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Nearly 200 Baseball Hall of Famers Have Played at Historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham

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Atlanta Braves great Hank Aaron before a game between the Atlanta Braves and the Baltimore Orioles at Rickwood Field in Birmingham (1974-04-02). (Alabama Department of Archives and History. Donated by the Alabama Media Group)

By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.

For The Birmingham Times

Generations of minor league baseball players have lived with the dream that they’ll get called up to the big leagues, playing in a Major League Baseball (MLB) game.

Even announcers like Curt Bloom, the radio voice of the Birmingham Barons, had that dream, which was fulfilled two seasons ago when he was part of the broadcast crew for the Chicago White Sox, the parent club of the Barons.

But Bloom admits that he couldn’t imagine that Birmingham’s Rickwood Field, the longtime home of the Birmingham Barons and the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, would get the call to host an MLB game.

Curt Bloom (Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

“I never thought that Rickwood would get the call to the big leagues,” Bloom said. “It was our city jewel, our city gem. If you want to come see a game where Willie Mays played, you come to Birmingham. Now, come June 20, if you want to see where Willie Mays played, turn on your TV.”

Mays is one of 182 Baseball Hall of Famers who have played at Rickwood. Those legends include Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, Mule Suttles, Josh Gibson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Rollie Fingers and Reggie Jackson.

And while he’s not in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Bo Jackson played at Rickwood as a prep star for McAdory High School, a collegiate slugger for the Auburn Tigers and as a pro with the Memphis Chicks. Jackson was the 1989 MLB All Star Game MVP with a leadoff homerun.

Another football player, Auburn University’s and the New Orleans Saints’ Frank Warren, played a football game at Rickwood. His Phillips High School Red Raiders fell 7-3 to the West End Lions on Sept. 17, 1976.

While those legends all got a chance at the big league America’s oldest baseball park is indeed getting its chance as it hosts the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants on June 20 in the MLB Tribute to the Negro Leagues.

This is no preseason and it’s no exhibition. This is a real MLB game that is coming to Birmingham.

The game is part of a three-day baseball extravaganza where the real stars of the show are the ballpark that sits a block south of Third Avenue West and north of Lomb Avenue in the Fairview Neighborhood and the Negro League teams and players who applied their craft there.

Where Hall of Famers Played

Gerald Watkins is chairman of the Friends of Rickwood, the organization that has worked to maintain the baseball gem that is Rickwood.

Gerald Watkins (Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Rickwood Field opened August 18, 1910, to a wildly enthusiastic crowd that saw their beloved Birmingham Barons beat the Montgomery Climbers, and unknowingly made history. Rickwood was the newest ballpark in the land that day, and 114 years later, stands as the oldest baseball park in America.

Industrialist A.H. “Rick” Woodward, for whom the ballpark was named, was not only the owner of the Barons. He never lost his passion for playing the game of his youth, inserting himself into the starting lineup on Rickwood’s opening day.

Woodward threw the first pitch ever in his new ballpark. It was not a ceremonial pitch, but it was a ball.

Since opening, Rickwood Field has been home to the Minor League Birmingham Barons, the Negro League Birmingham Black Barons and the Birmingham A’s, which was in the farm system of the Oakland A’s. When UAB Baseball began under coach Harry “The Hat” Walker, the Blazers played at Rickwood.

“Rickwood Field was a true Field of Dreams,” Watkins said, “where someone like Willie Mays dreamed of playing in the big leagues.”

The Birmingham Barons, a Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, played their final season at Rickwood in 1987 before heading to the Hoover Met. The Barons moved to their current home – Birmingham’s Regions Field – in 2013, when the team won a league-best seventh Southern League championship.

“It’s a special place for baseball fans and history fans,” Watkins said. “Even folks who are on a Civil Rights trail will come here after they go to the (16th Street Baptist) Church and they go to the Civil Rights (Institute and) the Negro Southern League Museum.

“We’re a tourist spot. A lot of folks don’t see that but we really are,” he said. “Over the years, we’ve had as many as 38 states represented and eight foreign countries. If you look at our guest book today, you won’t see anybody from local places. You’re gonna see people from out of town or out of the country.”

These days, the message on Watkins’ cellphone refers callers to Major League Baseball in their pursuit of tickets to the Giants-Cardinals game. Alabama residents entered a lottery to have a chance at buying tickets to that game. That allotment of tickets sold out in 45 minutes.

“The teams (Cardinals and Giants) have an amount and Major League Baseball has an amount,” Watkins said. “Those numbers are not known but they come out of the total somewhere, some way. In the overall ticket numbers, those come out before the (public) tickets go on sale.”

Television Experience

Capacity at Rickwood Field will be approximately 8,100, down from about 9,500 before the renovations.

“We have lost some seating capacity due to the improvements that we made, allowing better access for handicapped individuals,” the Friends of Rickwood chairman said. “We will have to have areas for more press and there’ll be some VIP areas that we’ve never had to deal with before. But, as MLB looks at it, they’re thinking about a television game.”

That television experience will be enhanced by a Jumbotron that will be temporally installed in right centerfield.

While access to the Major League game is limited, the MiLB (Minor League Baseball) game between the Biscuits and Barons and the Barnstorm Birmingham softball contest will have greater access.

Prices for Barnstorm Birmingham tickets are $24 in a nod to Birmingham’s own, the great Willie Mays, whose jersey number was 24. As with the other games, MLB will make a select number of tickets for Barnstorm Birmingham available for free to local youth and community groups.

Watkins said he’s learned from his conversations with Major League Baseball that it is interested in coming back for a second game.

“There’s no guarantees, but we have been told that the main thing we have to do is keep the field up at a Major League level,” he said. “That means we can’t overplay on it. That means we’ve got to make sure it’s cut properly, it’s watered properly, all the chemicals are applied properly.”

Simply put, Birmingham must keep its gem polished.

MLB at Rickwood pits the St. Louis Cardinals against the San Francisco Giants. The game will be played at 6 p.m. on FOX.