Wilson’s North Carolina Baseball Museum
The history of baseball in North Carolina dates to the 19th century, which is precisely why local officials in Wilson wanted to build a museum that sang the praises of "America’s Pastime.” These dedicated devotees of the game definitely succeeded in capturing the spirit and passion of baseball in this spacious, well-lit and fascinating state baseball treasure trove.
“This all got started in the stands at a game one night, when we were talking about the history of baseball in Wilson and in North Carolina in general,” says Kent Montgomery, one of the local leaders responsible for the North Carolina Baseball Museum. “Someone asked if there was a museum dedicated to baseball in the state and nobody knew. Well, one thing led to another and – about four years later – we had a museum that covered all of baseball in North Carolina.”
Montgomery makes it sound simple, but it took lots of dedicated volunteers, city involvement (and funding), privately donated dollars and support, research, memorabilia donations from near and far, and help from other North Carolina museum curators to make this museum dream a reality. “It was truly a community effort and still is,” says Montgomery, whose brother made it to the big leagues as a pitcher with the Kansas City Royals back in 1971. Montgomery also thinks they may have even “invented” a new type of museum, in that they don’t know of another museum in the nation dedicated solely to a single state’s baseball history.
Opened on February 2, 2004, the North Carolina Baseball Museum is located at Fleming Stadium in Wilson. The classic stadium is also a piece of the state’s baseball history, having been dedicated on June 29, 1939, before a Wilson Tobs (short for Tobacconists) baseball game.
Ted Williams once played in an exhibition game at Fleming Stadium in 1956. The Hall of Famer’s Red Sox played against the Philadelphia Phillies, including future Hall of Fame players Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts.
Some other major league stars who also played at Fleming Stadium include: Rod Carew, Curt Flood, Willie McCovey, Carl Yastrzemski, Bobby Murcer, Rusty Staub, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and Rico Petrocelli. Elon resident Jack McKeon, was the Tobs manager back in 1960.
After hosting a wide variety of teams over the years, venerable Fleming Stadium and the city have welcomed the Wilson Tobs summer collegiate baseball team since 1997. Part of the exciting 13-team Coastal Plain League, the Tobs play 28 home games each summer from early-June to early-August.
A core group of volunteers came from the Wilson Hot Stove League, which is part of a national organization of devoted baseball fans dedicated to promoting baseball at all levels. The highlight for the local club is an annual banquet that features awards to those who have contributed to baseball locally, as well as guest speakers and celebrities – with past banquet attendees including Stan Musial, Bob Uecker, Jack McKeon, Trot Nixon, and many more. Wilson’s Hot Stove League members have also participated in a wide array of local baseball-oriented projects, including the renovation of historic Fleming Stadium and the establishment and building of the North Carolina Baseball Museum.
Labor Of Love
Local businessman Lee Gliarmis is typical of the Hot Stove League’s involvement. Lee is owner of Dick’s Hot Dog Stand, which was founded by his father back in 1921 near the site of Wilson’s original baseball stadium. A huge sports fan, Gliarmis is president of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and the Wilson Hot Stove League. The walls of his now-legendary restaurant are plastered with sports memorabilia.
Much discussion about the museum took place at a corner booth in Dick’s Hot Dog Stand, where two hot dogs with mustard, onions, and Dick’s homemade chili are standard lunch fare. Museum board members like Gliarmis, Montgomery, Milo Gibbs, Eddie Fulford, and many others literally turned those meals into a museum.
Their labor of love is located just down the third base line of Fleming Stadium and is typically bustling before Tobs home games. Tobs general manager Ben Jones says it’s not unusual to see several players from the visiting team roaming wide-eyed from display to display before heading back onto the field for batting practice.
In front of the museum, a huge concrete baseball is surrounded by more than 1,500 red bricks inscribed with the names of museum backers and more, which creates a “Walk of Fame” into the museum.
Inside, a volunteer typically welcomes visitors at a front counter that includes lots of enticing museum souvenirs (including high-quality baseball caps and an excellent miniature replica of the stadium). If there’s a line, four bleacher seats removed during the renovation of Fleming Stadium are nearby. Just beyond the front counter, the history of North Carolina baseball unfolds in a wide variety of creative displays.
A pedestal close at hand features two thick, three-ring binders that provide statistics about every single native North Carolinian that made it to the major leagues. With almost 400 players making it to the majors, it makes for some fun perusal of well-known and more obscure players and their stats!
More than 90% of these players are featured in some way in 18 display cases and many wall boards overflowing with memorabilia about them – including hundreds of baseball cards, magazine and newspaper articles, photos, jerseys, baseballs, bats, balls, and much more. Some items are nearly 100 years old.
While some of these items were found at baseball card shows Montgomery attended, a large majority were donated to the museum when word spread about its opening (and they’re still getting lots of donations).
On The Ball
The first room includes memorabilia from seven North Carolina natives who are included in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. These include: Jim "Catfish" Hunter; Hoyt Wilhelm; Gaylord Perry; Enos Slaughter; Rick Ferrell; Buck Leonard; and Luke Appling. This room also has American Legion highlights and display with details about former Wilson resident (Charles “Red” Barrett) holding the record for the fewest number of pitches (56) in a major league game.
The second spacious room brings more North Carolina baseball history to life, generally focusing on the massive amount of minor league history in the state, the negro leagues, semi-pro ball, college and high school baseball, women‘s professional baseball, and more. Highlights include: a chronological history of North Carolina baseball; a Louisville Slugger bat display showing the various stages of bat construction; three early Fleming Stadium locker room stalls; the moving memorabilia collection of a local high school player who tragically died in a car crash in 1998 while coming home from a Carolina Mudcats game; and a number of older and more recent baseball jerseys, gloves, and bats that visitors are welcome to try out.
This room is packed with widely varied memorabilia that keeps many visitors entranced for hours. Those who just want to sit and soak it all in will find a dozen more bleacher seats – where Kent Montgomery and others now have their museum “board meetings.” Montgomery says more than 25,000 people have visited the museum.
“Baseball is a cherished tradition in Wilson,” says the city’s mayor, C. Bruce Rose. “The North Carolina Baseball Museum complements other tourist destinations in Wilson, including the award-winning All-American Wilson Rose Garden, our regional science museum, Imagination Station, and the Nestus Freeman Round House Museum, which highlights historic contributions from African-American citizens.”
Although anytime is a great time to see the museum and the rest of Wilson, July is a particularly prime month to plan a visit. The Tobs are in town for many home games during the month (as well as games in June and the first half of August). Do you need any more reasons to be taken out to the ball game...and museum?
If You Go:
North Carolina Baseball Museum
300 Stadium Street
Wilson, NC 27893
Hours (call first to confirm): Thursday, Friday, and Saturday 10am to 4pm; Sunday 1pm to 5pm.
The museum is also open during Tobs home games, beginning two hours before game time and ending an hour after the first pitch.
Admission: $3 for ages 18-65; $1 for children ages 17 and younger and folks ages 65 and older.
By Lynn Seldon
added: December 23, 2008
updated: February 11, 2010
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