All Roads Go Through Rickwood Field

IMG_3522Something old, something new. If there’s ever a city that exudes baseball history, it has to Birmingham, AL. Cooperstown, you say? Nobody really ever played in Cooperstown, despite what Henry Chadwick and the Mills Commission said. If you are looking for a living, breathing piece of baseball history, where no less than 113 members of the Hall of Fame played, countless Negro League players, and eleven HOF players who played for the Barons or Black Barons, look no further than Birmingham. You would find it difficult to find a more rich baseball history city than the Magic City.

I’d be remiss to admit that I have personal ties to this city and this famous ballpark. My uncle appeared in a football game at Rickwood in 1953, and was run down from behind on a potential touchdown run by a future Catholic Monsignor on the way to the end zone, and my aunt once played softball at this classic stadium. But by then, Rickwood field was in her middle age as a classic ballpark, already full of history and lore that stretched generations.

Baseball history in Birmingham stretches back as far as 1885 when the Coal Barons played in Birmingham. In 1887 the Barons began play in Slag field, and in in 1901, the Southern Association formed, and the Barons won the championship in 1906.

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Early Barons at Slag Pile, from “Baseball in Birmingham” by Clarence Watkins

In 1910, the current Rickwook Field opened, thanks to the owner of the Barons, Rick Woodward. The rest, as they say, is history. Rickwood has continued to operate to this day, making it the oldest field in continuous operation!
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Countless MLB and Negro League players have made their way through Rickwood Field. HOF players that have played for the Birmingham Barons (and the Black Barons) include Burleigh Grimes, Pie Traynor, Rube Marquard, “Mule” Suttles, Bill Foster, Satchel Paige, Willie Wells, Willie Mays, Tony LaRussa, Reggie Jackson, and Rollie Fingers. Scores of other MLB and Negro League stars have played at Rickwood, from Babe Ruth to Jimmy Piersall.It seems as though the road to Cooperstown runs through Birmingham

Rickwood opened in 1910, and for a majority of the time was shared by the various incarnations of the Barons of the Southern League and the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. This shared history is evident throughout the ballpark, with photos and art work from both teams posted prominently. Its history can almost be summed up in this one piece of artwork on the walls:

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There are no fantastic amenities, no kids playground, no luxury boxes. But that doesn’t take away from its charm and beauty. Although I have to admit I was jealous of the view one photographer had! Maybe another year I will ask for a press pass just to get this view.

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IMG_2273.JPGThis year’s edition of the throwback back, the twenty first such even, honored the time when the Birmingham club was the farm team of Charles Finley and the Oakland A’s. Uniforms were late 60s vintage, and many of the players from both Birmingham and Chattanooga were perched on top of the dugouts during most of the game. Throwing out the first pitch was Rollie Fingers, opening day pitcher of the 1967 and 1968 seasons. Fingers recalled in an interview he didn’t remember much of the 1967 start, as he took a line drive off his head and was knock out of the game early on. Even the umpires were dressed in old time uniforms.
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The stadium itself hasn’t changed much throughout the years. But she still shines. It was one of the first parks made from concrete and steel and has held up well. Steel beams still provide for obstructed views, but that didn’t matter to the nearly 7200 fans that showed up that day. The old time lights were added in 1936. The fences have moved in considerably since it was first built. There’s an outer wall still present that has the original dimensions on the wall. Definitely a pitcher’s ballpark, as right center was 436 feet and center was at least 448 feet.
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One unique feature is the scoreboard. Rickwood has recreated the original scoreboard in left field, and for the out of town scores, it shows the original 16 teams of the AL and NL teams from 1910. Notice in this photo the two teams from Boston, St. Louis, and Philadelphia.
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In addition to being the home of the Barons, Rickwood was also home to the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. Negro League ball dates back to the turn of the 20th century in Birmingham, and both teams shared Rickwood Field. This team photo from 1928 shows the Black Barons, and it’s said that Satchel Paige is third from the left in the back row.

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Early Black Barons, from “Baseball in Birmingham” by Clarence Watkins

Even in the deeply segregated south, there was an effort to bring out all fans to Rickwood when the Barons were out of town.

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From “Birmingham in Baseball” by Clarence Watkins

The Barons brought out some old time Negro League players and were encouraging autographs from the younger fans of the game. Included in the crowd were JC Casselberry, who played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the late 50s, and Henry Elmore who played for Philadelphia.
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Here is a proud 9 year old Carolyn showing off her autographs of these great old timers
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Action on the field equaled the ambiance of the setting. The Lookouts jumped out to a 4-0 lead early, and held on for a 7-4 win against the Barons. But the real winners were the fans who got to witness a great game in a gem of a ball park.

And part 2 can be found here.

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For more photos, be sure to read part 2 here.

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