Major League Baseball
How MLB's Rickwood Field game will make huge statement in community — and baseball
Major League Baseball

How MLB's Rickwood Field game will make huge statement in community — and baseball

Updated Jun. 19, 2024 12:23 p.m. ET

Tim Anderson, as a member of the Birmingham Barons, played in the 20th Annual Rickwood Classic Game against the Jacksonville Suns in 2015. The shortstop, at the time touted as the Chicago White Sox' No. 2 prospect behind southpaw Carlos Rodon, remembers there wasn't much fanfare around the game. While he was looking forward to returning to his roots — Anderson grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama — there was a limited marketing initiative and next to no national publicity for the Rickwood Classic Game.

Nonetheless, this game mattered a great deal to Anderson. He could sense the historical significance of the field itself, America's oldest professional ballpark, built on Aug. 10, 1910. And he understood how important the Classic was to the city of Birmingham. 

"You could feel the history, just from the sounds of the speakers," Anderson recently told FOX Sports. "Just from the vibes and the atmosphere, even just being in the stadium, you could feel it and see what was really going on."

Anderson, 21 years old at the time and two years removed from being the White Sox' No. 1 draft pick, played that Rickwood Classic with emotion. Returning to Alabama, suited up in white and red throwback uniforms, matching the full regalia that Willie Mays' 1948 Black Barons wore all the way to the final Negro League World Series, how could he not? Competing in Satchel Paige's playground and more than 100 other Hall of Famers who stepped onto the city's gem, Anderson played in front of 7,046 spectators and fully embraced his opportunity to take a few at-bats and vacuum some grounders at the iconic Rickwood Field.


Nine years later, though Anderson won't be there Thursday as the San Francisco Giants take on the St. Louis Cardinals in MLB's first game at Rickwood Field (7:15 p.m. ET on FOX), the Miami Marlins shortstop is delighted that Birmingham will once again get a taste of meaningful baseball. He's glad that Major League Baseball is finally giving Rickwood Field the spotlight and attention he always thought it deserved.

"Having the Rickwood Classic game, actually having a major-league game there, is going to make a huge statement," Anderson said. "I'm pretty sure the community around there is going to want it to continue to keep happening because there's no professional baseball there besides minor-league baseball. You don't see no baseball down there. The closest thing we got is the Atlanta Braves, but that's two and a half hours away. 

"So I think it's going to be huge for the community to actually see that go on."

Now that MLB is bringing an actual major-league game to Rickwood Field, as Anderson emphasized, perhaps it doesn't have to be such a rare event. With so much excitement swelling from Birmingham, with the triumph the Negro Leagues achieved in the face of adversity looming over the city, there is already so much zeal for this Rickwood Field Game, in part because it took the league long enough. Rickwood Field, after all, is a staple of baseball's rich history. This week, 114 years after the ballpark's inception, is the first time many baseball devotees will even learn about its significance. 

If MLB continues this tradition, there's an opportunity for the league to grow the game at a time when it deeply needs more African American representation. 

According to the Society for American Baseball Research, the peak of Black-player participation in the major leagues took place in 1981, more than 30 years after MLB's integration, when 18.1% of all players were Black. This year, only 6% of all players on Opening Day rosters were Black.

We can discuss and squabble about why exactly there are fewer Black players in MLB than other professional leagues, like the NBA and the NFL, but the simple truth is, the more that MLB continues to honor the Negro Leagues, the greater the chance that Black representation in the game can increase. This week will be a great step in the right direction, but it can't end there. 

MLB teams must also do more than interview Black managerial candidates — they need to actually hire them. The league should own and atone for its history of discrimination throughout much of the 20th century, denying Black athletes the opportunity to play in the league for decades. MLB should acknowledge that the Negro Leagues thrived, creating Hall of Famers who, statistically, outperformed their major-league counterparts.

Sure, that's a lot to ask out of MLB's first regular-season game at Rickwood Field, but it's a terrific start, one that must carry on.

"It's definitely cool for creating new fan bases," Josh Bell recently told FOX Sports. "I know that the [Birmingham] area is excited already, but they're going to have a blast. It's like an All-star Game. That'll be really good for the city."

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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