By MOLLY GROGAN RAWLS
The familiar words, “Play ball!” have resounded throughout Winston-Salem and Forsyth County for as long as anyone living today can remember. The South’s agreeable climate makes for a long baseball season and provides residents with an outdoor sport that boys and girls of all ages can play. From our early days of roll-a-bat to T-ball and coach-pitch to Little League baseball, children learn team dynamics and spirit, and get to run, catch, hit, and celebrate.
Baseball has always been a popular spectator sport in Winston-Salem, whether it was cheering on the local high school, city team or a minor league team, or following one of the professional teams. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights from Winston-Salem’s baseball history.
First, consider the following names: Blues, Cardinals, Twins, Pond Giants, Red Birds, Red Sox, Spirits, Warthogs, and the Dash. All of these teams played in Winston-Salem at some time, with the Dash being the current name of the minor league team. And the teams played at Fairview Park, Prince Albert Park, Southside Park, Ernie Shore Field, and at today’s BB&T Ballpark.
Professional baseball came to Winston-Salem in 1905, but before that time a colorful period of semi-professional ball opened around 1900 with the Winston Blues team. The team had its home diamond on Patterson Avenue. During its heyday, semi-pro baseball was a strong rival to professional baseball on Saturday afternoons. The crowds were large, the players were good, and the games were often close and exciting.
One game that attracted large crowds and good-natured rivalry was the annual “Lawyers versus Doctors” baseball game. The 1902 game was played at Southside Park and attracted over 1,000 spectators. The lawyers won, 13-11, and the $260 in gate receipts went to the Hospital Association.
Another professional group that took to the field was the Winston-Salem Realtors when they played the Greensboro Realtors in 1925 at Southside Park. Well-known evangelist Billy Sunday was the base umpire. Rev. Sunday played professional baseball and was adept at running and diving for balls in the outfield. He often umpired games in cities where he scheduled tent meetings. The Winston-Salem Realtors won the match 12-7.
In 1926 baseball fans were treated to a gigantic scoreboard, called a Playograph, outside the Sentinel offices on Liberty Street. Erected just in time for the World Series in October, the scoreboard showed the names of the players and followed the game action with scores and individual statistics. The street was closed to traffic on Saturday as the New York Yankees played the St. Louis Cardinals in the first game of the series.
The Carolina League was established in 1945 and Winston-Salem has fielded a team every year since. Baseball fever overtook the city in 1950, created by an enthusiastic following for a talented team. Not only were the games popular, but there were milking contests between team managers, a wedding at home plate, and beauty contests to entertain the fans. Winston-Salem won their first Carolina League pennant in 1950 (Cardinals, photo above) and have won the championship a total of 10 times. Clinching the pennant in 1950 was made even sweeter when the team repeated the feat the following year.
Southside Park, home to Winston-Salem teams for many years, burned in 1955. This event reopened a campaign for a new baseball park. Charles Babcock donated land just north of the Memorial Coliseum for a new field. The 1956 season opened with a new stadium, named for Sheriff Ernie Shore, formerly a right-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.
Ernie Shore Field was home to local baseball teams for 53 years. It also hosted a record-breaking 10,059 fans in 1958 when the New York Yankees played the Philadelphia Phillies in an exhibition game. And, the first live telecast of a professional baseball game in North Carolina took place there in 1960.
Winston-Salem teams played at Ernie Shore Field through the 2009 season, and the Dash moved to BB&T Ballpark in 2010. Led by Bolt the mascot, the Dash continues to lure baseball enthusiasts to hear the familiar words, “Play ball!” and to see the spectacular fireworks that light up the sky after each Friday night game.
Coming in September: “Just an ordinary day in 1918.”