Bull Durham Tobacco & the Durham Bulls

Written By North Carolina History Project, Dr. Troy L. Kickler

William G. Bramham, a Durham attorney, was largely responsible for the creation of the Durham Bulls baseball team. On March 18, 1902, Bramham and the North Carolina League met in Raleigh to organize the state’s first major and minor baseball leagues. Shortly after the meeting, the Durham Tobacconists, the precursor to the Durham Bulls, played their first baseball game in April 1902 against Trinity College. The Durham Tobacconists were disbanded after playing a few games in 1902.

The Durham Bulls played their first game in 1913.  World War I, however, placed another obstacle in front of the up-and-coming team, so the Bulls ceased play until 1926.  On July 26, 1926, the Bulls’s El Toro Park was officially dedicated with Governor Angus W. McLean and baseball commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Landis, in attendance.

As president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues from 1932 to 1946, Bramham, now a judge in Durham County, helped solidify minor league baseball in North Carolina during the mid-twentieth century. The original El Toro Park changed names to become the Durham Athletic Park, but the stands burned down in 1939.  However, a month later, the Durham Athletic Park was rebuilt in July 2, 1939.

In the 1980s, North Carolina’s minor league baseball organization grew in popularity, primarily due to the movie Bull Durham (1988). The Durham Bulls experienced success in the 1990s, and the team became the Class-AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998. Today, the Durham Bulls remain popular in Durham and the surrounding RTP area.

Durham Bulls is named after the Bull Durham tobacco-advertising icon. After the Civil War, John Green sought to create a new tobacco brand, and he was influenced by the advertisement campaign of a Durham, England mustard company.  The English company used a bullhead on its mustard labels, so Green copied the appealing packaging and placed a bull image on his tobacco packaging.

Even though Green endured several lawsuits alleging copyright and trademark infringements, he eventually secured the Durham bull as his tobacco advertisement. Green passed away in 1867, and William T. Blackwell took control of the Bull Durham tobacco company, eventually renamed the William T. Blackwell Company. According to Robert F. Durden, “Bull Durham smoking tobacco was widely advertised and was one of the world’s best-known American products of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”