Books
2:09 pm
Thu February 17, 2011

Rickwood Field: A Century in America's Oldest Ballpark

Allen Barra, a Birmingham native and the author of books on his kinsman Yogi Berra and "The Last Coach," Paul "Bear" Bryant, begins his book just where he should: at the scene of the inspiration for the creation of Rickwood Field.

Audio ?2011 Alabama Public Radio

Allen Barra, a Birmingham native and the author of books on his kinsman Yogi Berra and "The Last Coach," Paul "Bear" Bryant, begins his book just where he should: at the scene of the inspiration for the creation of Rickwood Field.

On April 12, 1909, Allen Harvey Woodward, known as "Rick," visits Cornelius Alexander McGillicuddy, Sr., known as Connie Mack, at the opening of Shibe Field in Philadelphia.

Shibe Field was the first concrete and steel sports structure in America. Rick Woodward would examine it, consult with Connie Mack, return home, and build what is nearly a replica of Shibe Field in Birminghams's West End. Rickwood Field opened on August 18, 1910, and is stilll standing, one hundred years later, long after Shibe, which was torn down in 1976.

Barra spends some time on the design of the park. On opening day perhaps 10,000 attended, half of them standing. The covered grandstand held 3,000 fans, and there were bleachers in left and right fields.

The outfield fences were impossibly deep. Center field was over 500 feet. Left was 470 feet and right was 335 feet. Few home runs were hit. Barra even goes so far as to say, "This was a time when the home run was disdained." Fans thought it more exciting to see the ball in play, with pitching duels and outfielders running down long, long fly balls. In fact, there was so much room behind home plate that the catcher, chasing after pop flies, might be considered a fourth outfielder.

Everyone played what we now call "small ball." Barra describes a game in the 1922 season in which the Barons defeated the Montgomery Climbers with four consecutive bunts and a slap single. The fans loved it.

As even those who, inexplicably, are not baseball fans know, Babe Ruth changed all this in the later '20s and '30s, and fans became addicted to the home run until that bubble filled and burst, like the housing market, in the steroid and human growth hormones scandal of the turn of our century.

Barra's book is about the history of the field itself, the booms and busts, renovations, improvements, and the different uses to which it has been put, but is also a pocket history of baseball in Birmingham, race, and Jim Crow as it manifested itself in baseball. Even in the first years of the century, when black and white teams used the stadium?but never at the same time?black fans attended Barons games and some white fans attended Black Barons games. At Rickwood, the right field bleachers were for African Americans.

Segregated teams and bleachers were no surprise. What was news to me was that "many in attendance were female." In the north, "Big-league baseball was considered too vulgar an experience for genteel white women in pre-World War I America." In the South, Barra says, "baseball was more refined."

Baseball was the sport in Birmingham. Fans supported high school teams, company teams, and especially the minor league clubs. There were no major league teams in the South, and until Alabama won the Rose Bowl, college sports were mainly followed by college students and alums.

Much has changed, of course; the integration of the major leagues killed the Negro Leagues, the Braves came to Atlanta, and television and air conditioning kept fans comfortably at home. The Black Barons went under and the white Barons moved to Hoover.

But Rickwood is being splendidly restored and hosts 200 ball games a year. There is still a powerful affection for the field where Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Dizzy Dean, Jim Piersall, and visitors such as Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and many others worked their magic.

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