The Durham Bulls were founded in 1902 as the Durham Tobacconists. The official date when the franchise formed was March 18, 1902, with W. G. Bramham, later President of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (Minor League Baseball), as the owner. The Tobacconists took the field for the first time on April 24 in an exhibition game against Trinity College. Their first game in the North Carolina League was at Charlotte on May 5 against the Hornets, and their first home game was against the New Bern Truckers on May 12. The league, however, folded in July, not having played a full season.
In December 1912, the Durham Tobacconists re-formed as the Durham Bulls in the North Carolina State League. Their first game was on April 24, 1913 at Hanes Field on the Trinity College campus (now the East Campus of Duke University). They defeated the Raleigh Capitals 7-4. On May 30, 1917, however, the North Carolina State League folded due to America's joining of the Allied Powers during World War I. The Bulls were declared league champions, even though the season was shortened to only 36 games.
On October 31, 1919, the Bulls joined the Piedmont League, a minor league with clubs scattered around Virginia and North Carolina. Seven years later, in 1926, the team moved from Hanes Field to El Toro Park. The park was dedicated on July 26 by the Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who put on a show by riding a real bull, the team mascot, onto the playing field.
Six years later, in 1932, the team became affiliated with the National League's Philadelphia Phillies, the first of ten teams that the Bulls have been affiliated with. The next year, the city of Durham purchased El Toro Park, renaming it the Durham Athletic Park after the 1933 season. After the 1933 season, the Bulls were unable to operate for the 1934 and 1935 seasons due to the Great Depression. Meanwhile, a team from Wilmington, North Carolina who also played in the Piedmont League and was a Cincinnati Reds affiliate called the Wilmington Pirates relocated to Durham and was going to replace the Bulls. The Bulls (franchise) however, were re-activated by having the operations of the Williamsport ball club being integrated from the Williamsport club into the Bulls. The Reds then switch affiliations from the former Williamsport ball club to the Bulls. The Bulls continued as the same continuing franchise. The Williamsport Pirates then disbanded, but reformed and returned to their home city of Williamsport in 1946 and played in the Class D Tobacco State League from 1946 to 1950. The Williamsport club then ceased operations for good. On the evening of June 17, 1939, the Durham Athletic Park burned to the ground, hours after the Bulls defeated the Portsmouth Cubs 7-3. The groundskeeper, Walter Williams, who was asleep under the grandstand when the blaze began, was able to escape. The fire nearly killed him. The damage was more than $100,000. In a remarkable two-week turnaround, the Durham Athletic Park was functioning again by July 2, with the old wooden grandstand replaced by concrete and steel. The stadium also included temporary bleachers and seated 1,000 people. The crowd that day saw the Bulls beat the Charlotte Hornets 11-4.
Durham Athletic Park was finally completed in April 1940, in time for an exhibition game on April 7 between the Cincinnati Reds and Boston Red Sox. That game attracted 5,574 fans. Only 1,587 turned out ten days later for the Bulls' first game of the season. On September 5, 1943, the last-place Bulls played their last Piedmont League game, beating Richmond 15-5. The following year, the Piedmont League became an all-Virginia league, and there was no baseball in Durham in 1944.
In 1945, a second Carolina League formed. On April 27 the Bulls played their first game in the new league after being suspended for the 1944 season, defeating the Burlington Bees 5-0. Three years later, in September 1948, Tom Wright, a former outfielder with the Bulls, became the first Carolina League player to make it to the majors when he debuted with the Boston Red Sox. Three years after that, the Bulls made history when their 5-4 loss to the Danville Leafs featured the first black player in Carolina League history, Percy Miller Jr., who played for the Leafs.
Football Hall of Famer Clarence Parker was the Bulls' manager from 1949-52. It would not be until April 18, 1957 that the Bulls would field African-American players. On that day, third baseman Bubba Morton and pitcher Ted Richardson took the field in a loss to Greensboro. That season also saw the first Carolina League All-Star game played in Durham.
In 1967, the Bulls became a New York Mets affiliate. In 1968, the Bulls were renamed Raleigh-Durham Mets. The franchise was renamed because the Bulls acquired the nearby Raleigh Pirates and merged with them. The team still maintained their affiliation with the Mets, playing half of their home games at Durham Athletic Park and half at Devereaux Meadow in Raleigh. The team switched affiliations from the Mets to the Philadelphia Phillies and were renamed the Raleigh-Durham Phillies for the 1969 season. The team hasn’t been affiliated with the Phillies since the 1932 season. The Phillies abandoned the franchise and so the team became independent and were renamed the Raleigh-Durham Triangles for the 1970 season. The team played as the Triangles from 1970–1971 and remained independent for those two seasons. The franchise disbanded again before the 1972 season, and baseball would not return to Durham until 1980. Also, baseball in Raleigh officially ended for good. For the 1980 season, the Raleigh-Durham Triangles were reformed and renamed back to the Durham Bulls. On June 22 of that same year, the local CBS affiliate, then WTVD in Durham, broadcasted the Bulls game locally, the first time that the Bulls had ever been broadcast on television. Ten years later, on August 30, 1990, a crowd of 6,202 made the Bulls the first Class-A team in history to pass the 300,000 mark in attendance for an entire season.
Team owner Miles Wolff began pushing for a new ballpark for the Bulls in 1988 in order to attract Triple-A baseball, but plans for the stadium were pushed back until the new stadium opened in downtown Durham in 1995. Wolff never saw the completion of the new stadium as an owner, as the Durham Bulls were sold in 1991 to Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting Company. Capitol Broadcasting Company president Jim Goodmon initially proposed building the new stadium near Raleigh-Durham International Airport, but after city leaders in Durham offered to renovate the old ballpark or help build a new stadium, the current downtown Durham site was secured.
At the time of Bull Durham, both the real Bulls and their movie counterparts played in the High-A Carolina League, two steps below the team's current position in the Triple-A International League. The franchise was promoted from High-A to Triple-A which was ten years after their first film appearance because of their popularity as the main team in Bull Durham and the Triple-A leagues needed two more teams to accommodate affiliates for the Major League Baseball expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Durham Bulls joined the International League in 1998 and were the only expansion franchise joining the league that played in a league below the Triple-A level. The other expansion franchises in 1998 previously played in the Triple-A American Association. The Bulls switched affiliates from the Braves to the Devil Rays for the 1998 season. The Bulls’ promotion to Triple-A helped bring professional baseball back to another city, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in the form of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. That team was founded as the Danville 97s in Danville, Virginia (right after the Bulls were promoted to Triple-A), playing their home games at American Legion Field. The 97s relocated after one season in Danville to Myrtle Beach to become the Pelicans and are now playing at Pelicans Ballpark. The 97s/Pelicans franchise is a new franchise because the Bulls retained their Carolina League history, but that team was not granted as an expansion franchise. The Pelicans still play in the Carolina League. Through twelve seasons in Triple-A, the Bulls have already won three Governors' Cups. In 2002, the Bulls celebrated their 100th anniversary season. In 2009, the Bulls won their first Triple-A National Championship. On August 2, 2011, the Durham Bulls defeated the Charlotte Knights for their 6,000th win in franchise history.
On July 17, 1992, the Bulls unveiled their new mascot, Wool E. Bull, a moniker submitted by Durham resident Jim Vickery out of a pool of 500, inspired by the otherwise unrelated novelty song oldie, "Wooly Bully". The "E" in his name stands for "education." The next June, the Bulls retired the number 18 belonging to Joe Morgan, the only Hall of Famer ever to play for the Bulls, who was a member of the 1963 club. Morgan's number remains the only one ever retired by the club, and he attended the ceremony in which his number was retired. The Bulls also retained the snorting Durham Bull sign that was used in the movie Bull Durham. The original bull used in the movie and at Durham Athletic Park can be seen hanging on the wall of the concourse at the Bulls' new stadium, Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The new stadium does have a newly built snorting Bull similar to the original. Written on that snorting bull in white font is the following passage: "Hit Bull Win Steak". Beneath it reads "Hit Grass Win Salad". Whenever a Bulls player hits a home run the bull's eyes light up, its tail moves up and down and it snorts steam out of its nose. Whenever a player hits the bull with a home run that player wins a steak dinner at a local restaurant. A fan in the audience during the game will also win a free steak dinner. On April 16, 2007, high winds tore off a piece of the left side of the bull's head. The damage was fixed by that weekend. In 2008 it was announced that the second bull will be replaced by a two-sided bull.
The 1997 season, during which the Bulls were an affiliate of the Atlanta Braves from 1980–1997, marked their last year in the High-A Carolina League as the franchise moved two levels up from High-A to Triple-A and joined the International League (IL) in 1998. Wolff's dream of attracting Triple-A baseball came true when the Bulls became the Triple-A affiliate of the newly formed Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now Tampa Bay Rays) their parent club ever since their first Triple-A season in the International League. That year saw the Bulls play their first game outside the United States when they played road games against the Ottawa Lynx (now Lehigh Valley IronPigs), though it would be another year before they recorded their first win in Canada.
Bull Durham was the Bulls’ first appearance on film. The Bulls’ second appearance on film was in the movie The Rookie which was released in 2002 and starred Dennis Quaid as Jim Morris, a baseball pitcher who is now retired. The real Jim Morris did play for the Bulls briefly during the 1999 season and was then called up to the major leagues on September 18, 1999 at the age of 35. He made his debut against Royce Clayton of the Texas Rangers, striking him out on four pitches. His goal of pitching in the majors was finally realized, and he made four more appearances later that year.
The 2001 season saw the Bulls set single-game (10,916 on July 23) and full-season (505,319 set on September 1) attendance records. The Bulls celebrated their 100th anniversary season in 2002. Then, on September 12, 2002, the Bulls won their first IL championship, defeating the Buffalo Bisons 2-0 for the Governors' Cup. Next year, the team became the first in the 119-year history of the championship to sweep back-to-back final playoff series, defeating the Pawtucket Red Sox.
After missing the playoffs for the 2005 and 2006 seasons, the Durham Bulls captured the South Division title with an 80-64 regular season record. The Durham Bulls defeated the Toledo Mud Hens in a three-game sweep during the first round of the playoffs, but were defeated three games to two in the Governors' Cup Final by the Richmond Braves (now Gwinnett Braves). In 2008, with a record of 74-70 the Bulls would once again win the South Division. After defeating the Louisville Bats three games to one in the first round, the Bulls again lost the championship, this time in four games to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. In 2009, they would win the division for a third consecutive season with an 83-61 record. Facing the Louisville Bats in the first round again, the Bulls were victorious in the series, winning in five games. The third time was the charm for the Bulls in the Governors' Cup final. They dethroned the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, who had beaten them the previous season to win the championship. Sweeping the Yankees in three games, the Bulls won their third league championship since joining the International League. The Bulls advanced to the Triple-A Baseball National Championship Game against the champions of the Pacific Coast League for the first time in the team's history, as there had been no such game that took place at the time of the Bulls' previous two Governors' Cup championships. Facing the Memphis Redbirds, the Bulls would win their first class championship, scoring the winning run on a wild pitch in the bottom half of the eleventh inning.
On August 19, 2010, the Bulls won their fourth straight division championship. Almost two weeks later, the Bulls set their Triple-A wins record winning their 84th game of the 2010 season. On August 2, 2011, the Durham Bulls defeated the Charlotte Knights, the Chicago White Sox affiliate for their 6,000th win in franchise history with a final score of 18-3.
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