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Rickwood Field: A Century in America's Oldest Ballpark

Rickwood Field – the country's oldest ballpark – is rich in baseball lore and legend.

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Although Birmingham was racially more progressive than other parts of the South due to its industrial base, it also was the city of Bull Connor, the public safety official who ordered the use of fire hoses and attack dogs against civil rights demonstrators. Before becoming notorious as a segregation enforcer, Connor was a popular play-by-play broadcaster for the all-white Birmingham Barons. The Sporting News, in fact, called him the “most popular baseball announcer in the South.”

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Ironically, the first integrated professional game was played at Rickwood in 1954 between the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox, without incident. Birmingham’s baseball fans, it appears, were more interested in seeing major league players than they were in insisting upon racial divisions.

Architecturally, Rickwood has its share of distinctive features, including the “Crow’s Nest” on the grandstand roof, cantilevered field lights, and a Spanish mission-style façade that owes its appearance to a design craze inspired by a Hollywood movie starring Mary Pickford. These have been preserved by the Friends of Rickwood, a nonprofit organization formed in 1992 to keep this landmark from crumbling.

An appendix to the book explains the many steps taken by this group to keep the ballpark intact and operative despite the loss of the minor-league Birmingham Barons, who played there from 1910 to 1987. The Barons moved to a new stadium in the suburbs, but now Rickwood serves as a civic asset that hosts about 200 games a year, including those of high school, college, and amateur teams.

Here are 10 other things I learned from “Rickwood Field”:

1 - Rick Woodward, the owner of the minor league’s Birmingham Barons, not only dressed in a Barons uniform when Rickwood Field opened on Aug. 18, 1910, he actually threw out the game’s first pitch – not just a ceremonial toss.

2 - In what appeared to be a classic case of sending mixed signals, Rickwood Field was rented to black baseball teams when the white Barons were on the road, but also to the Ku Klux Klan for its rallies. There was a method to this madness, however, since accommodating the Klan kept Klansmen from wanting to burn the ballpark down.

3 - Bill Stern, a famous New York-based sportscaster during the 1930s, was fond of relating an apocryphal story of the longest home run in baseball history, presumably hit by Babe Ruth at Rickwood Field. Ruth’s blast reportedly landed in an open box car or coal tender on the nearby railroad tracks and never hit the ground until the train reached Atlanta several hours later. The real oddity: Stern never witnessed a game at Rickwood but perhaps felt that few would ever be able to confirm what he claimed happened in faraway Birmingham.

4 - Rickwood played a role in the evolution of scoreboards. In 1928 it added a distinctive 40-foot-high board in left-center field that was innovative for its day. The board featured drop-in slots to show the inning-by-inning scoring. There also was section for scores of major league games. Refurbishing this board was one of the first projects in restoring the park in the early 1990s.

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