From Tobacconists to Lollygaggers: The Story Behind the Durham Bulls

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The Durham Bulls recognize that having Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins as the de facto (and pro bono) spokespeople for their brand for the last 25 years has been a blessing, but there’s one specific challenge that the movie Bull Durham poses to the team. To be sure, when the movie came out in 1988, it brought international recognition to a team that was already popular and well established in its own community. And it’s a classic film—argued by some, including yours truly, to be the best baseball movie there is. But in the family-friendly world of minor league baseball, the Bulls have had to tread lightly around one issue.

“The fact that it’s an R-rated movie, it’s kind of a double-edged sword,” said Bulls Director of Marketing Scott Carter. “We’re not going to be playing clips throughout the game. It’s not like we can say, ‘Hey, guess what, Saturday night we’re playing Bull Durham after the game on the video board.’ Because it’s an R-rated movie, you have to be really careful about how you incorporate it into the game experience.”

Bull-Durham-Racers-7_4So while there’s no bizarre love triangle subtext when the team’s racing characters, Nuke, Annie, and Crash, take the field, there are winks and nods to the movie all around the stadium. Crash Davis’s uniform number 8 is retired, along with Joe Morgan’s, Chipper Jones’, and Hall of Fame manager Bill Evers’. There’s still a bull mascot, Woolly Bull, though he is not the same one Crash Davis has Nuke Laloosh purposefully bean in the head in the movie. But more than anything else, Carter said, “you walk around this ballpark and hear people shouting out Bull Durham quotes at you ad nauseum.”

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The most obvious nod to the movie at a real-life Bulls game is the “Hit Bull Win Steak” sign over the outfield wall. “The snorting bull sign, as we call it, that was something that didn’t exist until the movie came out,” Carter said. “That was a prop that the movie producers actually put into the old ballpark as part of the movie, and then left it up after the movie was done shooting.”

In fact, the sign—now in it’s third iteration after the original “basically disintegrated,” according to Carter, and the second was damaged in a hurricane—was one of the few items that made the move with the team when the Bulls moved from their old stadium, Durham Athletic Park, to their new stadium, Durham Bulls Athletic Park, in 1995.

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The Bulls franchise, currently the triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays (and the only triple-A affiliate the Rays have ever had), has been around since 1902, when they were called the Tobacconists, an obvious nod to the local agricultural industry. They became the Bulls in 1913, and have existed as such on and off ever since. There have been occasional deviations, like a brief period in the 1960s when they were call the Raleigh-Durham Triangles after the area’s famous Research Triangle, but those have been the exception rather than the norm. The baseball team’s nickname is tied to the city’s nickname, the Bull City, which is tied to a popular brand from the early 1900s, Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco.

Famous Durham Bulls

The team’s logo, the iconic snorting bull through a big, slab-serif D, has been the same since 1980, when the then single-A Bulls of the Carolina League were reinstated after a nine-year absence. “There was some upheaval in the league,” Carter said, “and there was about a decade when the Bulls didn’t play baseball. Back in 1980, they were reinstated as the Bulls and had the logo we have today.”

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The Durham Bulls in 1913. From “Baseball’s Hometown Teams: The Story of the Minor Leagues” by Bruce Chadwick. Via Open Durham.
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Replica 1965 Bulls jersey. Via Ebbets Field Flannels.

Before that, according to Carter, there wasn’t a logo, per se. “There was a script B on the hat and it just said ‘Bulls’ across the chest.” Personally, I’m disappointed by this, because I would love to see what a logo for those 1902 Durham Tobacconists would have looked like.

In a minor league baseball landscape littered with a steady stream of new logos and team names every year, the Bulls have been a cornerstone. They are a fixture on the list that Minor League Baseball puts out every year of the top 25 teams in terms of merchandise sales.

“You look at that list, and it changes from year to year based off of who the new logos are and who the hot teams are,” Carter said.

But while the Bulls have to compete with increasingly wacky and distinct logos, those other teams have their own challenges to overcome. “It’s awesome right now,” Carter said. “Is it going to be awesome in five years? Is it going to be awesome in ten years? Some of them are built to last and some of them may not be, and that’s for the fans to decide. That’s a problem that we, luckily, are never going to have to deal with.”

Some of those new, wacky teams may have the Bulls and Kevin Costner to thank for their own popularity. According to Carter, “What the movie did—and it wasn’t just for the Bulls, it was really minor league baseball—it really kind of kickstarted the renaissance of minor league baseball nationally, to bring people’s attention back to, ‘Hey, there’s another brand of baseball being played.’”

It’s true that the Bulls themselves will never have to go through a major rebranding effort because an enduring Hollywood motion picture does much of their marketing for them. But locally, the team has always been popular. “The Bulls were always drawing well,” Carter said, “and at the time the movie was made, led the Carolina League in attendance, and were playing in front of packed houses at the old ballpark where the movie was shot.”

lolly_300More than anything else, the movie expanded the team’s merchandise sales outside the local fan base. After the movie came out, in the days before online team stores, the Bulls were selling merchandise through text-only print ads in baseball publications. “They just couldn’t keep merchandise in stock because everyone wanted the hat that they were wearing in the movie,” Carter said. The team store continues to thrive thanks to the movie, and I am absolutely going to have to buy this Lollygaggers T-shirt now that I’ve found it.

The Bulls logo is to Minor League Baseball what the Yankees, Red Sox, or Dodgers are to Major League Baseball. It’s a classic, unquestioned in popularity because of consistency, recognizability, and one very good movie. They’re a standard-bearer, and they’re going to be around for a long time.