No Bull: The Real Story of the Rebirth of a Team and a City, By Ron Morris05.09.2017
Somewhere along Interstate 95, perhaps in Georgia, my anxiety about being in the front seat of a Ford station wagon with a former Major League Baseball player was finally beginning to dissipate. We had pulled over for dinner at a truck stop when it struck me that Al Gallagher, the one-time third baseman for the San Francisco Giants and the California Angels and the new manager of the Durham Bulls, was every bit like me, just another person for whom baseball flowed through his veins with the ease of a veteran outfielder settling under a routine fly ball.
Gallagher carried the well-earned nickname “Dirty Al” throughout his major-league career and it stuck beyond his playing days like the tobacco stains that dotted his jerseys and shirts. Gallagher discarded his tobacco chaw before entering the truck stop restaurant, and before he ordered chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and a medley of vegetables that included sweet peas and sweeter corn. As we awaited our food, a cockroach about the size of my index finger meandered from behind the miniature jukebox against the wall at our booth, sprinted across our table, down my side of the table and into hiding.
Without hesitation, Gallagher summoned the unsuspecting waitress and requested an immediate tableside meeting with the restaurant’s manager.
“We just got ourselves a free meal!” Gallagher exclaimed with glee, his crooked smile wildly displaying the deep-seated, black stains on teeth that had endured decades of tobacco chewing.
I was 25 that spring of 1980. To fully understand why I was so awestruck by the mere presence of a former major-leaguer, you must know I was a young — OK, immature — 25. What social skills I possessed had been greatly impaired by the events of my young life, including my family being uprooted and moved from Wyoming to North Carolina prior to my sophomore year of high school. The move represented significant culture shock to me, and the subsequent waves reverberated through my high school days, college and beyond as I slowly attempted — often clumsily — to adjust to the social climate around me.
My wide-eyed view of professional baseball players also had something to do with the misfortune of being reared in a region of the country virtually devoid of the national pastime. The major leagues were something I read about in newspapers, occasionally heard on St. Louis Cardinals’ broadcasts on our car radio, and viewed on TV’s national game-of-the-week on Saturdays. For the most part, the major leagues and its participants were a part of my imagination. Mickey Mantle and Casey Stengel and even Hector Lopez were gods, their existence known mostly through box scores and statistics lines that appeared in The Sporting News, which arrived weekly at my Reed Avenue home in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
My love of baseball, and the softball version of the game as well, was passed along to me by my father, Leo. Dad was a fast-pitch softball legend growing up in Sioux City, Iowa, and he continued to make a name for himself by farming his powerful right arm out to companies such as John Deere Tractor and their touring powerhouses summer after summer. That meant moving with my six sisters and brother from one city to another in Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma and Colorado before settling in Wyoming for most of my formative years.
Into the twilight of his softball pitching career, Dad turned to radio broadcasting, and his love of sports made him a natural behind the microphone, delivering play-by-play accounts of boxing, football, basketball and even the annual Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. He also created his own University of Wyoming sports network and called every Cowboys football and basketball game from 1959 through 1969. Dad even provided play-by-play of many Wyoming baseball games, back when the Cowboys had a program.
As much as I enjoyed sitting next to him during Wyoming basketball games or in the Knothole Section for Cowboy football games in Laramie, my most treasured memory is that of listening to the wind whistle through the press box at Wyoming baseball games. That is where I learned to keep score. It also is where I learned the finer points of baseball, from knowing why it was important for the first baseman to trail the base runner to second base on a double to one of the outfield gaps, to understanding a balk can be called against the catcher (for stepping outside the catcher’s box before an intentional ball is thrown by the pitcher). Dad knew the game. One summer he stepped in at mid-season to coach the Cheyenne American Legion team with my brother, Rick, as the center fielder and guided the Post 6 club to the Wyoming state championship and an appearance in the West Regional tournament.
By the time I was 14, I had a pretty good idea that I wanted to follow in Dad’s footsteps — with one exception — by providing accounts of sporting events with a typewriter instead of a microphone. On Sundays during football seasons, I used Mom’s typewriter — and carbon copies — to publish my own two-page, double-spaced sports section, distributing it in the evening to each of my brothers and sisters. Then Dad hooked me up with The Associated Press in Cheyenne where I worked on weekends, taking telephone calls from across the state and turning the information into two- and three-paragraph stories. Occasionally, I served as a “stringer” to cover high school track meets or basketball games.
Still, my exposure to baseball was minimal. Because of the difficult winters, baseball is not played as a high school sport in Wyoming. Even our Little League seasons were restricted to 10 games played between Memorial Day and July 4. Denver Bears minor-league games could be heard on the radio, and the re-creation of road games only added to the mythical stature of the game in my mind. Dad and I occasionally drove the Cheyenne streets on summer nights, listening to the voices of Harry Caray and Jack Buck as they described St. Louis Cardinals games on radio station KMOX out of St. Louis.
When I was 8, the magic of the game became reality for one night in Denver. Dad somehow finagled three tickets to an exhibition game at Bears Stadium between Denver’s Triple-A club in the Pacific Coast League and the New York Yankees. We sat along the third base line, about halfway up the stands. I was mesmerized by the sight of Ralph Terry and Roger Maris and, yes, Hector Lopez, who won the game with an extra-inning home run.
I had quite an entrepreneurial spirit as a youngster, at one point carrying four newspaper routes, the Wyoming Eagle and Rocky Mountain News in the mornings, and the Wyoming Tribune and Denver Post in the afternoons. I also mowed the lawns of neighbors in the summer and shoveled snow from their sidewalks in the winter. One summer, I accumulated enough savings to fly myself to Minneapolis where my aunt and uncle took me to my first major-league games, a Sunday double-header at Metropolitan Stadium between the Minnesota Twins and the Oakland Athletics.
Like most boys, I wanted to play in the big leagues. But we did not have indoor batting cages in Cheyenne, so my baseball skills were not able to develop with such a short season every summer. Not to mention, I was small, slow and could not hit a baseball very well. Knowing my playing days were limited, I aspired to be a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper with baseball as my beat.
When we moved to North Carolina in the summer of 1969, I immediately became a stringer at The Salisbury Post, and began honing my writing skills through high school. Upon graduation from UNC Charlotte in 1977, I went to work for The Chapel Hill Newspaper, then hooked on with the Durham Morning Herald in what surely was a cosmic convergence because, only a few months onto the job, word broke that minor-league baseball was returning to Durham after a nine-year absence. Everyone on the Herald sports staff saw Atlantic Coast Conference basketball as the Holy Grail of writing sports. Everyone, except me. Art Chansky and Keith Drum, our sports editors at the time, did not have to seek out a reporter to cover baseball. I wanted the beat, which I viewed as my ticket to eventually landing a dream job like covering the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun or the Braves for the Atlanta Constitution.
My first order of business on the beat was to reintroduce our readers to professional baseball, and that meant scouring microfilm to produce a seven-part series on the history of the game in Durham, from the numerous former players who remained in town decades after their diamond days to the exploits of pitcher Eddie Neville, who won 75 games for the Bulls from 1949 to 1954.
Then it was off to West Palm Beach, Florida, to experience a young reporter’s dream of covering “his” team in spring training. Before going, I located a copy of Leonard Koppett’s brilliant 1967 book “A Thinking Man’s Guide to Baseball,” believing I could gain immeasurable and invaluable amounts of knowledge about the game before my initial meeting with Gallagher and his pitching coach, the former Pittsburgh Pirates standout, Bob Veale.
My bubble was quickly burst — and my already shaky confidence shattered — when I mistakenly attempted to sound well-versed on the game by mentioning that I had recently read Koppett’s book. Gallagher responded, between spits of tobacco juice into the paper cup he was holding, that he had not only never read the book but could assure me that he knew more about baseball than “some dumbass writer.” And, he added, “Don’t ever call me Coach Gallagher. Ever. Again.”
Dirty Al it was, from that day forward.
Also, from that day forward, Dirty Al attempted to make me more comfortable being around him as well as Veale, the other minor-league coaches in the Braves’ camp, and Atlanta’s front-office personnel. Knowing I had an expense account with the newspaper, Dirty Al invited me to join him for breakfast daily at his favorite West Palm Beach restaurant. The newspaper paid, of course. He also dragged me along to the horse track and dog track, teaching me the rudiments to gambling on sports I knew less about than baseball. He made certain I was invited to occasional evening cookouts among the minor-league coaches, and he must have made it known to Hank Aaron — Hank Aaron! — that I was an OK guy who could be trusted.
One afternoon as I was standing behind the backstop of a field at the minor-league complex, Aaron walked up and stood next to me. Aaron was in his fourth year as director of Atlanta’s minor-league player development. I could barely contain myself, but was so shaken by his presence that I did not speak a word. Then Aaron began calling out the pitches as they arrived at home plate. “Fastball.” “Slider.” “Changeup.” “Fastball.” Finally, I gathered enough gumption to ask a question.
“So, how do you recognize a slider?” I stammered, my voice quivering.
“Watch for the red dot,” Aaron told me. Then he ordered the pitcher to throw a few more sliders so I could see precisely what he was talking about. Sure enough, the tight spin of the pitch gathered at some point and the hitter — or me, in this case — could see where the seams formed a red dot on the ball as it approached home plate. The pitch was a slider.
Aaron later invited me into a few meetings, and joined me — OK, I joined him — on occasional morning jogs from the Days Inn to the spring training complex and back. Even after my 10 days in camp, I still could not get to the point of feeling completely comfortable in the company of Aaron, Dirty Al and Veale. They retained their lofty status to me.
So, it caught me off guard when Dirty Al approached me near the end of spring training with a proposal. He had driven his station wagon across the country from his home in Fresno, California, to spring training, and planned to drive the car to his new summer home in Durham. He needed a passenger, and possible driver, for the 15-hour jaunt north. What a grand way, he said, for the two of us to get to know each other better in preparation for my first season on the baseball beat.
I agreed. By the time we arrived at my Durham apartment around 2 in the morning, I not only knew Dirty Al better, but I also knew him to be a lot like me. He enjoyed beer. He had no pretention about farting in the car with a perfect stranger. He made me aware that the accepted language of a recent college graduate was not dissimilar to that of a baseball manager, peppered with profanity and usually centered on the ever-popular topic of women.
But no number of days at spring training, nor any ride halfway up the East Coast could possibly have prepared me for what lay ahead that summer. Just as covering the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s proved to be “The Boys of Summer” for author Roger Kahn, the 1980 Durham Bulls provided me with a story that has endured over the next three decades.
The significance of history is so difficult to recognize while it is happening. So it was for me throughout that wonderful summer of 1980. Too much was happening too fast to allow myself to step back and see the bigger picture of the franchise and its impact on minor-league baseball and the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. Nevertheless, I did recognize at times that something very magical was happening in Durham, and more specifically at venerable old Durham Athletic Park.
Thirty-seven years later, it is much easier to see just how enchanting those days were for me, for the Durham Bulls franchise and for the City of Durham. Come along with me as I attempt to recapture that incredible ride.
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Published by Baseball America Books
Available now for direct order from BaseballAmerica.com, and on sale June 6 wherever books are sold.