Rickwood Field shines in ‘42’

Rickwood Field

Rickwood Field

Last May, I sat in the sizzling sun at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field for several hours – and I loved every minute of it. I took part in the taping of the newly released “42,” the Jackie Robinson biopic. Dressed in a blue and white polka-dot bowed blouse and slim skirt, with my hair in a “Double V,” (a popular style during the ‘40s), and my lips dotted with my true red lipstick, I delighted in the history that surrounded me. The cinematic telling of Jackie Robinson’s story was long overdue, and I was glad that those outside of Birmingham could once again witness the glory of Rickwood, even if it was in glimpses. Our ballpark is quite a character.

In 1910, A.H. “Rick” Woodward, son of industrialist Joseph Woodward, was majority owner of the Birmingham Barons, much to the chagrin of his father. Undeterred, Rick Woodward wanted a new stadium for his team. He visited Philadelphia to see Shibe Park, the first steel and concrete stadium. The Philadelphia Athletics played at Shibe Park, and the famed Connie Mack was part owner and manager of the A’s. Woodward persuaded Mack to visit Birmingham to help him build his field. In March, a few weeks later, Mack did just that. “…Connie Mack suggested many of the same features for Rickwood that had gone into the building of Shibe Park, including wooden louvers between the top row of the grandstand and the ballpark roof; like the ones in Philadelphia, these louvers were angled to diffuse the setting western sun in the late afternoon – though some joked that Rickwood didn’t need them because the clouds of sulfur-filled smoke from the nearby mills accomplished that,” wrote Allen Barra in his “Rickwood Field: A Century in America’s Oldest Ballpark.”

The new field generated much excitement in Birmingham; the park’s name had even been chosen through a newspaper contest. On August 17, the day before the first game played at Rickwood, The Birmingham Age-Herald wrote, “There is no doubt but that Birmingham is ‘baseball-wild.” The day of the opening, the Birmingham News stated, “When Birmingham men do a thing, they do it right.” Later descriptions of that first game said spectators overflowed the grandstand and bleachers; the crowd was estimated at well over 10,000. (One interesting tidbit: Construction workers were still on the job when fans arrived to the field.)

In 1919, one of the largest crowds at Rickwood came to witness the Birmingham Giants, an early Negro team, play a double-header with Montgomery’s Negro team. “The largest crowd of negroes that ever attended a ball game in the United States and next to the largest, irrespective of color, that ever jammed its way into Rickwood,” stated The Birmingham Age Herald. (In 1920, when the industrial league teams from ACIPCO and Stockholm Valve joined to form one professional team, they named themselves the Black Barons.) Rickwood became a favorite field of players from both the white Southern Association and the Negro League. Bill Powell, pitcher for the Black Barons in the mid-forties, once said, “I don’t know what it is, but when I was playing at Rickwood Field, I was always itching to get to the ballpark. We played all over the United States, and when we got here, you just loved coming here to play in the park. There was just something about the baseball in that park.”

Rickwood Field is now the oldest ballpark in the United States. Below are some more interesting facts on Rickwood.

•In early 1911, the New York Giants, Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers played against the Barons before returning home from spring training.
•In March 1925, an excited crowd of whites and blacks saw Babe Ruth hit a homerun over the right field ball, with bases loaded. That hit dugged the Yankees out of a two-run deficit.
•Legendary Negro League pitcher, Satchel Paige, debuted for the Black Barons at Rickwood in 1927.
•The Spanish mission-style entrance was added to the field in 1928.
•Prior to his Houston Buffaloes playing the Barons in the Dixie Series in 1931, Dizzy Dean said, “If I don’t beat them Barons, I’ll join the House of David and grow a beard and never, never shave it off. It would hide my shame.” More than 20,000 fans were on hand at Rickwood to see Dean’s Buffaloes get shut out in the first game of the double-header. The Barons lost the second game 0-3, but would go on to win the series 4-3.
•In 1938, Rick Woodward sold the field to Ed Norton, an automobile dealer, for $175,000.
•In 1947, Eddie Glennon, general manager of the Barons, allowed the Black Barons to use the same clubhouse used by the white Barons. Previously, the Black Barons had to dress in the bus on the way to the park or in the tunnels.
•In October 1948, a crowd of more than 7,000 saw Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella and the rest of Robinson’s All-Stars play against Willie Mays and the Black Barons. The All-Stars won 3 – 0.
•No professional baseball was played at Rickwood in 1963. The Barons’ league had folded after the 1961 season; the Black Barons ceased play in 1960. (The Barons rebounded in 1964, but left the city in 1965.)
•From 1967 to 1975, the Birmingham A’s took up residence at Rickwood. In 1967, Reggie Jackson, the future Mr. October, played for the Birmingham A’s.
•The Barons returned to Rickwood in 1981. They would stay put until the team moved to Hoover in 1987.
•The baseball scenes in 1994’s “Cobb” were filmed at Rickwood.

Never visited Rickwood Field? You should make plans to see the field during this year’s Rickwood Classic on May 29, starting at 12:30 p.m. The Barons will play the Tennessee Smokies. The Barons will pay tribute to the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons by donning their uniforms. The Smokies will wear the 1935-36 Knoxville Giant uniform. (The Knoxville Giants were another Negro League team.) Ferguson “Fergie” Jenkins, Major League Baseball Hall of Famer, is the guest VIP. You can purchase tickets through the Barons’ ticket office or via http://www.barons.com. Tickets can also be purchased by calling 988-3200. Rickwood Field is located at 1137 Second Ave. West.

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