If it’s true that baseball is, or was, America’s pastime, then it seems safe to say that Rickwood Field’s historical and cultural significance will only grow with each passing year, especially now that the old ball park is celebrating its centennial, to be marked by a ceremony this coming Wednesday, August 18 (see our sidebar for details).
But Rickwood is not a relic. It is a piece of living history and hosts a nearly full calendar of baseball games and other events each year.
Any true Birminghamian, whether or not he or she gives a damn about baseball, should be grateful that Rickwood—thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Rickwood Field—escaped the wrecking ball in the early 1990s after the Birmingham Barons moved to a new stadium in Hoover.
To say merely that Rickwood Field is important to the city’s history perhaps misses the point. “Rickwood is the history of Birmingham,” A.H. “Rick” Woodward III, grandson and namesake of the ballpark’s builder, tells Birmingham Weekly. “All of the ups and downs are reflected right here. The good times, the bad times, economically. We’ve dealt with segregation out here, which has been a burning issue in Birmingham all of my lifetime. And I think we’ve dealt with it pretty darn well [at Rickwood].”
Birmingham native and Birmingham Weekly contributor Allen Barra recently did his part to tell the story of Rickwood and that of the Magic City in the 20th century by publishing his book Rickwood Field: A Century in America’s Oldest Ballpark (W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95).
Barra tells the story of the ballpark, and of its two long-time tenants, the Barons and the Birmingham Black Barons. More important, he tells a story of boom times and bad times, of race and class, of conflict and reconciliation, with Rickwood Field as the microcosm. We could think of no better way to commemorate the park’s 100th birthday than by bringing you some excerpts from Barra’s book.
In Chapter Nine, “Everything dies but maybe it comes back,” Barra describes the return of professional baseball to Rickwood in 1964. There had been no professional baseball in Birmingham in 1963, a year of tremendous unrest in the city caused by the violent white reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. This included the decision by Birmingham public safety commissioner—and former Barons radio announcer—Bull Connor to turn fire hoses and police dogs on African-American demonstrators in Kelly Ingram Park downtown.
By the spring of 1964, Connor had been removed from power, and integrated baseball came to Rickwood Field. Barons owner Albert Belcher ignored Section 597 of the Birmingham city code, which forbade whites and blacks from playing together, and which Barra calls perhaps Connor’s “ugliest legacy.” Belcher also gave Rickwood a new paint job and removed what Barra refers to as “the one hated feature of Rickwood Field”–a chicken-wire barrier that had separated the Negro bleachers from the rest of the park. The Barons would play in the new, integrated Southern League, which replaced the old Southern Association.
We’ll let Barra tell the story from here.
On April 17 , eight years after Jackie Robinson retired from the major leagues, the first legal integrated professional baseball game involving a Birmingham team was played at Rickwood as the Barons hosted the Asheville Tourists.
“It was a skittish and tense situation. Blacks and whites never had played together legally in Birmingham, or sat together at a sporting event where they weren’t separated by chicken wire,” recalled [Birmingham sportswriter] Bill Lumpkin 33 years later. “There was not one single incident. Nothing. Oh, there was a phone call. A bomb threat.
“‘I was called out of the box seats and told,’ Belcher said. ‘I didn’t believe it. I had family and friends sitting with me. I went back, sat down, and never said a word to anybody.’ The significance of the night did not occur to Belcher until just before the game when, ‘It hit me like a ton of bricks. Whites and blacks playing together for the first time.’” Something had happened the night before which Belcher did not reveal until he told Lumpkin many years later. A few days before the opening, someone knocked on his door. It was the local leader of the Ku Klux Klan. He gave Belcher assurance there would be no trouble from his organization at the game. “If it hadn’t been for that I would have been worried.” Belcher offered no explanation as to why the Klan decided not to disrupt the game. The likeliest explanation is probably the right one: after the federal government’s show of power regarding integration of schools and colleges, there wasn’t much point in trying to stop a baseball game.”
The 1964 Barons, led by the great Bert Campaneris, were contenders, missing the Southern League pennant by one game. A native Cuban, “Campy” spoke precious little English and found his way around Birmingham mostly though the good graces of [Barons GM] Glenn West. After Birmingham, Campaneris went on to play for 19 years, mostly with the Oakland A’s, winning three World Series rings and making the All-Star team six times. Also, on one dazzling night, September 8, 1965, he played every position in the field.
In the spring of 1964 Campaneris was beaned hard. “When he was hit,” West told writer Ben Cook, “I thought he had been shot. There was our top prospect lying on the ground. I called one of the top neurologists at UAB and asked where I could take him, and they told me to bring him to UAB.” West told the doctor that Campaneris wasn’t white; the doctor told him to bring him in anyway. He was nineteen, so West signed in as his guardian. “Me and Campy,” he later recalled, “integrated UAB.”
The man who brought Campy to Birmingham and who did more to shake up Birmingham baseball–and, later, all of major league baseball—than anyone else was Charles O. Finley. “If I had to pick a single man,” wrote Marvin Miller, the first executive director of the Players Association in his 1991 autobiography, “as representing the transition for the old ‘family’ business baseball men to the newer corporate types who came into baseball after having made their fortunes elsewhere, that man would be Charlie Finley... He was, without a doubt, the finest judge of baseball talent I ever saw at the head of a team.”
Finley–or “Charlie O,” as he liked to be called– was born in 1918 in Ensley, the heart of steel mill country just outside Birmingham. His father, a low-level executive for a steel company, moved his family for a few years to Gary, Ind., only to return in 1930, just in time for young Charlie to be a batboy for the Barons. He went on to marry the daughter of an insurance salesman and made his fortune in medical insurance. In 1954 “Charlie O” tried unsuccessfully to buy the Philadelphia A’s from Connie Mack, only to succeed six years later in his lifelong ambition of owning a major league team when he bought a controlling interest in the A’s, then located in Kansas City.
But before giving the Barons and Birmingham the major league connection they both so desperately wanted, Finley asked for a couple of concessions: one, that the team’s name be changed to the A’s to establish a clear relationship with the parent team, and two, that they wear the same distinctive green and gold uniforms as his Kansas City (and soon to become, after the 1967 season, Oakland) A’s.
Finley, with his own minor league team with major league affliliate, further increased his community standing in 1967 by hiring Bear Bryant’s son, Paul Jr., as GM, and the first pitch on opening day was thrown out by one-time semi-pro baseball player Paul Sr. before a crowd of more than 5,100. The A’s won 2-0 despite a line drive from an Evansville player that struck future Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers on the side of his face, breaking his jaw and shattering his cheekbone. Fingers recovered, and with teammates Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi and Dave Duncan went on to win the Southern League pennant. They also, along with future Cy Young Award winner Vida Blue and catcher Gene Tenace of the 1969 Barons, formed the nucleus of the 1972-73-74 world championship Oakland A’s. In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James suggested that the 1967 A’s might have been the greatest minor league team ever assembled.
Long before John McCain and Sarah Palin devalued the term, Charlie O. Finley was a maverick with his bright green and gold uniforms with white shoes, his live mule mascot, “Charlie O,” and his day-glo orange baseballs. Perhaps his most bizarre gimmick was a remote controlled mechanical rabbit that popped from a hole behind home plate and delivered fresh baseballs to umpires. (Catchers hated it, as they feared stepping in the rabbit hole while chasing pop-ups.)
According to Barra, in 1975 Finley sold the principal interest of the Birmingham A’s to a family in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the team moved to historic Engel Field in Chattanooga for the 1976 season. But Rickwood was not done with baseball.
[University of Alabama] Crimson Tide radio announcer John Forney, a partner in the advertising agency Lucky and Forney, was anxious to revive Birmingham’s baseball fortunes. He had his eye on Jules “Art” Clarkson, who, as GM of the Memphis Chicks, had done a remarkable job putting fans in their ballpark, about reviving the Barons. Clarkson, an aficionado of sports history, drove to Birmingham on a hot July day, climbed the fence, walked onto the field, and was dazzled by Rickwood. Or at least by its history; by 1980, the ballpark was a bit run down. “Man, I thought, when I walked around it was like I could see the ghosts playing ball–Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Dizzy Dean, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Oscar Charleston. They were all still there.”
Born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, Clarkson, like Finley, made his money in the insurance business and had a flair for promotion. In his first season at Memphis, he drew more than 150,000 fans, the sixth highest minor league attendance in the country, beating their previous year’s gate by more than 50,000. In his second year, the Chicks drew more than a quarter of a million.
To Clarkson, the old fashionedness of Rickwood was precisely the selling point. He enjoyed walking in Connie Mack’s footsteps, watching from Glennon’s Gardens [Editor’s note: The grassy area behind the left field fence], and even tracked down a handful of seats which had been shipped to Rickwood from the Polo Grounds after the New York Mets had moved to Shea Stadium. He spruced up the old ballpark without attempting to modernize it, with one major exception: he installed a new electronic scoreboard. (Clarkson insists, contrary to popular belief among Birmingham baseball fans, that he did not tear down the old scoreboard, which had already been taken down when he got there. The manual scoreboard would rise again 13 years later.)
Clarkson put together a working group, including Bob Scranton, brought the Montgomery minor league franchise to Birmingham, and ended an old agreement with the Detroit Tigers and established a new affiliation with the Chicago White Sox. There was on important holdover, though, from Detroit, Howard Johnson, a switch hitting third baseman who became the first player in the major leagues to have more than 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in three seasons. (Johnson earned a World Series ring with the 1986 New York Mets and in 1991 became just the second New York Met to win the National League home run title (the other was Darryl Strawberry in 1988).
Clarkson put winners on the field and, to quote one-time Birmingham A’s star, Reggie Jackson, “meat in the seats.” Opening Day 1981 became a major event with former Barons Norman Zauchin and Ben Chapman and former Black Baron Piper Davis all throwing out the first pitches. That season the gate topped 220,000, harkening back to the golden age; in 1983 the Barons won the Southern League pennant and drew over 250,000. As Birmingham radio personality Courtney Haden put it, “Rickwood reminds you of the line in the Bruce Springsteen song, ‘Atlantic City,’ ‘Everything dies but maybe it comes back.’” Attendance dropped sharply during the 1985 season as reports of car break-ins were widely circulated. In addition, the team was perhaps Clarkson’s worst, though it was managed by former New York Mets catcher Jerry Grote (of the ’69 Miracle Mets). The season’s biggest publicity came when a Huntsville outfielder named Jose Canseco hit three home runs at Rickwood, the last one a towering 450-foot shot off pitcher Jeff Robinson. In the locker room after the game, Robinson told Clarkson “I swear to God, I threw him a good pitch.” ‘Yeah,” Clarkson replied, “It was a great pitch. It went all the way to 19th Street.”
The city of Birmingham would put up no money for more parking, and the lots surrounding Rickwood could accommodate no more than 700 cars.
There was no public transportation to Rickwood for night games. Plumbing, electrical and structural problems worsened with age. The simple act of watering the field became a nightmare; the crew had to go out to the main water valve in the street, turn it on, then return to shut it off when they were finished. There was no turning back the clock.
Clarkson signed a new agreement with the Chicago White Sox and proceeded with plans made for a new stadium in Hoover. Thus Bo Jackson, recuperating from a hip injury, and Michael Jordan, trying to transform from himself to a baseball player in 1994, missed playing at Rickwood Field. On August 30, 1987, the Barons beat Columbus 18-7, their final game in Birmingham before leaving for the suburbs. As Rickwood emptied and the lights were shut off, certificates were handed out to the fans who attended the final game.
Gene and Cindy Northington had been going to Rickwood since they were children; Gene had been a member of the booster club, the Birmingham B’s, when he was a teenager. Just before they left the ballpark, they walked onto the field, scooped up a handful of dirt from the mound, and placed it in a glass jar. Then they stopped to take one last view of the old ballpark before walking out the front gate.
After years of being used for high school and local college baseball (and occasionally football games), in 1993 Rickwood finally caught a break from a former minor league ballplayer. Ron Shelton, a one-time infielder in the Orioles chain, had written and directed the finest film on baseball (Bull Durham) and basketball (White Men Can’t Jump), and later the best film on golf (Tin Cup). Shelton, a repository of baseball lore, couldn’t resist the opportunity to shoot the baseball scenes for Cobb, his film biography of the Hall of Famer, at Rickwood Field–the last remaining ballpark in the South where Cobb had actually played.
Before filming could begin, though, the few modernizations Rickwood had undergone had to be removed. With assistance from the film crew, the manually operated drop-in scoreboard and gazebo press box were recreated along with the vintage signs on the outfield fences.
Rickwood Field was again in its glory. In the scene I walked in on, Roger Clemens, then of the Boston Red Sox, was playing the fiery and pugnacious White Sox pitcher Ed Walsh while Tommy Lee Jones stood into the plate as Ty Cobb. Recreating one of the numerous battles between Walsh and Cobb, Clemens would spout phrases like “Cobb, I hear you’re from Royston, where men are man and sheep are nervous.” Jones walked to the plate carrying a pair of women’s panties in his pocket, announcing to Walsh that his wife had left them with him last night. Clemens’s first pitch looked to be around 80 or so mph, and Jones, not wearing a batting helmet, shied off the plate. The two then shot more insults at each other; Clemens, seemingly as much into his character as Jones was into his, threw a pitch faster and more inside.
[Former major leaguer Harry] Walker, eyebrows raised, leaned over to Veale and whispered, “88?” Veale replied, “89, maybe 90.” A few feet away one of Shelton’s assistants asked “What if the next pitch is a few miles per hour faster and about six inches more up and in?” “Then,” Shelton said calmly, “We’re shooting the Ray Chapman story.”
The face-off between Roger Clemens-Tommy Lee Jones is the only known confrontation between Academy Award and Cy Young winners.
A 1996 television movie, The Soul of The Game, about the last years of the Negro Leagues, with Edward Hermann as Branch Rickey, Delroy Lindo as Satchel Paige, and Blair Underwood as Jackie Robinson, immortalized Rickwood Field on film again.
Unfortunately, a third film project involving Rickwood Field, a biography of Jackie Robinson, hasn’t yet materialized. In 1997 director Spike Lee was in Birmingham shooting his awardwinning documentary, 4 Little Girls, about the victims of the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Lee visited Rickwood and snapped some photos in anticipation of a film based on the life of one of his heroes. Lee didn’t get the funding he wanted for the project and then got tied up with other films but says he intends to return to it some day.
It wasn’t Hollywood, though, that saved Rickwood Field, it was Birmingham baseball fans.
Since 1992, the park has been managed by the Friends of Rickwood, a group of businessmen, civic leaders and fans–including Tom Cosby, Terry Slaughter, A.H. “Rick” Woodward, III (grandson of the man who built Rickwood), former Barons owner Jack Levin, former mayor Richard Arrington and Bob Scranton.
By 2005 more than $2 million had been spent resorting and maintaining Rickwood, and further restoration projects are underway as this book goes to press. Today, there are still ghosts at Rickwood, but they have a lot of live company with high school and college baseball games, baseball camps and tournaments year round. (“Don’t tell anyone in Birmingham that you can’t play baseball in February,” laughs [David] Brewer [of the FRF].) And every spring the Barons return for the annual Rickwood Classic.
Rickwood Field has been certified by the National Park Service’s Historic Building Survey as the national’s oldest baseball grandstand on its original site, therefore it is officially America’s oldest ballpark. It has also been included in the National Trust’s African American Historic Places Initiative.
Everything dies, but maybe it comes back.
Allen Barra writes about sports and culture for numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, American Heritage and The Los Angeles Times. His best-selling books include biographies of Paul “Bear” Bryant and Yogi Berra. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.