By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama, May 31, 2023 – Oh, how I love baseball! But that’s not news to my readers. What might be is that I love old ball parks at least as much as, maybe more than, I love the game itself.
Out front at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo by Friends of Rickwood)
Now, I’ve had experiences at Wrigley Field in Chicago, old Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, the legendary Sulphur Dell in Nashville, Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, New York, and back in Iowa the venerable Memorial Park in Bancroft, NelsonCorp Field in Clinton, Walt Anderson Field in Rippey, and the “Field of Dreams” outside Dyersville.
But Rickwood Field here tops all of them. It does so with its history and, even in its 113th year, its potential.
Yes, it’s in a rough neighborhood, but so is nearby Legion Field, one of the most iconic football stadiums in the nation. The area is ripe for redevelopment. Its history demands it.
My wife Mary Riche and I from Iowa and our friends Paul and Carol Kurtz of Athens, Georgia, and Caryl Privett of Birmingham spent an hour at Rickwood on Saturday morning. We’d gathered to cheer on our Vanderbilt Commodores as they were winning the SEC baseball championship in the league’s tournament, which was held at the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in suburban Hoover, Alabama, just southwest of Birmingham.
Rickwood Field today has 10,000 seats. It was built in 1910 with 3,000 seats, and expanded in the 1940s.
The short-form history of Rickwood Field:
–It was built by A.J. “Rick” Woodward, owner of the Woodward Iron Co. That was one of the many companies involved in steel making that founded Birmingham in 1871, drawn by the iron ore readily available in the tail end of the Appalachian Mountains around the new community. With plenty of labor from formerly enslaved Blacks and waves of new White immigrants from around the world, Birmingham boomed. And the people loved the new game of baseball.
–The ball park was the first stadium in America to be built with steel and concrete, which Rick Woodward made available. He was as much a baseball fan as he was an industrialist. “My grandfather was an absolute baseball nut,” today’s Rick Woodward, an 82-year-old retired lawyer told me Saturday. “He flunked out of Sewanee (that’s the University of the South) up in Tennessee because all did up there was play baseball. When he came home, his dad made him go to work in the iron plant, and that straightened him out. He went on to MIT and got his degree, then came home to run the company.”
–When completed in the late summer of 1910, Rickwood Field became the home of the professional Birmingham Barons, one of minor league baseball’s best franchises. The Barons continued playing at Rickwood until 1987, when they moved to the new Hoover Met, and in recent years moved to a brand new stadium in downtown Birmingham. Rickwood was also the home of the professional Birmingham Black Barons from 1920 to 1963. The Black Barons were powers in the old Negro League, which thrived until baseball was desegregated in the late 1940s.
–Oh, the history that has happened in Rickwood! Among the Hall of Famers who played here are Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Dizzy Dean, Hank Aaron, Satchel Paige, Reggie Jackson and – maybe his story here is the best – Willie Mays. The “Say Hey Kid,” as the 92-year-old Mays is still known, grew up in Birmingham. He signed his first professional contract and played his first pro games with the Birmingham Black Barons when he was 16 years old!
–Since 1963, Rickwood has been used by college, high school and adult-league teams. It is owned by the City of Birmingham, and heroically funded and maintained by the non-profit Friends of Rickwood, which would gladly accept your contributions at P.O. Box 12583, Birmingham AL 35202. You can learn more on the website www.rickwood.com.
Mary Riche, trying out a 1910 fielder’s glove on display in the Rickwood Field gift shop.
As we were showing ourselves through Rickwood Field on Saturday morning, a game was starting up among young high school-aged boys who are on travel teams from the town of Saraland in southern Alabama. We stopped to say hello to Meg Jordan, the mother of one of the players, Cooper Henson.
“When our boys were getting ready to play this morning, I said to them, ‘Look, I know you’re 15 years old, and history doesn’t mean anything to you now, but this place is really special’,” the mom said. “I told them they needed to look around this ball park, read about it, and understand what’s happened here and who’s played here.”
Then she noticed our Vanderbilt ball caps and other apparel.
“My son Cooper’s dream is to play at Vandy,” she said. “He’s a pitcher, but they also play him at first base and third base. He’s big, has good stats, and he also gets really good grades.”
At his young age, he is already 6 ft. 3 in., and195 pounds, and – his mom checked at our request – he is hitting .455 this season.
We told her we know the baseball people at Vanderbilt.
Cooper Henson sure wouldn’t be the first player to have his dream get a boost at Rickwood Field.
An old columnist, visiting “America’s Oldest Baseball Park,” meets Meg Jordan, mother of a rising young star, and an interview breaks out. (Photo by Mary Riche)
Cooper Henson throwing from the hot corner at Rickwood Field.
Below here are some additional views around the ball park.
Love the classic & historic billboards on the outfield walls at Rickwood Field. Here’s the first of the dueling soft drink advertisements, by Coca Cola.
Pepsi Cola’s answer.
The 1940s vintage manually-operated scoreboard, and note the teams being tracked during their games.
The historic “No Betting” sign needs an assist.
Our friends Carol and Paul Kurtz, of Athens, Georgia, in the grandstand. (Photo by Mary Riche)
Caryl Privett, of Birmingham, is another of our Vanderbilt pals who has some history at Rickwood Field. It was where she saw her professional baseball game, with her grandfather. Decades later, she was a civil rights lawyer and then an Alabama judge. One summer, the Birmingham judges were playing a ball game at Rickwood against the local attorneys. “I got to pitch from the Rickwood mound,” Privett recalled. “Actually, I just got to throw warm-up pitches, because when I couldn’t throw the ball all the way to home plate without bouncing, my team had somebody else replace me.”
Rick Woodward, 82, grandson and namesake of the Rickwood Field builder, is one of the volunteers in the gift shop now, and he’s shown here sharing stories with Caryl Privett.
Note the original classic press box on the roof of the grandstand. A more modern press box was built below the roof decades later.
Where the starting line-ups were posted for each night’s game.
Hometown hero Willie Mays, 16 years old, starting his professional career with the Birmingham Black Barons.
Here’s more Rickwood history in a framed cartoon in the gift shop.
I love views like this one, under the grandstand in an old ball park.
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