Growing up in Chicago, I had the opportunity to attend many baseball games at two temples of the sport: Comiskey Park, where the Chicago White Sox played, and the venerable Wrigley Field, still home of the Chicago Cubs. Wrigley Field is major league baseball’s second oldest park, having been constructed two years after Fenway Park. The thrill in being at these places came not only from watching the game being played, but also in sharing with family and spectators the history that was part of each park. I still recall my father discussing players such as Lefty Grove and Hank Greenberg as we watched athletes from a new generation like Luis Aparicio, Mickey Mantle and Billy Pierce. One of the joys of baseball is the never-ending argument that focuses on the history of the game and the skill of players from generation to generation.
Reading Allen Barra’s latest book, I was surprised to learn that the oldest baseball park in America is not a major league stadium, but is instead Rickwood Field, home of the minor league Birmingham Barons. The stadium was constructed in 1910 by industrialist Rick Woodward for $75,000, an amount today that probably would not even purchase a skybox for the season. The Barons have relocated to suburban Hoover, Alabama, but Rickwood is presently undergoing restoration and renovation to become a baseball museum. The vast, rich history of this ballpark, as recounted by Barra, will make it a must-see location for any baseball fan.
In the decades between the World Wars, baseball was America’s game and fans flocked to see games in minor league ballparks across the nation. Players were not paid the huge salaries that came as a result of free agency, and barnstorming and exhibition games in the off-season were common. In addition, the baseball leagues were segregated into separate leagues for white and black players. Rickwood Field was home to both the Barons and the Black Barons of the Negro National League. It was at Rickwood Field in the spring of 1926 that the Black Lookouts of Chattanooga faced the Black Barons. The Chattanooga pitcher was an impressive young man, and Birmingham offered him $275 a month to pitch for them. Young Satchel Paige was receiving $50 a month from Chattanooga, so the offer was quickly accepted. In Birmingham, the Paige legend began.
Paige was not the only Hall of Famer to play at Rickwood. The list is long and includes Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and 18-year-old Willie Mays, who played there in 1948 in the last Negro League World Series.
The Birmingham Barons, a farm team of the Chicago White Sox, played their last game at Rickwood in 1987. The stadium remained a facility for high school teams and was the setting for the movies Cobb and Soul of the Game. Local business leaders and fans have raised millions of dollars to maintain Rickwood and turn it into a baseball museum. Barra, while content to note the great history of the park, also gives appropriate mention to the restoration activities and instructs readers how they may join in the effort.
While RICKWOOD FIELD suffers to a small degree from Barra’s hyperbole (too many players are the greatest ever, and too many events are unparalleled), he has produced a wonderful literary homage to an era and moment of baseball history that is unlikely to be experienced again. More than the sport is the history of the American South, moving from segregation to integration with sports being a prime factor in that evolution. Barra captures just how far the South --- and America --- has come in the 100 years since Rickwood Field opened its doors.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 23, 2011