The players of McCormick’s past are still in the air. On a warm night at dusk, you may even hear the old Babe whisper, “What a ballpark!”
It is a place of dreams, where Hall of Fame hitters launched home runs, where stock cars once raced around concrete curves, where football fans once cheered a fleet-footed running back named “Choo Choo,” and where a fictional minor league hitter named “Crash” Davis won home run immortality with the movie Bull Durham.
For 85 years, McCormick Field has been a home to many great memories. When Asheville’s premier baseball park was eight years old in 1931, the New York Yankees came to town in April to play the Asheville Tourists in three pre-season exhibition games.
Before one game, Lou Gehrig, the Yankees’ great first baseman, walked by Babe Ruth, the immortal Bambino of the Yankees, who stood at the railing behind the first base dugout with his pug nose lifted, sniffing the air.
“Wha’cha doing, Babe?” Gehrig asked.
“What a ballpark!” the Bambino exclaimed. “Don’t you smell it, Lou? Look at the honeysuckle around the outfield. What a beautiful place to play baseball!”
The Yankees won all three games, 5-2, 11-3, and 17-4, and left town to continue playing their way north to New York for the season opener.
Part of McCormick’s glory comes from the people who have graced its bases. Legends such as Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson played exhibition games at McCormick Field. More than 500 Tourist players have gone on to the Major Leagues, including Hall of Famers Willie Stargell and Eddie Murray. Stargell and Murray are statistically among the greatest hitters to ever play the game. Sparky Anderson, who managed the Tourists for a single season and won the league title in 1968, later became the first manager in Major League history to win a World Series with a team from the National League and the American League. Anderson was also inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Cal Ripken, Jr., worked as a bat boy for the Tourists in the 1970s before his long career in the big leagues.
For a few nights in October 1987, McCormick was a film site for the cast of Bull Durham, the 1988 movie starring Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. Robbins plays “Nuke” LaLoosh, a talented but erratic minor league pitcher with dreams of making it to the big leagues. Costner, who plays “Crash” Davis, smacks a mythical home run during a game as an Asheville Tourists hitter, breaking a minor league record.
McCormick Field was named after Dr. Lewis McCormick, a bacteriologist who led a campaign in the early 1900s to kill house flies that spread disease. The campaign drastically reduced the number of typhoid fever cases in Asheville, and thus helped improve the city’s national reputation as a healthy place to live and visit. However, McCormick died in 1922, two years before the baseball field named after him opened.
Built at a cost of $200,000, the wooden stadium, originally painted green, was erected on an excavated hillside bank. Within walking distance of downtown Asheville, the park seated around 3,500 to 4,000 with extra, temporary seats that could be erected around the outfield. A low fence circled around the outfield. Behind the right field fence, the bank rose to a height of 30 feet or more, with the fence only 300 feet from the plate. Left-handed hitters always took aim at the top of the bank, and with the light mountain air in which the ball traveled farther, right field became a home run hitter’s paradise.
McCormick Field opened with a spring exhibition game in 1924 between the Asheville Skylanders and the Detroit Tigers. Asheville won, 18-14.
The first auspicious visit to Asheville by the Bambino and the Yankees came on Tuesday, April 7, 1925, when the ballpark was a year old. They came to play the Brooklyn Dodgers in a pre-season exhibition game. On the train ride from Knoxville, where the teams had played the previous day, Ruth became ill. The train arrived in Asheville, and walking through the station’s waiting room, Ruth suddenly collapsed.
Rushed by taxi to the Battery Park Hotel, he was attended by Dr. A.S. Jordan and a nurse. Jordan diagnosed Ruth’s illness as “a case of the flu,” but his teammates thought they knew better. They thought the Babe was suffering from an overdose of hot dogs and beer on the train ride from Knoxville. New York writers called it “the Bellyache Heard Round the World.”
Word went out that Ruth had died in Asheville, and as soon as the news services got hold of the story, they spread it worldwide. Twenty-four hours passed before that story was straightened out, and the world was told that Ruth was indeed alive but suffering from an unknown stomach ailment. The Yankees and Dodgers left Asheville late the day of the game, which the Yankees won, 16-8, but Ruth remained under the doctor’s care in the Battery Park until the following day when he was helped aboard the 3:50 train for New York.
Ruth missed all of the Yankees’ April games and the entire month of May, and the Yankees struggled from his intestinal misfortune. He returned to the lineup on June 1 with the Yankees in last place in the American League. Ruth played only 98 games that season, and the Yankees finished the season in seventh place.
Besides Babe Ruth, many Major Leaguers loved to play in McCormick Field. In fact, the ballpark’s owners tried to coax a major league team to come to Asheville for spring training but it never materialized. Asheville’s team was called the Skylanders until sometime in the 1925 season, when they were re-named the Tourists, prompted by the great annual summer influx of Florida visitors. The team has played under that name ever since. The Tourists play in the South Atlantic League today, a single-A team affiliated with the Colorado Rockies since 1994. Over the years, the Tourists have been affiliated with the Texas Rangers, Houston Astros, Brooklyn Dodgers, and the St. Louis Cardinals, among others.
Baseball in Asheville was not new when McCormick Field first appeared. Before that, an Asheville team had played in Riverside Park beside the French Broad River on the west side of town from 1909 to 1914, and in Oates Park from its construction in 1914 until 1924, in a triangle formed in South Asheville by Southside, Choctaw, and McDowell streets. McCormick Field was located much closer to downtown than either Riverside or Oates parks. A trolley carried people to Oates Park but did not run to McCormick Field, which is within walking distance of downtown.
There are few things more enjoyable in Asheville than to sit in McCormick Field on a warm summer evening, smelling the honeysuckle that Ruth once enjoyed. The fragrance still wafts down from the outfield banks. Usually when the weather is extremely hot, it seems to be cooler to those who enjoy watching baseball games in McCormick Field.
To some degree, today’s minor league system can be traced back to this very field, thanks to the foresight of yet another famous McCormick Field fan. Branch Rickey, one of the most celebrated major league club owners of his time, owned part of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s and the Brooklyn Dodgers following World War II. He was a friend of Asheville and loved to watch games at McCormick Field.
Rickey had dreamed up the idea of the farm system, with minor league clubs working with major league teams, developing talent for those teams. When Rickey became familiar with Asheville, he chose Asheville for his Class B team. Asheville signed an agreement with the Cardinals in the late 1930s, the city’s first major league working agreement, and accepted Cardinals’ minor league players from St. Louis. Asheville has been without a working agreement only one year since—in 1959 when the Tourists had a partial agreement with the Philadelphia Phillies and received a few players from the Baltimore Orioles.
Rickey placed a full working agreement in Asheville after World War II, and the Tourists enjoyed winning seasons with the Brooklyn minor leaguers. Rickey spent a good deal of time in the Asheville area, hunting bear with a local hunting club and vacationing in the mountains when he could.
During World War II, Asheville hosted major leaguers players, although the city was not in a league and no team carried the name of the Tourists. Wartime teams were organized at Moore General Hospital and the Asheville Redistribution Station. The two organizations, using some major leaguers, played games at McCormick Field against each other and other nearby teams as well.
In 1945, Moore General had Spud Chandler, who had won 20 games with the 1943 Yankees and was then stationed in Asheville. The city also welcomed catcher Ray Mueller, an outstanding major leaguer, and Ron Northey, a heavy-hitting outfielder who hit 22 home runs for the 1944 Philadelphia Phillies. The city maintained McCormick Field in playing condition through the war, to the enjoyment of both the professional players stationed here and local baseball fans.
Because the fence around McCormick Field’s outfield had been removed, the Tourists and Charlotte Hornets waged a baseball war in the late 1940s. Phil Houser, president of the Charlotte team, accused the Tourists of hiding baseballs in the bushes for ready access when an opposing player hit a ball into the bushes.
“When we hit a ball on the bank,” Houser said, “the Asheville outfielder plunges into the bushes and pops right out with the ball. When Asheville hits one into the bushes, our outfielders go in and can’t find the ball.”
Eventually, the Tourists constructed a higher wall around the outfield.
Fans over the years joke about the McCormick Field scoreboard, which pits the home “Tourists” against the “Visitors.”
In the early 1940s, McCormick Field grew into wider community use when Asheville High School came up with its greatest football team ever, featuring future All-American Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice and a dominant team that went undefeated while playing some of the strongest teams in the South. For a span of 21 games, the Maroons did not lose to anyone.
The football field was arranged to seat 4,500 spectators with the playing field running from the third base line to right field. In the 1942 season, Asheville High won all nine games, scoring 441 points to six for the opposition,
There was one other sport that gained immense popularity at McCormick Field—automobile racing. The Tourists played in the Tri-State League after the war until 1956 when the league folded. The city then leased McCormick Field to Jim Lowe of North Wilkesboro to operate an automobile racing track inside the park for three summers.
The sport caught on quickly. In the 1956 season, racecar drivers competed on a paved 1/3-mile track inside McCormick Field’s newly-concreted walls. Some 33,335 people paid $2 each to see the races, and the City of Asheville received a check from the race track for $9,677.17 as its 15 percent rental fees—the first time, city officials said, that the city had received a substantial return on its investment in maintaining McCormick Field.
In 1957 Banjo Matthews moved to Asheville from Florida and won 13 sportsman division races in a row at the ballpark. Crowds began to fall off because of Matthews’ domination, and the promoters began to handicap him. Once he started in the rear, backward, whipped around, passed the field, and led by the third lap. He went on to win the race.
At the end of baseball’s three-year hiatus from the park, the Tourists returned to action and have played every season since.
In the 1940s and ’50s, McCormick Field was also the home of the Asheville Blues, the city’s professional black baseball team, organized, owned, and managed by C.L. Moore, a coach and athletic director at Stevens-Lee High School, the city’s African-American high school.
While most tenures for Tourist managers haven’t lasted longer than three seasons, two of the Tourists’ longest-running and most successful managers include Ray Hathaway, who managed the team for seven seasons and won the league championship in 1961, and Joe Mikulik, the current manager who will put in his tenth season at the helm of the Tourists this summer. Mikulik led the Tourists to a second-place finish in the league last season, but he earned an infamous spot in sports history after his prolonged tirade during a 2006 game when he argued with an umpire over a close call in which a runner from the opposing team was ruled safe at second base. Despite being ejected from the game, Mikulik went on an extended tantrum in which he slid into second base, pulled up the second base and threw it across the infield; tossed bats from the dugout onto the field; dusted up home plate; and poured water over it before storming into the dugout. The antics were replayed on scores of national broadcasts including ESPN’s SportsCenter and the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Ron McKee, who started as a bat boy in 1961, made his way to the front office, and served a long and fruitful career with the Tourists. He built the team into one that drew more than 100,000 fans each season over a long span of years, reaching as high as 148,000. The franchise record came in 2000 with about 161,000. One popular appeal to summer games is Thirsty Thursdays—about a dozen each season—that offer dollar drafts when the Tourists play at home on Thursday nights.
At the start of the 1990s, McCormick Field was the oldest minor league ball park in the nation and the fifth oldest of all parks, standing behind Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Boston’s Fenway Park, Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, and Yankee Stadium in New York.
The wooden grandstands of McCormick Field came down after the 1991 season, and a beautiful, new brick and concrete stadium was built to the same configuration as the old wooden one. Fans still flock to see baseball’s finest minor league talent in one of the most authentic settings in America.
ESPN.com named McCormick Field as part of the “10 quintessential road tours that capture the best of the majors and minors,” and thanks to $800,000 in recent upgrades to the scoreboard and seats attendance records are on pace to reach 170,000 this season.
The players of McCormick’s past are still in the air. On a warm night at dusk, you may even hear the old Babe whisper, “What a ballpark!”
Tickets for Asheville Tourists' games range from $6 (for children ages 3-12, senior citizens and members of the U.S. Armed Forces) to $7 for general admission adult seating to $45 for premium dugout suites. Other packages offer group discount rates. For more information about tickets, team stats, special events, and the season schedule at McCormick Field, go to http://asheville.tourists.milb.com.