Bull Durham: The Red Sox in the Bull City (1945-1946)

An advertisement for the opening game of the Durham Bulls’s 1945 season
Credit: The Daily News-Times, Burlington, North Carolina, April 25, 1945

Many people are familiar with the Durham Bulls, the current AAA affiliate for the Tampa Bay Rays and subject of the movie “Bull Durham.” Fewer people are aware of the team’s history with the Boston Red Sox. In 1945, the Durham Bulls were a charter member of the newly formed Carolina League where they began play as a Class C affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. The affiliation would last just a couple of seasons but this marriage of iconic baseball brands warrants a look.

The Carolina League was formed in October 1944 from the embers of the former Bi-State League, which had ceased play at the end of 1942, a casualty of travel restrictions created by gasoline and tire rationing during World War II. At the time of the announcement, the North Carolina cities of Raleigh, Rocky Mount, Burlington, Greensboro, and Leaksville, and the Virginia city of Danville had secured franchises. They were soon joined by Durham and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Winston-Salem would later host, from 1961-1984, the Red Sox Carolina League affiliate. At this point however, their team was owned by the St. Louis Cardinals.

The roots of the Durham Bulls far predate their participation in the Carolina League. The team was initially formed in 1902 but was shuttered after just one season. With the exception of a break in 1918 and 1919 and again in 1934 and 1935, they had existed continuously since 1913. The team played in the North Carolina State League from 1913-1917 and then joined the Piedmont League upon their return in 1920. However, they found themselves exiled the Piedmont League before the 1944 season when the league opted to get rid of its North Carolina teams and focus its efforts in Virginia as a way to conserve resources during the war. Professional baseball was not played in Durham in 1944, a fact that the city was eager to change as soon as possible. The Carolina League helped them avoid a third multi-year stoppage in just 30 years. As their predecessors had since 1926, the Carolina League Bulls would play at Durham Athletic Park.

North Carolina had long been a hotbed of minor league baseball, a fact which certainly helped the Carolina League quickly attract attention from the major leagues. By January, almost every team was linked to a major league club. On January 14, 1945, the Raleigh News & Observer reported that Greensboro was aligned with the Philadelphia Phillies, Danville with the New York Giants, Leaksville with the Chicago Cubs, and Burlington with the Brooklyn Dodgers. This, is of course, in addition to Winston-Salem’s aforementioned relationship with the St. Louis Cardinals. Raleigh had signed an affiliation agreement with the minor league team in Birmingham, Alabama. The News & Observer also reported that the St. Louis Browns would soon be signing an agreement with the Durham Bulls and that the New York Yankees would affiliate with the Rocky Mount team. Neither of these would ultimately happen, though for different reasons.

All evidence I can find suggests that the Browns and Bulls deal simply fell through and both sides opted to not pursue it. By March, the Bulls had agreed to affiliate with the Red Sox. The Durham Bulls would be led by Floyd Patterson, who had most recently managed the Canton Terriers of the Middle Atlantic League, also an affiliate of the Red Sox, from 1936-1942. The team would begin their spring training by conducting joint workouts with the Red Sox’s Class B affiliate, Roanoke Red Sox in Virginia. Keen observers may note that Roanoke is a neighboring city to Salem, the home of the Sox’s current Carolina League entry, the Salem Red Sox.

The Yankees and their relationship with Rocky Mount (which, from 1936-1940, hosted a Red Sox minor league affiliate, which I profiled here) would ultimately fall apart because of the difficulty that other Carolina League teams faced traveling to and from Rocky Mount. Before the season started, the city bowed out of the Carolina League and were replaced by Martinsville, Virginia. The Yankees also departed and the new team became a Philadelphia Athletics affiliate.

The Bulls started things off on April 23rd with a preseason 4-2 loss against the University of North Carolina Tar Heels from neighboring Chapel Hill. Not the best start for a professional ball club. On April 27, 1945 however, the Durham Bulls played their first game in the Carolina League, a 5-0 win over the Burlington Bees (advertised above). Despite the Opening Day win, the Bulls would generally struggle in their first year with the Sox, finishing the season 59-77, good enough for 7th in the league.

The 1946 campaign would begin with the Bulls avenging their 1945 to the Tar Heels by beating them 5-2 in a preseason matchup. Their regular season would end up on a sour note as they dropped their opening day matchup to Raleigh, 4-2. The two teams would meet in a much more important game just a few months later. The Bulls were consistent playoff contenders throughout the 1946 season. By May 22nd, near the end of the league’s first month, the team was 10-11, 4th in the Carolina League and in the league’s 4 team post-season by 3 games over Leaksville. The Bulls would continue that pace into July, which they entered 33-32, good enough for third place in the Carolina League and comfortably in the post-season. A hot July took them solidly over the .500 mark and on August 3rd, they were 55-47, still 3rd and trailing Raleigh and Greensboro

The Bulls would carry their summer momentum to a 80-62 finish, good enough for 3rd, still behind Raleigh and regular season champions Greensboro, who the Bulls would face off against in the opening round of the playoffs. The Bulls were helped by the hitting of Tom Wright, who posted a .380 average and won the league’s batting title.

The 1946 Carolina League playoffs began with an upset as the Bulls toppled the Greensboro Patriots, 4 games to 2 in a series that was topped by a game six, 10-3 win at Durham Athletic Park. This victory set up the Durham Bulls for a meeting against the Raleigh Capitals in the Carolina League Championship Series. The below descriptions come courtesy of the Rocky Mount Telegram and Daily Times-News of Burlington’s accounts of the series.

The Capitals proved a tough foe, taking the first two games in the best of seven series. The Bulls would win the next two games to even the series, snatching both victory from the jaws of defeat. In game four, the Capitals looked set to effectively put away the Bulls and take a 3-1 lead in the series. By the fifth inning, they had built a 6-2 lead. However, a Paul Crawford grand slam in the fifth would tie the game and start a Bulls comeback that would culminate in a 10-7 Bulls victory, which would tie the series. The Capitals would win game five and dull Durham’s momentum. The Raleigh Capitals would ultimately win the 1946 Carolina League Championship.

The 1946 Durham Bulls season had ended in the most Boston Red Sox way possible. The Bulls were a team that rallied to finish the season strong, upset the best team in the league in the postseason, lost the first two games of the championship series but then rallied to win the next two and bring themselves back into contention. However, just as fans became hopeful that this could be the year, their hopes were crushed and they were brought back to reality when the team ultimately failed to win it all. Perhaps the people of Durham were happy to see the Red Sox discontinue their affiliation after the 1946 season.

The 1945 and 1946 Durham Bulls would ultimately not produce anyone of note for the Red Sox and are a largely forgotten chapter in the history of both teams. However, figures famous in Red Sox lore would make short appearances in Durham in later years. Former Red Sox players Johnny Pesky and Billy Goodman had short managing stints there in 1956 and from 1963-1964 respectively. Future Red Sox manager Grady Little even managed the Bulls from 1989-1991.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge newspapers across North Carolina, from the Raleigh News and Observer to the Rocky Mount Telegram and Daily News-Times of Burlington, NC. Their expansive archives made finding a lot of this information possible.

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