On a hot August afternoon in 1910, more than 10,000, baseball fans gathered for the opening game at Rickwood Field in Birmingham to watch the Barons defeat the Montgomery Climbers 3-2.
The crowd was at capacity as fans swarmed and cheered in excitement to attend the first baseball game at the first field in the heart of their community. Today, 111 years later, it is hard to imagine that scene as the field sits peacefully empty on the corner of Second Avenue West.
Walking into the stadium and seeing the 10,800 empty seats as I heard the morning birds chirp, I felt the gravity of what had been. Imaging that opening day and seeing the black and white film portraits of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, and Reggie Jackson, just to name a few, filled me with a sense of near-reverence as I stepped on the red warning track.
Rickwood Field is known as “America’s Oldest Baseball Park” and has been recognized by the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) as such. This jewel of not just Birmingham, but American history, was opened by Rick Woodward, a rich young industrialist who was tired of the iron business and ready for a minor league team in his hometown. This park was the home field of the Birmingham Barons from 1910-1987 and the Birmingham Black Barons from 1920-1963. This field is one of the two remaining Negro League Ballparks in the United States.
Not only is this ball-park home to 137 Hall of Famers, 12 of whom started their career at Rickwood, but it is also a rich piece of Civil Rights Movement History.
The park was closed for three years in 1961-1963 due to segregation laws and reopened in 1964. The Barons and Black Barons would alternate weeks that they played at Rickwood. Every other Sunday, the Black Barons would play and the Birmingham Barons would play the other weekends. In 1947 the Negro Leagues started disbanding and forming into more minor league teams. Imagining the crowd at the peak of Rickwood and the peak tensions of segregation is a hard image to swallow. Into the mid-40s, a barrier of chicken wire divide separated black spectators from white fans in the crowd.
Gerald Watkins, chairman of the board of Rickwood, which includes two of Rick Woodward’s grandsons, said, “We talk about all of our histories at Rickwood, we don’t leave anything out, it doesn’t mean we are proud of it, but we have to talk about it”.
Without seeing clearly where we have been as a city, how are we supposed to see how far we have come and where we have to go in the future?
“I can remember growing up going to games at 16 and the crowd was always mixed, every kind of person was there, black-white-red-yellow-purple. It didn’t matter, we all loved baseball. I went to so many games and never experienced or witnessed any hatred or anything. We were all together learning one another,” said Watkins, who is also the chief operating officer at Rickwood.
A board of Birmingham Residents and avid historic baseball fans formed Friends of Rickwood, which has committed to preserving the historic ballpark. The city of Birmingham has committed to a 99-year lease of keeping the field open of which has about 64 years remaining. Hollywood has also played a large part in keeping the park in the good condition that it still is in today. Many well-loved movies have been filmed at Rickwood, including “42” about the life and career of Jackie Robinson, “Cobb” about Ty Cobb and “Soul of the Game”.
Today the park has many functions and still hosts around 75-100 ball games a year. From high school baseball tournaments, fan-rules league, The Savannah Bananas, field trips, and even an upcoming wedding in the spring, the park still stays busy.
Although the park has a new coat of paint, that was paid for by the board “out of pocket,” Watkins says, and even with a pristine field, there are still bigger issues that need to be fixed. Watkins says that the Friends of Rickwood are “looking to the city” for help while the lease remains in place. They can no longer host night games as it is expensive to keep the lights on. They need more funds for bigger capital projects like new lights and roof repairs that will cost millions of dollars.
“We are always inviting new faces to Rickwood and trying to get the word out. We are looking for new ways to get the community involved and keep the lights on,” Watkins says.
Rickwood has been an open door to friends of the game and community for over a hundred years. I showed up unannounced on a Tuesday morning and was welcomed with smiles, a personal tour, stories of past players, and rich conversation. I would now self-identify as a new Friend of Rickwood and I trust that anyone who takes the time to explore this colorful piece of Birmingham’s fabric will call themselves the same.