It’s entirely a matter of perspective as to the most important, most notable, most interesting baseball game ever played in North Carolina, at least until Sunday. At that point, there will be no argument.
Nothing will compare to an actual, for-real, counts-in-the-standings Major League Baseball game played within the borders, and in a temporary stadium constructed at Fort Bragg, no less. What happens in Fayetteville on Sunday between the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins will trump everything that came before it and, presumably, after it for a very long time.
There are some challengers, though, with decent claims on the title – even one played in Fayetteville. That’s where, on April 5, 1935, as the Boston Braves returned from spring training, a 40-year-old Babe Ruth went 0-for-2 against N.C. State College, whiffing on a two-strike curveball from pitcher Olney Ray Freeman in his second at-bat.
The game was called with the Braves leading 6-2 in the seventh inning because they ran out of balls, the 100 secured for the game being insufficient for the cause. Two months later, Ruth retired, but “Lefty” Freeman told the story of how he struck out the Babe until his death in 2008.
Ruth’s final Fayetteville appearance came 21 years after his first, when he went to spring training there as a rookie with the minor-league Baltimore Orioles. A historical marker notes the site of Ruth’s very first home run on March 7, 1914.
His latter appearance in a barnstorming tour as the team headed north was a common occurrence in the first half of the 20th century, as North Carolina was a prime location for such exhibitions. Perhaps the most notable, at Wilson’s Fleming Stadium in April 1956, featured Ted Williams among 25 future Hall of Famers as the Boston Red Sox beat the Philadelphia Phillies 6-4.
Those were big games because they involved big-leaguers, but they didn’t count in the standings, nor do modern-day exhibitions between major-league teams and their minor-league affiliates, although North Carolina’s long – at times turbulent – minor-league history offers a few other contenders.
That list could include any of the games Jim Thorpe played in the Eastern Carolina League in 1909 and 1910 that would one day cost him his Olympic medals in a pique of spite by the International Olympic Committee (they were returned, posthumously); or Carl Yastrzemski’s debut for the Raleigh Capitals at old Devereaux Meadow; or the night there in 1951 when thousands came out to see Percy Miller Jr., the first black player in the Carolina League; to the final game at Durham Athletic Park in September 1994, as the Bulls left behind the cozy confines made famous by “Bull Durham.”
College fans might suggest the 2013 ACC tournament game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park between North Carolina and N.C. State that drew a record 11,392 fans to a meeting of top-10 teams that took a marathon 18 innings to decide, with a rematch on tap in Omaha during the College World Series. Yet even those partisans must acknowledge the heat and high stakes of that rivalry pale in comparison to the stakes and circumstances Sunday.
This isn’t merely a big deal for North Carolina or baseball in the state. It’s as close as the entire sport will ever get to the Carrier Classic, the Nov. 11, 2011 game aboard the USS Carl Vinson between North Carolina and Michigan State. (While aboard, Tar Heels baseball coach Mike Fox joked, “The 400-foot width would play a factor, I’m afraid.”) While there have been other, similar basketball games since, the first was the best, not least because of the quality of the teams and the utterly perfect circumstances, a stroke of tremendous luck.
One of the great unseen dynamics of the Carrier Classic was how truly excited the Navy was to have everyone aboard; the hospitality of the sailors both on the aircraft carrier and the naval base in San Diego resonated long after memories of the basketball game had faded. The Army now gets its chance to shine.
And 81 years after Babe Ruth struck out in Fayetteville, baseball takes its biggest swing ever in North Carolina.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock