August 19, 2019

The Beacon of Birmingham

November 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

In the midst of a dark and all-too predictable world, Rickwood Field became a beacon. Birthed out of a conversation with Connie Mack, the ballpark started with a handful of rivals but outlasted each of them to stand peerless.

Read Allen Barra’s “Rickwood Field: A Century in America‒s Oldest Ballpark“ because:

1. Similar to last week’s post about the Louisville Slugger company, the man who brought the ballpark into being did so by bucking trends and by sticking to his vision.

Rick Woodward’s father Joseph viewed baseball as a waste of time. Iron was where the family’s wealth lay, and iron provided a future, unlike this game, he reasoned. What happens when you put the two together? Rick played company baseball and shared in the team’s successes and failures. Employee morale soared. Rick Woodward decided to seek advice from the finest baseball man he could. One conversation with Connie Mack solidified Woodward’s vision to invest money from the family business into a new stadium. By the time Woodward’s stadium opened, it compared to Mack’s own Shibe Park, Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field or Crosley Field in Cincinnati.

On Aug. 18, 1910, Birmingham businesses closed by 3 p.m. Advertisements said that “all patriotic citizens” would be at Opening Day. The Birmingham News declared, “When Birmingham men do a thing, they do it right.” Ten thousand fans spilled out of every nook and cranny in the park. (33-35, Rickwood)

2. Baseball at Rickwood Field was an anomaly.

For a few hours, blacks and whites could gather together in the same place to cheer on their Birmingham Barons. Chicken wire was all that separated the black and white sections for many years. 

“My dad and I would go to games and, while standing in line for tickets, actually talk to white men about baseball. Until I was grown and in college, I don’t remember talking to a white man, really having a conversation with him, about anything except baseball,” former Baron Piper Davis said. (74-75) General Manager Eddie Glennon permitted his black players to use the same clubhouse as the white players. This meant no more changing in the tunnels or on the bus.

3. Barra captures the Birmingham fervor that dwarfs today’s spectators. When star after star passed through Birmingham for a game, everything else stopped.

The public clamored to watch Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson and others. Meanwhile, the press defended its crown jewel. Opposing players were privileged to be part of Rickwood Field’s glory, not the other way around. After Cobb managed two hits but committed an error in Birmingham, a reporter called him an “ordinary mortal.” (40)

In his Birmingham debut, Satchel Paige stoked the flames with a promise to strike out the first six batters he faced. Dizzy Dean set out his own tall order for his first visit to the Alabama locale. “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,” Dean said. (97)

Fans kept on coming to Rickwood Field in droves for decades. Then TV and the integration of Major League Baseball dealt a blow to the showcase. The chapter that followed proved fitting for the ballpark steeped in the stuff of movies. Ron Shelton, director of “Bull Durham” among other sports sentinels, injected life into the park by waking one of its ghosts. Shelton shot the baseball scenes for “Cobb” in the one remaining southern ballpark Cobb played in. Years earlier, Birmingham media types had been minimal in their talk of Cobb. Looks like “The Georgia Peach” got the last word and helped save the ballpark at the same time.

Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. During the 2009 season, Miller served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.

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