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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Rickwood Field, Birmingham AL

I was in Birmingham on business a couple of weeks ago.  I stayed at an old hotel downtown, the Redmont, that still had lots of charm but needed some serious TLC.  The hotel opened in 1925, and the features of the building reflected that era - marble staircases, hardwood floors and tiny elevators that moved verrrry slowly. The price was right, and the attentive staff made up for the slight seediness of the decor.

I finished my business and was checking out; the weather in Chicago forced a delay in my flight home.  Since I had some time to kill, I asked the woman at the front desk, "What would you recommend for someone who has a couple of extra hours in Birmingham?" She smiled and said "Rickwood Field."

Rickwood Field is the oldest professional baseball stadium still operating in the world.  The field was conceptualized and built by Harvey "Rick" Woodward - the name is a combination of Mr. Woodward's nickname and the first syllable of his last name.  Rickwood Field opened in August of 1910, two years before Fenway in Boston and four years before Wrigley in Chicago.  Rickwood was the home of the Birmingham Barons, the AA-level minor league affiliate of the Chicago White Sox (they now play in Regions Field in downtown Birmingham, but do return for the Rickwood Classic, a single game in May that has become a must-see event for baseball history buffs). Rickwood was also the home of the Birmingham Black Barons, one of the top teams in the Negro Leagues.  The Black Barons produced Sachel Paige, Willie Mays and many other stars of the league. The story of the Negro Leagues is well-known; the barn-storming, hand-to-mouth lifestyle was forced upon them by Jim Crow and the deep racism of the United States in the late 19th through mid-20th Centuries. (I always liked Kansas City Monarch star and Cubs coach  Buck O'Neil's comments on these years, and on Ty Cobb, one of the worst racists in professional baseball in that era).  So many of the great names of baseball played at Rickwood - Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Cool Papa Bell, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Rollie Fingers and, yes, Ty Cobb.  Rickwood Field has been used as a backdrop for many baseball movies, including the current Jackie Robinson movie, "42."

I drove over to the ball park, and it was open for visitors - free of charge (a request for a $1 donation to offset the cost of printing brochures was the only mention of money that I saw).  I was the only visitor, and the only other person there was the groundskeeper.  He was cordial, but busy preparing the field for a high school game that night.  I was welcomed and told to look around to my heart's content.

A well-tended baseball field is a beautiful thing. A baseball diamond is an open geometric pattern; I always imagine the first and third baselines extending past the outfield wall into a theoretical infinite distance. Baseball is one of the least violent team sports (although it is a dangerous sport).  Physical contact is not the central part of the game; the game is about skill and focus.  I could sense that many intense baseball games had unfolded on that Alabama field.  Rickwood pulled at me the same way the Wrigley pulls at me.  The vintage painted ads on the walls of the ballpark (installed by Warner Brothers for the 1994 movie, "Cobb") add to the "time warp" feeling.  It was hushed and quiet, with only the sound of the groundskeepers broom in the batters box breaking the silence.

If you love baseball, or even just like it, Rickwood Field should be on your "must see" list.

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