Rickwood Field

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Entrance to Rickwood Field in 2010
A plan of Rickwood Field (HABS 1993)

Rickwood Field, located at 1137 2nd Avenue West, at the corner of 12th Street West in Rising-West Princeton, is the oldest surviving professional baseball park in the United States. It was built for the Birmingham Barons in 1910 by industrialist and team-owner Rick Woodward and served as the home park for the Barons and for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. The Barons moved their home games to the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in 1987. Since then, Rickwood Field has been preserved and is undergoing continual restoration. A museum to house the Negro and Southern Leagues Hall of Fame has been proposed for a site next door to the park.

History

Background and initial construction

The Birmingham Coal Barons baseball team began playing professionally in 1887, with their home games at an informal park called "Slag Pile Field" in West End. In 1901 they joined the Southern Association.

A. H. "Rick" Woodward, chairman of Woodward Iron Company and grandson of pioneer Birmingham industrialist Stimson Woodward, purchased a majority share of the Birmingham Coal Barons baseball team from William McQueen in 1909, while he was still in his 20s. Immediately he began planning a grand showplace for his new team. He contacted Connie Mack for advice on the details, including the field dimensions, which were made similar to those of Shibe Park in Philadelphia (later renamed Connie Mack Stadium) which was 378 feet to left, 515 feet to center, and 340 feet to right. He also greatly admired Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, which was located on a streetcar line outside of the downtown area, was built of steel and concrete for durability, and which had dimensions of 360 feet to left, 462 to center and 376 feet to right. The attitude of Woodward was similar to Mack's and Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss' who "hated cheap home runs and vowed he'd have none in his park." The resulting playing area for Rickwood was 470 feet to left, 500 feet to center, and 335 feet to right field.

Woodward purchased at 13.5-acre empty parcel of land west of Birmingham along the Ensley and North Bessemer streetcar lines, from the Alabama Central Railroad. The tracks of the Alabama Terminal Railroad formed the parcel's southern edge, separating it from Valley Creek.

The $75,000 structure was designed by Southeastern Engineering Company of Birmingham, a short-lived subsidiary of Pittsburgh's General Fireproofing Company, which had built Forbes Field. It was completed during the summer of 1910. The field was flanked along the base paths by concrete and steel stands seating 3,000 (500 in box seats and 2,500 in wood-backed chairs). Another 2,000 uncovered concrete bleacher seats extended out from the infield on both sides. Wooden bleachers and standing-room areas in the outfield accommodated overflow crowds. A pyramid-roofed open box on the roof behind home plate provided space for the announcer and the press. A newspaper contest produced the name of the stadium, taken from Woodward's first and last names.

Postcard from opening day at Rickwood Field

Opening day on August 18, 1910, was celebrated by businesses closing all over town to allow fans to fill the park for the first pitch at 3:30 P.M. Over 10,000 people attended that first game in which the Barons defeated the visiting Montgomery Climbers 3-2. Throughout the first half of the 20th century Rickwood Field hosted sellout crowds for the Barons and the Black Barons who played on alternate weekends.

Early improvements

In 1912 a spring tornado tore through the field, pulling up the outfield fence. Two years later Woodward felt the need to have electric fans installed in the grandstands for the comfort of the crowd. On February 1, 1913 the stadium hosted a soccer match between "All-Star" teams from Atlanta, Georgia and the Birmingham District. Birmingham won 4-0. On August 18, 1915 Rickwood hosted a "Suffrage Day" 1-inning game between all-female baseball teams from Birmingham and Bessemer in support of the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association. Carlton Molesworth served as umpire.

During the 1920s Rickwood Field also hosted college football games. In 1921 the outfield fence was damaged in a tornado and quickly rebuilt. In October 1924 the Robert E. Lee Klan No. 1 hosted a rally which filled the grandstands and field area with more than 23,000 people. Attendees saw an effigy of Senator Oscar Underwood buried under the platform at center field.

In 1924 the roof was extended to cover concrete grandstand on the first base line and additional steel bleachers were added along the left fence. This work was commissioned from Paul Wright & Co. engineers. For at least part of the 1920s a 20-foot by 25-foot framed structure outside the grandstand served as an entrance building. 1927 the bleachers along the 3rd base line were covered with a steel-framed roof designed by Denham, VanKeuren & Denham architects.

Shortly after, In 1928 a major expansion of the stadium was completed to the designs of Paul Wright & Co. The bleachers were expanded to curve in just outside the foul pole in right field, creating what was soon designated by a chicken-wire partition as separate seating for Black fans during Barons games, and for white fans attending Black Barons games. They added the Mission-style entry structure with space for offices, and also replaced the outfield fence with a concrete wall, incorporating a new drop-in scoreboard in left field. At the same time parking areas were laid out over adjoining lots and the streets immediately surrounding the stadium were paved for the first time.

In 1931 in the first game of the Dixie Series championship, Birmingham's 43-year-old Ray Caldwell out-pitched 21-year-old Houston Buffaloes star Dizzy Dean, who had guaranteed a win. The Barons won the series 4 games to 3. In 1936, at the suggestion of Woodward's son-in-law Jim Burt, eight monumental steel-frame light towers designed and fabricated by the Truscon Steel Company of Youngstown, Ohio were erected (five onto the grandstand roof and three in the outfield), allowing for night games. The investment paid off with a surge in attendance.

On February 7, 1938, Woodward sold the park to Ed Norton, a local businessman, for $175,000. In 1940 Norton sold it to the Cincinnati Reds. Under their tenure, new outfield fences were built inside the original walls to benefit hitters for the 1941 season. The new fence was 321 feet to left, 393 feet to center, and 332 feet to right.

Rickwood hosted game 7 of the 1943 Negro World Series between the Black Barons and Homestead Grays. 10,000 fans packed the stands to see what turned into a pitchers' duel between Johnny Markham and Roy Partlow. Ed Steele drove in Leonard Lindsay in the 11th to tie the series at 3-3. The Grays went on to win the series in Game 8 at the Crampton Bowl in Montgomery two days later.

Birmingham restaurateur Gus Jebeles purchased the Barons and their home park in 1944. The ballpark hosted the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus in October 1945. A ladies' rest room was added, and the outfield fence brought in further, in 1948. The scoreboard was relocated to the new outfield wall, and closer to center field.

In 1949 ownership changed hands again, going to a partnership of Al DeMent, Al Belcher, and Rufus Lackey. They added a small Dugout Restaurant in the entrance building in 1950 and installed additional box seats, necessitating the relocations of the dugouts farther down the baselines. In 1958 Belcher gained a majority share and control of the park.

Closure

Following the 1961 season, the Southern Association folded and, for the first time in 52 years, there would be no professional baseball at Rickwood. A proposal was floated for the City of Birmingham to purchase the facility and adapt it for use as a high school football stadium, but that idea was not pursued.

Instead, Belcher bought up the remaining stock in the stadium. Later that year he teamed up with Kansas City A's owner Charlie Finley to bring the Barons back for the 1964 season as a AA team in the newly-formed Southern League. Belcher had the stadium refurbished, replaced the scoreboard, and painted the whole structure in the new team colors of green and gold. Finley served as honorary bat boy for the first three innings of the Barons' opening night loss to the Asheville Tourists.

In 1964 General Manager Glynn West purchased 1000 wooden seats from New York's Polo Grounds and installed them at the park.

After declining attendance in the 1965 season, Belcher suspended play for the 1966 season, and Finley transferred his AA franchise to Mobile. Belcher put the park up for sale for $500,000 and threatened to demolish it for the salvage value. In 1966 he reached an agreement with the City of Birmingham, retaining a lease for the remainder of that year.

Later in 1966, the lease was transferred to Finley, who brought Kansas City's AA farm team back to Birmingham for the 1967 season, dubbed the "Birmingham A's". That year is also remembered for the day that 14,000 disappointed fans were sent home early when the Atlanta Braves vs. Southern League All-Stars exhibition game was called "on account of tornado." Neighborhood complaints led the Park & Recreation Board to prohibit rock concerts at the stadium in 1973. Nevertheless, Lynyrd Skynyrd headlined a July 4 show at Rickwood in 1975.

After increasingly dismal attendance numbers, the [now] Oakland Athletics ended its affiliation with Birmingham following the 1975 season. Except for the abortive 5-game run for the Freedom Baseball League's Alabama Barons on July 2-4, 1978, the stadium went six more years without a home team. Between 1979 and 1980 the wooden seats were replaced with plastic seats in the box areas and metal bleachers under the grandstands.

In 1981 Art Clarkson brought minor league baseball back to Rickwood. Clarkson purchased the Detroit Tigers' AA affiliate Montgomery Rebels in the Southern League and moved them to Birmingham, renaming them the Barons. Clarkson also had a new electronic scoreboard installed at the park. The Barons would change affiliations in 1985 to the Chicago White Sox, and would remain in Rickwood until 1987.

In 1987 the Barons moved to the new Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, in the suburb of Hoover.

Cobb

Still from "Cobb", with Roger Clemons on the mound portraying Ed Walsh and Tommie Lee Jones as Ty Cobb, about to steal third.

Though it lacked a revenue-generating tenant, Rickwood remained open, hosting frequent amateur, police and semi-pro games. The city also kept the gates open daily for visitors to walk in and explore the grandstands or run the base paths.

In 1992 an advance location team from Regency Enterprises scouted the then-dormant Rickwood Field as a possible location for an upcoming biographical feature film about Ty Cobb. On the night they first visited, rain was pouring through so many holes in the roof that there was nowhere to stand and talk. The producers were eager to make use of the park, and their interest spurred the formation of the Friends of Rickwood nonprofit to undertake its preservation and restoration. They gathered enough funding to stabilize the property enough to allow for film production. Graphic designer Ted Haigh prepared drawings for period-style advertisements on the outfield wall, many recognizing contributors to the preservation, which were executed by Skidmore Sign Company. The resulting feature, entitled Cobb and starring Tommie Lee Jones opened in 1994.

The stadium also served as a location for the 1995 HBO movie Soul of the Game, and 18 years later for 42, portraying Jackie Robinson's signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Rickwood Classic

Main article: Rickwood Classic

In 1996, Rickwood Field began hosted the Barons for a "throwback game" in which both teams wear period uniforms. Each Rickwood Classic has honored a different era in Birmingham baseball history.


By 2005, the Friends of Rickwood had spent around $2 million refurbishing the grandstands, pressbox, locker rooms, roof and main entrance to the park. In December 2007 Birmingham mayor Larry Langford said he wanted to begin discussing the creation of a Negro and Southern Leagues Hall of Fame celebrating the contributions of African-Americans to the sport of baseball. In April 2009 he unveiled a proposal for a $7.5 million project that would include construction of the museum, additional renovations to the historic ballpark, and a skywalk connecting the two. City funding for the project was approved in May and contracts with Davis Architects for the renovations and with Exford Architects for the museum were approved in July. A ceremonial groundbreaking was held on August 12. Langford was convicted in federal court on charges of fraud and bribery that October, and work on that project was set aside.

ESPN Classic broadcast a re-enactment of a Negro League game played at Rickwood on February 26, 2006. It featured teams wearing the uniforms of the Bristol Barnstormers and Birmingham Black Barons.

In 2014 Alagasco donated salvaged materials from the demolition of the downtown Birmingham Southern Railroad freight depot for use in reconstructing the stadium's batting building. Rickwood Field was set to receive $500,000 for facility upgrades from the city's "Phase II Bond Projects" in 2016. That money was instead used for emergency repairs to the structure. The Birmingham City Council approved a $1 million no-bid contract for J. J. Morley Enterprises to perform the repairs in early 2018.

MLB at Rickwood

On June 20, 2024 Major League Baseball held the "MLB at Rickwood Field: A Tribute to the Negro Leagues" regular-season game between the St Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants at the stadium. Major renovations were undertaken to adapt the stadium to meet MLB requirements for player and spectators. Consultants reassured preservationists that the ballpark would be kept in its "authentic state as much as possible."

MLB's field consultant Murray Cook supervised the alterations, which were planned with participation from the Friends of Rickwood. The playing field was entirely excavated for new subsurface drainage and irrigation, then topped with new clay and 120,000 square feet of Tahoma31 bermudagrass. The formerly mounded infield was flattened, home plate was pulled back about 10 feet closer to the backstop, and the angle of the diamond was shifted slightly counterclockwise. The resulting field dimensions from the new home plate are 325 feet to left, 400 feet to center, and 332 feet to right.

The grandstand was also modified, with new, much-larger dugouts, netting for the length of the foul line, and new foul poles. The outfield wall was replaced with protective padding, with new vintage style advertising screen-printed onto the surface. A "batter's eye" wall was added at center field. The glass lamps and lenses were removed from the 1930s lighting structures for safety. Temporary light towers were brought in for the event. The bullpen was moved

Those improvements also allowed the Southern League, part of the MLB's Professional Development League since 2021, to resume using the field for the Rickwood Classic, and also made the field more suitable for college baseball.

Birmingham's Public Athletic, Cultural and Entertainment Facilities Board issued $4.5 million in bonds through PNC Bank to fund renovations at Rickwood Field. The City of Birmingham appropriated more than $2.5 million toward the project. The Friends of Rickwood also led a 2024 Capital Campaign which brought in significant donations from the Alabama Power Foundation, Jefferson County Commission, Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, Protective Life, Regions Bank, American Cast Iron Pipe Co., and Encompass Health, along with in-kind donations from Protective Coatings Inc., Sherwin-Williams, and Vulcan Materials.

Trawick Contractors was awarded an $553,477 contract for initial repairs to the stadium in June 2023. A. G. Gaston Construction performed additional work under contract to Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM).

The overall price tag for upgrades relating to the MLB at Rickwood game was around $5 million to 6 million.

References

External links

Birmingham Barons
Birmingham Black Barons * Managers * Records * Rickwood Classic * Teams
Venues: Slag Pile Field, Rickwood Field, Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, Regions Field
Managers: Harry Vaughn, Carlton Molesworth, Rick Woodward, Phil Cavaretta, Terry Francona
Barons: Jeff Abbott, Wilson Alvarez, Sal Bando, Jason Bere, Vida Blue, Mark Buehrle, Mike Cameron, Joe Crede, Rob Dibble, Ray Durham, Scott Eyre, Rollie Fingers, John Garland, Burleigh Grimes, Roberto Hernandez, Catfish Hunter, Bo Jackson, Reggie Jackson, Howard Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tony LaRussa, Carlos Lee, Rube Marquard, Jack McDowell, Miguel Olivo, Magglio Ordonez, Aaron Rowand, Pie Traynor, Bob Wickman, Bobby Thigpen, Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura
Black Barons: Lorenzo "Piper" Davis, Willie Foster, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, Willie Wells