Rickwood Field: A Century in America's Oldest Ballpark

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

Rickwood Field: A Century in America's Oldest Ballpark By Allen Barra W.W. Norton & Co. 367 pp.

In recent years, a raft of books about major league baseball stadiums have been published. And why not, since for many fans their fondest sporting memories have to do with the sights and sounds of being at the ballpark.

The romance for these venues, however, isn’t limited to the big leagues. Allen Barra makes that point abundantly clear in his book Rickwood Field: A Century in America's Oldest Ballpark. Rickwood Field opened in 1910 in Birmingham, Ala., and thus predates even the oldest extant big league stadiums, Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field, which opened in 1912 and 1914 respectively.

Beyond the physical structure, however, is a history that traces the evolution of the sport and the social changes wrought in the game’s most storied Southern hotbed. Many of the greatest names in baseball passed through Rickwood’s gates over the years, either as minor leaguers on the way up or as major leaguers on teams that stopped over in Birmingham on their way north from spring training.

In 1921 the Yankees and Dodgers squared off there, and over time everybody from Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Dizzy Dean, Rogers Hornsby, and Satchel Paige to Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays (a Birmingham native) did star turns at Rickwood.

At the turn of the last century, Allen Harvey “Rick” Woodward, the son of a local iron baron, felt Birmingham – a booming industrial center at the time – needed a ballpark befitting its stature. He set about erecting one modeled after Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, the first concrete-and-steel sports structure in the United States. Woodward fused his first and last names in naming the park.

Birmingham was the epicenter of black baseball up through World War II, as the game was highly popular with African Americans working and playing for in the steel mills and iron mines, and cheering for the Black Barons Negro League entry.

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.”

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.

5 - Abe Saperstein, the white basketball impresario who founded the Harlem Globetrotters, was active in baseball, too, and helped to open doors for black players such as Satchel Paige. He once arranged for the Birmingham Black Barons to play in Yankee Stadium.

6 - Bear Bryant, who later became the University of Alabama’s legendary football coach, attended a game at Rickwood Field in 1948 in order to see local teen sensation, Willie Mays, who played left field for the Black Barons while still a student at Fairfield Industrial High School. Mays was also an outstanding quarterback.

7 - The last professional player to bat over .400 was Artie Wilson of the Birmingham Black Barons, who compiled a .402 average in 1948. (Ted Williams was the last major-leaguer to achieve the feat, by batting .406 in 1941.)

8 - Bobo Newsom, one of the best-traveled pitchers in major league history, ended his professional career with the Birmingham Barons in 1951. He is the only pitcher from the 20th century who won more than 200 career games but had a losing lifetime record (211-222).

9 - Hank Aaron, a native of Mobile, Ala., hit two home runs at Rickwood Field for the Atlanta Braves in 1974 during a spring training game just two weeks before he broke Babe Ruth’s career mark with his 715th lifetime home run. Twenty years earlier, as a shortstop on the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, he played there in an exhibition against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

10 - Charlie Finley, the flamboyant owner of the Oakland A’s during the team’s 1970s heyday, grew up in near Birmingham and became the Birmingham Barons’ batboy. After he bought the A’s in 1960, he assembled a powerhouse farm team in Birmingham that featured such stars as Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, and Joe Rudi. Noted baseball statistician Bill James has called the Birmingham A’s the greatest minor league team ever.

Ross Atkin is a Monitor staff editor.

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