Like a cold snap to ring in the new year, one certainty for area baseball fans existed each January from the late 1950s through the early 1990s: Willie Duke, resplendent in coat and tie with baseball cap, pitched tickets for the annual Raleigh Hot Stove League banquet.
Duke played 14 seasons of minor-league baseball and left his mark in the Durham Bulls record book with a .385 batting average in 1947 at age 37. Then, upon retirement from playing and managing, he went about making a bigger name for himself in the region by promoting and keeping alive an annual off-season gathering of baseball heads that has grown into one of the best in the country.
“The Raleigh Hot Stove dinner embodies the concept of ‘hot stove’ unlike any other,” said Pat O’Conner, president and CEO of Minor League Baseball, who will attend his eighth Raleigh Hot Stove League banquet in the past nine years on Tuesday at N.C. State’s McKimmon Center.
“Aside from its long history, the Raleigh dinner is a regional event involving every aspect of baseball, from special-needs youth through amateur baseball, on to college and professional baseball,” O’Conner said. “All of baseball is celebrated each January in Raleigh. While other dinners may be bigger, none is as treasured as the Raleigh event.”
This will be the 67th hot stove get-together in Raleigh for an event that once was designed for baseball fans to discuss their beloved game during the winter months and has transformed over the years into what is now an industry banquet for the Triangle-area baseball community.
Most historians trace the beginnings of the “hot stove” to around the turn of the 20th century when news about baseball was virtually nonexistent from the end of the World Series in October until the beginning of spring training in March. So, players and fans alike gathered around an old hot stove and talked about the game.
That was the premise to starting the Raleigh version in January 1950. Chick Doak, N.C. State’s baseball coach in 1924-39, was the club’s first president, and he served in that capacity until Duke took over in 1958.
“He basically did everything single-handedly,” Tony Riggsbee, the current executive director, said of Duke. “He would show up, and Willie had a pretty strong personality. People would buy tables just because they knew Willie would not stop (pushing) until they did. He would come to see you every day. He was somewhat eccentric, but beloved, too.”
Duke expanded the annual awards, sometimes to include other sports as well. Mostly, he kept the banquet going through some difficult times in the 1970s when baseball had taken a back seat to the growing college sports of football and basketball in regional interest. By 1976, baseball interest had waned to the point there was only one minor-league baseball franchise (Winston-Salem) in the state.
Yet Duke kept the banquet alive, mostly by calling on old friends to attend and by bringing in some of North Carolina’s biggest baseball names to win the coveted Will Wynne Award as the North Carolinian who made the greatest contribution to the game. During Duke’s tenure as president, he got the likes of Hoyt Wilhelm, Enos Slaughter, Tony Cloninger, Jim Perry, Gaylord Perry, Catfish Hunter and Roger Craig to attend.
Duke played 14 games in 1938 for the Minneapolis Millers of the Class AA American Association and must have made quite an impression on his fellow outfielder, Ted Williams. Twice during the 1980s, Duke collected on old favors and secured the presence of the Hall of Famer for the banquet.
Duke died on the eve of the 1993 banquet at age 83, and turned the banquet’s presidency over to long-time Durham Bulls baseball fan and team ambassador, Bill Law. When Law died this past August, Riggsbee assumed the role of directing the organization.
“The banquets, more or less, evolved from being a baseball gathering where you came to get your baseball fix into one where it’s still certainly a community event, but it’s become more like the baseball writers’ dinners in some of the big-league cities,” Riggsbee said. “It’s sort of more of a gathering of the baseball family during the winter, more than anything else now.”
Riggsbee said the Raleigh Hot Stove League is the only one in the country that gets support from four minor-league baseball teams: the Durham Bulls, Carolina Mudcats, Burlington Orioles and Danville (Va.) Braves. Additionally, the organization is supported by USA Baseball, Baseball America, the Coastal Plain League and all area college baseball programs.
This year’s program includes presentation of the Will Wynne Award to Bobby Evans, the general manager of the San Francisco Giants, who grew up in Jackson and graduated from UNC. Other awards will be listed in the night’s program, along with a quote from Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby that reads: “People ask me what I do in the winter when there is no baseball,” Hornsby said. “I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
And attend a hot stove banquet.
What: 67th annual Raleigh Hot Stove League banquet
When: Tuesday, Jan. 24, 6 p.m.
Where: N.C. State, McKimmon Center
Tickets: $35 at the door
Will Wynne Award
Winners of the annual Raleigh Hot Stove League banquet to the person who contributed most to baseball in North Carolina:
John Henry Moss
Sam Esposito, Catfish Hunter
Jim Perry, Gaylord Perry
Gaylord Perry, Mike Caldwell
Russ Frazier, Bill Brooks
Walt Weiss, Joe Ferebee
Tony Cloninger, Grady Little, Jerry Narron
Kevin Millwood, Quenton McCracken
Kevin Millwood, Jack McKeon
Trot Nixon, Keith LeClair
Josh Hamilton, Carl Willis
Madison Bumgarner, Kyle Seager