Baseball Greatness Was Forged on Sandlot Fields in Alabama
The narrative of baseball’s origins centers on distant fields in New York and New Jersey, mythical tales of an army officer inspired to innovate in Cooperstown and other hard to pinpoint half-truths. But it seems baseball really came alive in the sandlot fields of Mobile and the unheralded mill towns around Birmingham, where determined boys of African-American heritage spent countless hours forgetting their hardscrabble lives while refining skills that would later amaze and entertain generations of American baseball fans.
If you are looking for the roots of our national pastime, then it requires a journey to past and present Alabama, where the pain and struggle to overcome adversity parallels the remarkable rise of great teams and transcendent players. Alabama’s vibrant baseball history is a testament to the triumph of the spirit, and the ghosts of baseball’s past spring to life when one digs into the stories of the state’s legendary players.
It could be argued that no state has produced more iconic superstars and more historic achievements than Alabama. Not only can the state boast one of the greatest collections of black players from the Negro Leagues and major leagues, but the All-Time-Alabama team compares favorably to that of any other state. Powerful sluggers, flame-throwing hurlers, lightning-fast speed merchants, spectacular fielders—Alabama has it all.
Many of these great players showcased their talents at historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham, which remains a cultural beacon even as it embarks on its second century of use. It was modeled after Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, but its legacy has proved to be more enduring. Not only did it host the Birmingham Barons in the Southern League from 1910 to 1987, for many years it was also the home of the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro Leagues and even played host to college football games featuring Alabama and Auburn. From the outfield signs that harken back to the 1920s, to the imposing 75-year-old light towers that made Rickwood Field one of the first parks to present night baseball, seeing the ballpark is like stepping back in time.
Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Dizzy Dean are among the Hall of Famers who played exhibition games on the historic field. Hall of Famers Burleigh Grimes and Rube Marquard pitched for the Birmingham Barons at Rickwood. Hank Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves played an exhibition game at Rickwood against Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers on April 2, 1954. Reggie Jackson later played for the Birmingham A’s at Rickwood in 1967. The historic ballpark still hosts about 200 games each year.
Although a Negro Leagues Museum was planned to be incorporated into a refurbished Rickwood Field, those plans never got implemented. However, the Negro Southern League Museum has been built and opened in August 2015 as part of the new Regions Field in Birmingham. It is also home to the Center for Negro League Baseball Research and showcases an impressive collection of Negro Leagues baseball memorabilia from Layton Revel.
Willie Mays, who was born in Tuscaloosa but grew up in some of the mill towns scattered around Birmingham, first demonstrated his other-worldly talents as a 17-year-old playing for the Black Barons at Rickwood Field. He viewed baseball as his best chance to escape the tough mining and mill jobs that defined the city, and he had learned the game watching his father, Cat, play in Birmingham’s competitive Industrial League.
Another legendary player who performed at Rickwood was Mobile native Leroy “Satchel” Paige, who picked up his memorable nickname from his job carrying satchels for passengers at rail stations. Satchel entertained like a rock star several decades before Elvis Presley made rock ‘n’ roll a household phrase, and he used his wiry body and unorthodox high-kicking style to whip fastballs past overmatched batters. Although he attracted a lot of notoriety for his time with the Kansas City Monarchs, Paige won more Negro Leagues games with the Black Barons.
Satchel was a pioneer who was as responsible as Jackie Robinson for paving the way for African-American players to play in the major leagues. In sold-out exhibition games against barnstorming white stars such as Bob Feller and Charlie Gehringer, Paige demonstrated that ballplayers of color could more than hold their own when matched up against some of baseball’s greatest white players.
Paige honed his pitching skills playing on the sandlot fields of Mobile, which has proved to be a hotbed of great baseball. Only New York City is home to more Hall of Fame players than Mobile, which boasts five native sons as enshrinees: Satchel Paige, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Ozzie Smith and Billy Williams. Williams was known as “Sweet Swingin’ Billy from Whistler,” which was an unincorporated area of Mobile.
Hank Aaron Stadium opened in 1997 as the new home of the Mobile BayBears and the slugger’s baseball roots are now on display there. The modest home in the Toulminville neighborhood where Aaron grew up, which his father, Herbert, built from scrap wood in 1942, has been relocated to Hank Aaron Stadium, fixed up and turned into a museum. Seven rooms are filled with artifacts and memorabilia that highlight Aaron’s struggles to persevere in the Jim Crow South while serving as a celebration of his ability to rise above and achieve greatness.
Willie Mays, Ozzie Smith, Rickey Henderson, Bob Feller, Reggie Jackson and then-Commissioner Bud Selig joined Aaron when the Hank Aaron Childhood Home & Museum officially opened in April, 2010. “Every athlete who plays the game today and in the future should look at Hank Aaron,” said Selig, a long-time friend of Aaron dating back to his days on the Milwaukee Braves.
Other top-notch Negro Leagues players from Mobile include Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe and his brother Alex, Dave “Showboat” Thomas, “Shifty Jim” West and Terris McDuffie. Double Duty Radcliffe, who grew up five blocks from Satchel in Mobile and played sandlot ball with him, also played against the fathers of Aaron, Williams, McCovey and Cito Gaston as a boy.
The All-Time team of Alabama-born players features Double Duty Radcliffe at catcher, since he is considered one of the five best catchers in Negro Leagues history. A convincing argument can be made for his selection to the Hall of Fame. It was estimated that Radcliffe hit more than 400 home runs during his long career while also picking up over 400 wins as a pitcher (counting barnstorming games).
No major leaguer has ever regularly played catcher and pitcher, but Double Duty sometimes did it in the same game (hence the nickname). He would start off a doubleheader by catching the first game and then pitch a complete game in the nightcap. He was a three-time Negro Leagues All-Star at both positions.
Double Duty’s professional career was so long—36 years—that he played against Honus Wagner and Willie Mays. He lived until the age of 103 and while alive wasn’t shy about touting his achievements. “Satchel Paige was the greatest pitcher in baseball history and Josh Gibson was the greatest hitter in baseball history and I’m the only man in the history of baseball to hit a homer off Satchel and strike out Josh,” he liked to point out.
In 1971 Satchel became the first player inducted into the Hall of Fame based mostly on his feats in the Negro Leagues, but a number of great Alabama-born players built legacies that were all or largely defined by their performance in the Negro Leagues. In fact, seven of the 12 positions on my All-Time Alabama team are filled by players who spent some or all of their careers in the Negro Leagues.
In addition to Double Duty Radcliffe at catcher and his brother Alex at third base, the All-Time Alabama team as selected in Baseball State by State features Negro Leaguers Mule Suttles at first base, George Scales at second base, Satchel Paige as right handed starter and Mays and Aaron in the outfield.
You can find more tales from other states in Baseball State by State.
Chris Jensen, who grew up outside Cooperstown, N.Y., is the author of “Baseball State by State: Major League and Negro League Players, Ballparks, Museums and Historical Sites.”