Rickwood Field: America’s oldest pro ballpark

Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala., lays claim to being the oldest intact and functioning professional baseball field. Inspired by Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and Shibe Park in Philadelphia, it was built in 1910, two years before the next longest surviving park, Fenway Park. It housed Birmingham-based minor league teams full-time until 1987, and now is the home to the Rickwood Classic, a yearly game pitting the Birmingham Barons against one of their rivals in throwback uniforms. It also hosts many college, high school and amateur games every year.

It has a colorful history. Steel executive Rick Woodward, inspired and assisted by Connie Mack’s Shibe Park in Philadelphia, built what was then a state-of the-art concrete and steel ballpark to house his fledging minor league team, the Birmingham Barons. It also hosted a well-respected Negro league franchise, the Birmingham Black Barons. Both became successful franchises in their respective leagues.

Allen Barra’s Rickwood Field: a Century in America’s Oldest Ballpark has the look on the cover as being an extended valentine to the old baseball park, near which the author grew up. The cover photo faces home plate with the stands and the tiny rooftop press box against a sunset-like sky. While there is a bit of truth to that premise, the field serves in most of the book like a prop or a stage where things happen. Barra and others do reflect on the field’s dimensions and ambience, but the stadium serves mostly as a centerpiece in discussing Birmingham’s considerable and mostly unheralded role in baseball’s, the South, and the nation’s evolution in the 20th century.

The story opens in the late 1800s. Birmingham was built up after the Civil War to give the South its only truly industrial city, primarily dealing in steel. The various companies set up baseball teams, both white and black, to both entertain and raise the morale of the workers. Most players were workers at the plants, with a few refugees from the northeastern-based professional teams. There were no pro teams in the south at this time, and there were no formal minor league affiliations among the teams that did exist, so eventually these company-based teams combined to form a sort of professional league.

Rick Woodward, a son of one of the steel barons, was infatuated with baseball, and set out to build a park for the Birmingham team. He enlisted Connie Mack to help him design a modern stadium for his team, then known as the Birmingham Coal Barons. Barra takes us though the evolution of company baseball to a minor league, then entering a golden age of southern baseball that went from around 1910 until the end of World War II.

Barra also gets heavily into the Negro league team that played at Rickwood. While Birmingham was strictly segregated, the blacks and whites generally co-existed peacefully, the teams had respect for each other, and the black and white residents at Birmingham would attend each other’s games. It really wasn’t until the civil rights upheavals after World WAR ii that everything exploded.

One of the key things Barra is trying to communicate is both the healing and divisive powers of baseball and the role Rickwood Field and the Birmingham Barons played in it. He talks about the relatively harmonious relationship between the black and white teams. He writes that baseball was one common thing blacks and whites both had an interest in and could converse about.

After the war, Birmingham became a flashpoint for much of the civil rights conflict. Theophilius Eugene “Bull” Connor, a former announcer for the Barons, as public safety commissioner of Birmingham loudly and forcefully defended segregation, even throwing dirt in a swimming pool to keep it from being desegregated. It drove attendance way down at the park, and nearly destroyed organized baseball in Birmingham. While his divisive tactics backfired on him and led to progress in the national civil rights movement, it was one signal of the decline in Birmingham baseball.

Barra makes the reader feel the true effect of Jackie Robinson being signed. As momentous as it was, there was bitter resistance. The pro-segregationists led by Connor would not let integrated teams play in Birmingham. Robinson’s signing also signaled the beginning of the end of the Negro Leagues. Despite Robinson’s entrance to the big leagues meaning the end of official segregation in baseball, it did leave some bittersweet and nostalgic feelings for the old league.

Barra relates these stories in very clear prose. He avoids the overly sentimental clichés many baseball writers are prone to, and he doesn’t forget to have a little fun. He has great historical anecdotes. He talks about Hall of Famers Burleigh Grimes and Pie Traynor, who played on the Barons before reachng the majors. He describes in detail “the greatest game ever played”—the 1931 Dixie Series matchup between a young and cocky Dizzy Dean and a crafty fortysomething named Ray Caldwell.

He also writes about the enthusiasm and insane talent of Willie Mays, who played briefly with the Black Barons, and about Black Barons outfielder/coach Piper Davis, arguably one of the best Negro League outfielders to play the game. He doesn’t forget the oddball genius of Satchel Paige, who pitched for a few years in Birmingham.

Getting to more recent times, Barra writes talks about how Charles O. Finley bought the team in the mid-1960s, changed the name, attempted to introduce orange baseballs and loaded up his roster with future stars like Joe Rudi, Bert Campaneris and Reggie Jackson, who would be among the core of players that turned the A’s into a dynasty in the early 1970s.

There were also the frequent visits by major league clubs. After spring training concluded in Florida, Birmingham was often a stop for teams heading north. That led to some freewheeling exhibition games. Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth and many others made memorable stops in Birmingham.

To add more swaths of color, the last third of the book is devoted to short essays by the characters in and around Rickwood Field. There are first-person accounts of players, journalists and coaches. Characters as diverse as Davis, Mays and Rollie Fingers wrote short pieces on their experiences there. Barra is a fine historian who obviously wrote this book as a labor of love, but his work gets magnified when some of the characters he writes about speak for themselves. There is also an appendix on a some other old ballparks in the country that are either facing the wrecking ball or nearly avoided it. It gives testimonials to these parks, their current situation, and how one can help.

This book is for the baseball purist who also loves history, or vice-versa. It is nostalgic for the simpler times when baseball was the king sport and there weren’t thousand of other entertainment options to compete with its crown. He does buffer this nostalgia with the full knowledge of baseball’s role in shaping the country in the mid-20th century. Baseball and sports as a whole are often seen as entertainment with little or no relation to the real world. Barra’s book shows how much, in fact, they are all tied together, at least for that city, in that time period, and for that sport.

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