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Modern Durham Retains Home-Field Advantage

September 11, 1988|MARK I. PINSKY | Times Staff Writer

DURHAM, N.C. — The hit movie "Bull Durham" has lovingly showcased this one-time tobacco town on screens across the nation in a way that most tourist bureaus would envy, despite ads calling it "a major-league love story in a minor-league town."

Image-conscious natives are quick to point out that the Durham of the bawdy baseball film--a quaint, industrial town seemingly out of the 1930s--is discernible today rather than dominant, nearly overshadowed by the city's emerging, gleaming commercial skyline and divided by a new downtown expressway.

Drive Around Town

Still, with "Bull Durham" etched in your memory, a random drive around town puts you at familiar, gritty sites from the movie, which stars Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner, at almost every turn. Old two-story homes like the one inhabited by the character played by Sarandon survive, but they are vastly outnumbered by scores of anonymous apartment and condominium complexes.

More than anything, the success of the movie has turned 50-year-old Durham Athletic Park, where much of the movie takes place, into an instant attraction with visitors to the north-central North Carolina city of 125,000. The classic 5,000-seat stadium features green grass, no dome and seats that make you feel as if you're right on top of the field.

Over the past 10 years the real Durham Bulls, a winning Class A minor league club, has been a growing success with the city's residents, who love to spend their relaxed summer evenings with their families at this ballpark. The identification between the team and the town is so great that by February, when President Reagan visited the area and well before the movie was released, Mayor Wib Gulley gave him a Bulls cap rather than the keys to the city.

Interestingly, "Bull Durham" is not the first time this city has been portrayed on theater screens around the country. In 1950 Gary Cooper and Lauren Bacall starred in "Bright Leaf," a name that survives here as an upscale shopping center in a restored, red-brick tobacco warehouse. That film recounted the fictionalized rise of James Buchanan (Buck) Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Co. and Duke University, heretofore the city's two main claims to fame.

The Duke family homestead, just outside of town, is a restored dwelling surrounded by several tobacco-curing barns and primitive factories where Buck's father, Washington Duke, settled just before the Civil War. Owned for many years by the university, the homestead was turned over to the state in 1974.

In the late 19th Century the Dukes' new product was overshadowed by John Ruffin Green and William T. Blackwell's established brand of loose smoking tobacco sold in small pouches. Their firm was called Durham Tobacco Co. but popularly known as Bull Durham in honor of its black bovine trademark, which cautioned: "None Genuine Without the Bull on Each Package."

Although the hard-driving Buck Duke eventually took over the Durham Tobacco Co. and its most famous product in the process of building his worldwide cigarette empire, Durham remains known as "The Bull City."

Durham has many things to see and do besides visiting the old ballpark and the city's last cigarette factory. But apart from a few restored antebellum plantations on the outskirts of town, most area attractions are still tied in some way to tobacco or the Duke family.

Civil War History

About four miles west of the Duke homestead is Bennett Place, a restored farmhouse. It was there, on April 26, 1865, that Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, surrendered to the larger Union Army of Gen. William T. Sherman, who had recently completed his devastating March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah. Like the homestead, there are guided tours and an exhibit hall at the state-administered Bennett Place, and admission is also free.

During the nine days of negotiations that preceded the Confederate surrender at Bennett Place, the largest of the Civil War, soldiers of both armies "liberated" some of the Bright Leaf smoking tobacco from Green and Ruffin's Durham Tobacco Co. warehouses. After the war, requests began coming in from these veterans asking for more of the blend, affecting the city's economic future and, indirectly, giving a boost to Washington Duke, a returned Confederate prisoner of war.

The Duke family's product, an upstart rival to Bull Durham called Duke's Mixture, was turned out at the homestead and sold under the slogan "Pro Bono Publico." The slogan, translated from the Latin "for the public good," might be considered ironic by many, in light of the later connection established between cigarette smoking and cancer, emphysema and heart disease.

To compound the irony, much ground-breaking research in those diseases is done at world-renowned Duke University Medical Center, which also provides tours to visitors.

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