Book Review: Rickwood Field

Rickwood Field: A Century in America’s Oldest Ballpark

By Allen Barra

W.W. Norton & Company, 2010

List Price: $27.95

When Birmingham’s Rickwood Field opened in 1910, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field didn’t yet exist. Babe Ruth, the “architect” of Yankee Stadium, was still living at the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, the model upon which Rickwood was based, was itself only a year old.

Shibe has come and gone, as has old Yankee Stadium. But Rickwood endures. The historic park, which has hosted a dizzying roster of baseball’s greatest players, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The baby of iron baron Rick Woodward (from whom it received its name), opened to rave reviews on Aug. 18, 1910, as a crowd of 10,000 saw the hometown Barons top the Montgomery Climbers, 3-2.

Veteran author Allen Barra, whose credits include biographies on Yogi Berra and Paul “Bear” Bryant, traces Rickwood’s history in “Rickwood Field: A Century in America’s Oldest Ballpark.” A Birmingham native, Barra grew up attending games in the stadium, visiting it for the first time in 1966 for an exhibition between the Yankees and Red Sox.

Every spring, teams would drop in for similar games as they proceeded north after breaking training camp. These contests drew legends such as Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio. And those were just the white players.

Rickwood also served as the home of Birmingham’s Black Barons, whose roster at various times included greats Satchel Paige, Mule Suttles, Turkey Stearnes, Piper Davis and Willie Mays, who began playing for the team while he was still in high school. Other Negro League stars such as Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell suited up against the Black Barons at Rickwood. Scan the list of Hall of Famers from the 20th century and chances are they played in Birmingham at some point.

Mays may have been the best of the local boys, but he was hardly the only one to jump from Birmingham to the national stage. The city’s industrial leagues were teeming with talented players of both races. Most companies fielded two teams, one black and one white. Of course, they weren’t allowed to play each other.

Davis was such a baseball nut growing up that he even followed the white Barons, attending games at Rickwood Field, including the legendary 1931 Dixie Series showdown between Dizzy Dean and Ray Caldwell. The stands were segregated then, with chicken wire separating the black fans, who were restricted to the right field area. Of course, for Black Baron games, the shoe was on the other foot, with white fans—and there were some—limited to those seats.

Birmingham was a racially divided community long into the 20th century. A hotbed for the Ku Klux Klan, which held rallies at Rickwood, the city was led by men like Eugene “Bull” Connor, who served as both radio announcer for the Barons and public safety commissioner. It was in the latter role that he fought against segregation, becoming a villain of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Baseball is so intertwined with the history of Birmingham that “Rickwood Field” at times is as much of a record of the city as it is of its favorite sport. The community’s refusal to allow blacks and whites to play baseball together led to the loss of its Barons. In fact, the Southern Association folded following the 1960 season, acknowledging that other cities too would not permit integrated teams to play.

Alabama native Charlie O. Finley brought baseball back to Birmingham in 1964. Most of the stars of the Oakland dynasty of the early 1970s apprenticed as Birmingham A’s in Rickwood for a season, including Bert Campaneris, Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi, Vida Blue, and Gene Tenace. In 1976, Finley moved the team to Chattanooga, leaving Birmingham without a professional club once again.

Five years later the Barons were back, this time as a Tigers farm team. By that point Rickwood Field was showing its age. Parking was limited and car break-ins frightened away potential fans. In 1987, the Barons, then a White Sox feeder, played their final game in the historic park before moving to a new stadium in the suburbs. Rickwood has since been revitalized, thanks to the Friends of Rickwood, who have raised and spent more than $2 million restoring the stadium, which will soldier on into its second century minus a full-time tenant.

Barra does a fine job compiling the history of Rickwood’s early years and carries that momentum through the peak of baseball in Birmingham. But “Rickwood Field” is lean on details from the last 50 years, with everything from Martin Luther King Jr.’s march to the filming of the movie “Cobb” squeezed into the final chapter. Certainly there had to be some games over the past five decades that were worthy of being included in this history. Even today the Barons play an annual Rickwood Classic there. Why not delve into one or two of those?

More than a third of the book is devoted to appendix material, which includes a white paper by the executive director of the Friends of Rickwood on the park’s restoration as well as some first-person oral histories of fans and players sharing their memories. Among the contributors are Reggie Jackson, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, and Jim Bouton. While they each provide a little insight from those who played or attended games there, I’d trade that section for a couple more chapters documenting occurrences since the demise of the Negro Leagues and the Southern Association. The park’s best days may have come in the first half of the century, but without the events of recent decades, there would be no Rickwood Field left to celebrate.

James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at jamesbailey@baseballamerica.com.

Majors | #2010 #Book Guide

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