Column: America's oldest ballpark still making memories
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Time for a little history lesson.
Just a few miles west of downtown Birmingham, tucked into a neighborhood of modest homes the way ballparks used to be, sits a stately green time capsule known as Rickwood Field.
In a couple of months, this place will officially mark its 109th birthday. Stadium officials went ahead with the most perfect of celebrations on the last Wednesday of May.
"I think this is as just good as any of those new ballparks," Leroy Miller, a veteran of the Negro Leagues, said from a seat along the third-base line.
He's right, even though you won't find a single luxury box or club seat or sushi stand at 10,000-seat Rickwood Field.
In the late 1980s, when the Barons moved to a ritzy new stadium in the suburbs and Rickwood seemed destined for the wrecking ball like nearly all of its contemporaries, a group of dedicated locals set out to preserve this crumbling yet marvelous structure.
Against all odds, they succeeded in saving what is now America's oldest ballpark.
Yep, older than Fenway Park by two years, older than Wrigley Field by four. The only surviving ballpark, it's believed, from the old Negro Leagues.
Once a year, the Double-A Birmingham Barons return to their former home for a daytime game known as the Rickwood Classic. It's a nostalgic pilgrimage that any baseball fan should make at least once in their lifetime, but it's also a sobering reminder of the history lost and a call to fight with all our might to preserve those ancient sporting relics that remain.
"You take away this ballpark," Miller said, "you take away the memories."
They're still making memories at Rickwood Field.
As the temperature soared into the 90s under a blistering sun, the Barons hosted their rival from right down I-65, the Montgomery Biscuits.
The Biscuits prevailed, 9-4.
The score was irrelevant.
This was about the fans decked out in Victorian suits and flowing dresses inspired by the early years of the previous century, about umpires and ushers in bow ties, about a lineup board just inside the main entrance written out in chalk, where a father studiously filled in his scorecard under the watchful eye of his young son.
This was about the aging veterans of the Negros Leagues getting another chance to shine, to pose for a group picture on the field before shuffling slowly to their seats behind the Biscuits' dugout, where they reminisced about a game that provided so much hope but also broke their hearts with its racial intolerance.
This was about the families that invaded the field almost as soon as the last out was recorded, to see who could run the bases the fastest, to break out their gloves for a game of catch, to pose for selfies in front of the hand-operated scoreboard and the vintage advertising signs ringing the outfield wall, which urged fans to drink Coca-Cola because it "Relieves Fatigue" or an admonishment from U.S. Steel to "Play It Safe, on the job, off the job."
Jason Bressner of Lexington, Massachusetts stopped by Rickwood Field last year, but he couldn't get inside because it was undergoing some much-needed renovations.
When Bressner heard about the Rickwood Classic, he vowed to return to Birmingham. His girlfriend agreed to the trip, but only if he would accommodate her passion for historical clothing. So, they rented out some period pieces from the early 1900s — he went with a burgundy suit and matching vest that was flushed out quite nicely by an ornate gold tie and black bowler — and turned up for the ballgame as definite contenders for the Best Dressed Award.
"I don't care about watching baseball," conceded Alona Brosh, sitting alongside her boyfriend in a blue-and-white-striped jacket, a frilly white blouse that buttoned all the way to her chin, a blue skirt that dipped all the way to the ground, topped off by a stylish hat of her own. "But I'm very into historical fashion, especially the Victorian and Edwardian era. So I was thrilled to come and dress up in 1910 fashions."
They happened upon a family of locals who go to similar lengths for the Rickwood Classic.
"We have an amazing treasure in Birmingham," said Kellet May, sitting next to her 7-year-old daughter, Lucia, while adorned in a strand of pearls and a large, swooping hat that would've fit right in at the Kentucky Derby. "I would like everyone to take advantage of it."
Rickwood Field was home to a pair of ballclubs during a big chunk of its history — the Barons (of the all-white Southern Association) and the Black Barons (who played in various incarnations of the Negro Leagues). Appropriately, both clubs are honored for their ample contributions to the game's history, with a list of their championship seasons listed side-by-side on an outfield sign as well as a prominent wall behind the main grandstand.
Miller was a star pitcher for the Black Barons in 1963, when the Negro Leagues had collapsed and the team was reduced to a barnstorming outfit. The Rickwood Classic gave him a chance to revel in his former glory and drop a little knowledge on younger fans stopping by his seat to ask for a picture or autograph.
"Baseball was all you had," Miller said wistfully. "You lived for Saturdays and Sundays."
Sitting on the same row was 84-year-old James "Jake" Sanders, another alumnus of the Black Barons from the 1950s. He still likes coming out to Rickwood when there are no games going on. He'll just walk around the ballpark, soaking it all in, savoring the memories and a maybe a train whistle crackling through the silence beyond the right-field bleachers.
"This is the No. 1 ballpark for me," said Sanders, who wore a vintage jersey and cap from another Negro League team he played for, the Kansas City Monarchs. "I love Rickwood Field."
The Barons broke out sharp cream uniforms with a big black "B'' on the left chest, along with vintage, two-tone caps comprised of a black bill and another prominent B on the white top — a tribute to the very first game at Rickwood Field on Aug. 18, 1910, when the Barons hosted another team from Montgomery known as the Climbers.
After the final out, Barons pitcher Kyle Kubat reflected on the significance of a ballpark that is roughly 82 years older than he is.
"It's pretty cool," Kubat said, stopping off in the tunnel between the dugout and spartan clubhouse. "This is my first time here. ... It's obviously a historical place. You've got to take it all in. You know, we play 140 games in 150 days, so it's gets really boring at times. You've got to make it fun. Days like this, it's fun."
Rickwood Field is more than a one-day fad. It serves as the home field for local high schools, as well as nearby Miles College. There are amateur games and corporate outings. It's been a backdrop in several baseball-themed films, including "Cobb" and "42."
About a year from now, the ballpark will open its gates for another Rickwood Classic.
Trust us, it's worth the trip.