourism?’ If it’s to bring more and more people here to drink beer, clog our roads, but do little to improve infrastructure or quality of life for those who do not work in hospitality, then we’re right on track. If it’s to function like an actual business run by adults with strong fundamentals where profits are reinvested in the company/community (infrastructure, people who make the whole thing run), then the City of Asheville needs a major overhaul.

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