A Rickwood Reverie

by Bernard Frei on August 30, 2019

 

 

Mark Kelly Publisher, Weld Birmingham

It was the bottom of the second inning at the 19th annual Rickwood Classic, one out and nobody on base for the home-standing Birmingham Barons. The Baron at the plate powered a low fastball into an arc that proceeded on a gradual rate of ascent, but very rapidly so. Stroked well over the head of the Mississippi Braves’ second baseman, the scorched low-riser was rising still as it crossed the infinite vertical boundary between red-brown infield dirt and the spreading sward of outfield.

Watching from 350 feet away, I’d seen the blow before I heard it. In full accordance with the laws of physics, light waves — the sight of the batsman’s swing and the ball’s sudden and escalating reversal of direction — preceded the slower-traveling sound waves that affirmed the impression that it was going to travel some considerable distance.

Crack!

The sweet and solid resonance of a wooden bat making meaningful contact with a pitched baseball is a sublimely satisfying sound. On this occasion, it hung for a moment in the clinging swelter of the June afternoon, and then was gone, swallowed in the onrushing swell of a roar from 8,000 throats rooting for the home team. Swept to my feet, registering the thought that the ball might make its way out of the park, I roared, too.

Yeah!

All of this activity — which had taken place over the course of two or three seconds — drew the attention of my son and my daughter, who were seated on either side of me. Neither is much of a baseball fan, per se, meaning that their interest in the finer points of the game is sporadic and incidental. They are well aware of my deep affection for it, and through their formative years, this has been all of the prompting they need to accompany me happily to the ballpark.

Well…that and the anticipation of hot dogs, cold drinks and an ancillary treat or two, along with the enticing-if-unlikely prospect of snaring a ball fouled into the stands. Plus, they know, even if mostly because I have told them so often, that Rickwood Field is a very special place. Suffice it to say that for some shared reasons, and for other reasons peculiar to each of us, the two most important people in my life and I enjoy being at a baseball game — any baseball game — together.

Besides, the Kelly kids are nothing if not highly attuned to the possibility of action and excitement. Their attention had been elsewhere as this at-bat progressed, but now they were pulled in by the shot-like report of the prospective multi-base hit and the instantaneous wash of reaction in its wake. In a split-second, they popped up beside me as if spring-loaded, necks craning to take in the communal drama unfolding before us.

The race

The Mississippi right fielder had been playing the right-handed batter a little too shallow.

Now he was on a dead sprint, his reaction to the visual and auditory stimuli that brought the crowd to its feet having been to turn his back to the infield and begin running, hard and on a beeline. Accelerating in the direction of the deep power alley in right-center, he traveled on an oblique angle away from our position, five rows up in the bleachers that wrap like an afterthought around the foul pole and the first 40 feet of fair territory.

Whether the ball would clear the outfield wall for a home run was as unknowable to the galloping outfielder as it was to me, or to anyone else at Rickwood. But if the spacious confines of America’s oldest surviving baseball park held it, he had an idea of the point at which it would complete its parabola and fall back to earth — a hypothesis, if you will, based on the years of accumulated experience and layers upon layers of muscle memory that went into making him a professional athlete and had supported his advancement to this point in his young career.

The rightfielder’s eyes were not on the ball, which was still behind him, though beginning to plummet earthward at somewhere in the range of 90 miles per hour. His eyes were on the spot where he had judged the ball to be headed. If it was going out of the park, it was going out; there was nothing he could do about that. His charge was to assume that it was not going to be a homer, to outrun the ball to its point of impact, and to be there to catch it before it struck ground or wall. If the rightfielder didn’t get there first — or if he simply misjudged the flight of the hurtling ball — the resulting hit would carom off the wall and be good for at least two bases.

And so he proceeded, posthaste. I saw him, finally, look back and upward over his left shoulder, locating the dot of a ball against the tower of puffy white-and-gray clouds that loomed against the deep-blue sky. Then, at just that moment, he disappeared.

“Disappeared” is perhaps a misleading term. What I mean is that the outfielder ran past the point at which we and the other three dozen or so people scattered in our vicinity could lay eyes upon him. This was because our view of a large swath of outfield real estate was cut off by the declining curvature of the wall, which tapers steadily from 392 feet away from home plate in deepest right-center to 332 down the rightfield line (for those interested in a basis for comparison, Yankee Stadium runs 385 to right-center and 314 down the line in right). Denied the chance to witness firsthand the fate of either ball or outfielder, my gaze shifted back to the proximate cause of the excitement.

In the concise parlance of the time-honored rules that govern baseball games from the Big Leagues on down, a player who takes bat in hand, approaches home plate and assumes a position of opposition to the pitcher is known as a batter. When a given batter — say, the young man who launched the rocket that the now-invisible centerfielder was trying to chase down — makes contact that puts the ball into fair play, he becomes a batter-runner. That status is maintained until he is put out by a fielding play or stops safely at one of the bases (or, in the case of a home run, touches home plate).

What, then, of Birmingham’s newly minted batter-runner? While I (with most everyone else in the park) was glued to the race between the rightfielder and the ball, the batter-runner sped around first base and was making for second with no apparent intention of pulling up and coasting in. Watching him now, I could practically hear him thinking that the ball was going to be off the wall, that he could stretch it for a triple with relative ease.

From somewhere over in right-center came a shuddering thud, as abrupt and loud as an old car backfiring half a block away. A couple of rows behind us and to our left, a man shouted as if he’d read the same thoughts as I.

“Off the wall! Go!”

But I was watching the batter-runner. In a sort of reverse echo of my experience of the collision of bat and ball — sight followed by sound — the thud from right-center was still percussing, the exclamation of the man behind me hardly out of his mouth, when I saw him pull up and veer into a resigned trot back to the Barons dugout, a batter-runner no more.

The rightfielder had won the race. It was he, and not the delinquent ball, that had thudded against the wall. It must have been a superb leaping catch, judging by the reaction of those who saw it — the disappointed awwwww of the home crowd giving way quickly to a rippling round of applause in appreciation of the play.

“Must have been a nice one,” muttered the man behind us, with whom I apparently was locked into some kind of Rickwood-induced mind-meld. “Batter up.”

Seeing the whole game

Baseball is a beautiful game. I speak only for myself, but to my way of thinking, there is no other so rich and colorful in history and myth, or with such endless scientific, mathematical and philosophical intricacies embodied in its physical execution. For those so inclined — perhaps especially the parents of young children — sitting in the stands at any given baseball game offers ample opportunity to discern and impart object lessons.

That might be doubly true at Rickwood, as I discovered in the aftermath of the thrilling catch we’d missed. As the next batter approached the plate, my son hopped down to the railing that runs over the outfield wall. From five rows and an aisle away, I could tell that he was stewing a little. A routine groundout ended the Barons second and kept the game scoreless, and he hopped purposefully back up to press an issue he’d first raised when we’d settled into these seats just before the top half of the inning started.

“You can’t see anything out here!” Getting no immediate response, he took the admirable route of turning his complaint into a question, followed by the introduction of evidence supporting his position.

“Dad, why are we sitting all the way out here? You said we could sit anywhere we wanted.”

“That I did,” I admitted. “But I thought we’d move around a little, see what the game looks like from different parts of the ballpark.”

Now we had my daughter’s attention. She beat her brother to the next question.

“So why did we sit here first?”

I gestured over beyond the end of the section where we sat — the butt-end of the concrete-and-steel grandstand, and for the past half-century of Rickwood’s 104 years of existence, of rightfield seating in the park. Over there, I told my kids, there used to be another set of bleachers. Made of wooden posts, planks and two-by-fours and measuring 60 feet long by 45 feet deep, those bleachers sat several yards apart from the main structure of the park, their physical separation underscored by the location of their access stairs on the side farthest from the grandstand crowd.

An architectural drawing of Rickwood from the 1930s referred to those seats as the “Colored Bleachers.” The Colored Bleachers were a necessity for the Barons ownership, who installed them so that they would not be obliged to turn away paying customers due to city ordinances that expressly prohibited virtually all forms of social interaction between white people and black people, including sitting together at baseball games.

“If you were a black person in those days,” I told the kids, “and you wanted to come to Rickwood Field on a nice summer day and watch the Birmingham Barons play, that was where you sat. Even if there were tons of empty seats all over the park, you had to sit in those bleachers. If you sat anywhere else, they could take you to jail.”

They considered this for a long moment. When my son spoke, it was not to ask a question, but to indicate an understanding beyond his understanding.

“So,” he said, “if you were black, you could never see the whole game.”

“That’s exactly right, son,” I replied, thinking of the multitude of levels on which his words qualified as an unimpeachable statement of fact. “You could never see the whole game.”

Photo by Mark Kelly.
Photo by Mark Kelly.

A fan for life

I was still thinking about all of that — about baseball and human relations and Rickwood and history and Birmingham — in the top of the fourth inning, when a Mississippi batter rapped a single that plated the game’s first run, and the man behind him tripled to make it 2-0 Braves.

We had an outstanding view of the scoring, having moved to a spot along the third base line, in the first row of covered bleachers above the infield box seats. This location had been a matter of general agreement after we’d spent the first half of the third inning sitting in the first row of some box seats in shallow right, directly behind the Barons bullpen. You get an interesting perspective on the game from that vantage point, but on this prototypical Birmingham summer day, the sun was beating down with a vengeance — as the old folks used to say, it was hotter than 40 hells.

As anyone with good sense knows, one proven way of contending with the heat at a ball game is the oral application of a snow cone. The Kelly kids are well aware of this health tip, and after our half-inning baking in the box seats, we’d gone out to find the snow cone stand.

The stand turned out to be situated directly in the sun, and the length of the line — we’d come in just behind a group of about 20 boys and girls wearing identical red shirts that identified them as summer campers from the Bessemer YMCA — promised a considerable wait. Erring on the side of self-preservation, I left the kids in line and went to stand under the roof of the breezeway nearby.

Most of the breezeway was taken up by a rectangle of folding tables and the crowd that surrounded it. The tables were covered with baseball memorabilia, the items being offered in a silent auction, the proceeds of which augment the day’s take for the Friends of Rickwood Field, the nonprofit that has managed the restoration and maintenance of the ballpark since 1992. The Classic — for which the Barons return for a day to their ancestral stomping grounds, facing a Southern League foe in a game in which both teams don throwback uniforms in salute to a particular year or era (this year it’s the Roaring Twenties) — was inaugurated in 1996 as the group’s major fundraising event, and has been played annually since.

I made my way around the memorabilia display. Among other items, there were some great autographed pictures, including at least three Hall of Famers I spotted — Monte Irvin, Phil Niekro, Frank Thomas — and a very nice print of the famous photograph of Jackie Robinson stealing home for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1955 World Series against the New York Yankees.

My eye was drawn particularly to a ticket stub from the deciding Game 7 of the 1972 Series between the Oakland A’s and the Cincinnati Reds. I was 10 that year, the age my son is now, and though I had my baseball heroes and had followed and played the game for a few years at that point, that was the first World Series I remember being seriously into, so much that I had no real rooting interest to speak of. It probably didn’t hurt that, other than an 8-1 Reds romp in Game 6, every game was decided by a single run. I can still summon that feeling of sheer pleasure at watching two evenly matched teams play baseball so well.

They still played some World Series games in the daytime back then, and I have a vivid memory of jumping off the school bus and charging into the house to find one of the games in progress on television. Why is it that I remember that the first image I saw when I turned on the game — and the image I see in my mind at this moment — was A’s outfielder Joe Rudi waggling his bat at the plate?

Watching that Series, won by Oakland, made me a baseball fan for life. What I didn’t realize at the time was how many of the players on that A’s team had come up through Birmingham, which had become an Oakland farm club in 1967. Future Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Reggie Jackson (who didn’t play in the ’72 Series due to injury), along with Rudi, Vida Blue and Gene Tenace, who was named the series’ Most Valuable Player — all played minor league ball at Rickwood.

But on this day, I had become preoccupied. I stared absently at the ticket stub from Game 7 while chewing over the mishmash of images, thoughts and conversation occasioned by our sojourn out in rightfield. The only thing I had the presence of mind to take actual note of was that a ticket to the game that crowned the World Champion of baseball for 1972 had a face value of $15.

My thoughts kept returning to the Colored Bleachers.

Photo by Wyatt Stayner.
Photo by Wyatt Stayner.

It’s the rent that counts

Before entering politics and becoming the living symbol of segregationist intransigence in Birmingham, Bull Connor was the highly popular radio announcer of the Birmingham Barons. Loud, brash and colorful, Connor had no compunction about slipping his racial views into his play-by-play patter. He even came up with a catchy name for the seating area that accommodated black fans.

“He called it the coalbin,” Shelley Stewart told me a few days after the Classic, passing on a bit of history of which I was unaware. An iconic presence in Birmingham advertising and marketing circles, Stewart first earned fame during the 1950s and ’60s as a flamboyant disc jockey on a local black radio station. A Birmingham native, he remembers sitting in the Colored Bleachers as a young man, and also recalls listening to games on the radio in which Connor trotted out his special home run call for balls hit into the black section.

“Bull would holler, ‘It’s going, it’s going…and it’s in the coalbin!’”

Former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington is another prominent citizen whose prominence was predated by official second-class status. An ardent baseball fan in his boyhood, Arrington reserved most of his enthusiasm for the local Negro League team, the Birmingham Black Barons. He says he did go “several times” to see the white Barons, and remembers the weathered wooden seats with their snags and splinters.

“I recall quite clearly sitting in the colored section, the clarity of the message that we were being separated and treated differently from whites,” Arrington says. “At the few white Barons games I attended, that section usually seemed to be at about 50 percent capacity. I never saw it full.”

Arrington was far from alone among black Birminghamians in choosing to spend precious entertainment dollars on the black ballclub rather than the white Barons. During the 1940s and ‘50s of his youth, the Black Barons often outdrew their white counterparts. This was partly because they usually had better players during those years, including several — Piper Davis, Bill Greason, Artie Wilson, Lyman Bostock Sr. — who almost certainly would have enjoyed extended big league careers if not for segregation and the informal vestiges of it that continued for years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier officially in 1947.

For a short time, they had one who would go on to make a bit of a name for himself in the bigs, to the tune of being revered even today as perhaps the best player in the history of baseball. Local product Willie Mays, a friend and contemporary of the future Birmingham mayor, helped lead the Black Barons to the Negro American League championship as a 17-year-old in 1948. Three summers later, Mays was the centerfielder for the New York Giants, embarked on a Hall of Fame career that would electrify baseball across two decades and more.

For most of their history (1920-1960), the Black Barons alternated home stands at Rickwood with the white club. That guaranteed a home crowd every weekend for the Barons ownership, which rented the ballpark to the Black Barons for a percentage of ticket sales, and also made profit from concessions. For Black Barons games, the usual seating requirements were reversed, with black fans filling the box seats and grandstand and the few white customers who showed up compelled to endure the splinter-laden charms of the coalbin in right.

Yes, and where else but in Birmingham, Alabama? In what other place could one have found so many threads of the human condition interwoven with such complexity?

In that world of black and white, there was a lot of gray. Around the same time that the Black Barons were established and began playing at Rickwood Field in 1920, the ballpark became a regular site for the rallies of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan. Throughout the decade, a thrilling Black Barons win at the park on a Sunday afternoon might have been followed by a cross-burning on the very same field on, say, Monday or Thursday night.

The strange co-existence of the Black Barons and the KKK appears not to have been a matter of concern for Rick Woodward, the iron magnate who acquired the Barons in 1910 and built Rickwood (named, more or less, for himself) the same year. It shouldn’t have been surprising in a city founded on belief in the possibilities of untrammeled capitalism that Woodward seems to have had only one criterion for his dealings with either organization. Both the black baseball club and the Klan paid their rent.

Rooting for the home team

Attendance at this year’s Rickwood Classic was 8,686, the third highest total in the 19-year history of the game.

The announcement came over the public address system in the middle of the sixth inning. We took it in from our latest seats, back in the general vicinity of the Barons bullpen, but now four rows up to take advantage of the lengthening shadow of the grandstand as the sun began to slip behind it to the west.

There had been serious action in the Mississippi half of the inning, and we missed almost all of it — including a two-run homer to left-center, we were told — waiting in line for hot dogs. We’d arrived at our seats just in time to see a bloop single drop in front of the Barons rightfielder to score the third and final Braves run of the inning. 5-0 in favor of the visitors.

The Barons looked as if they’d show a little life in the bottom of the sixth, when the leadoff hitter singled his way on board. A rhythmic chant rose from the crowd.

Let’s go, Barons! … Let’s go, Barons! … Let’s go, Barons!

Photo by Mark Kelly.

Photo by Mark Kelly.

The runner wanted to steal second base. We had a great view of the considerable lead he took off first — and of the dangerously quick throw-over by the Mississippi pitcher that almost beat the diving runner back to the bag.

“If he takes that long a lead again, this pitcher’s gonna pick him off,” I said to no one in particular. Sure enough, the right-hander on the mound peered in toward the plate, and the runner took several deliberate steps along the basepath before settling in to await his chance. He began to lean slightly, almost imperceptibly, in the direction of second — and the pitcher whirled to make another throw to first. Again, the runner dove, but this time not fast enough.

Picked off. Naturally, the man at bat walked on the next pitch, but the following hitter lofted a harmless fly ball to right for the second out. I let out a disheartened grunt.

“It doesn’t look too good for the Barons,” my daughter said, echoing something she’s heard me say at similar junctures of other one-sided games. I had to agree, but then the man at the plate for the Barons hit a shot off the towering, hand-operated scoreboard that dominates centerfield at Rickwood — a run-scoring double that brought us to our feet and the heat-cowed crowd back to life for the first time since early in the game.

The loud two-bagger was followed by the proverbial “ground ball with eyes,” a squibber off the end of the bat that somehow found its way through the infield and scored the runner from second. A strikeout brought the inning to a close, but it was 5-2 and the Barons got a nice hand for the rallying their way back into the game.

The cheers had a heartfelt quality that I’ve heard before at Rickwood, but only recently at other Barons games — “recently” meaning since the team ended its 25-year decampment to the suburbs and moved into a new ballpark in downtown Birmingham in 2013. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that the Barons’ new home has generated an exponential rise in the number of casual baseball fans I encounter around town.

It probably has something to do with the newness of Regions Field and the fact that the Barons won the Southern League championship to cap off their first year in the new park, but the team has become beloved in a way I doubt they ever anticipated. The Barons have become a touchstone of Birmingham’s burgeoning civic pride and an emblem of the sense that, after decades of perpetual promise, the city is at last bidding to emerge as a major city. How that turns out remains to be seen, as does the staying power of Birmingham’s newly passionate love affair with its baseball team.

One thing I know about the latter is that it started at Rickwood Field. And it is to Rickwood that it returns each year, to be expressed in the observance of a deftly fielded play or a well-timed hit, in the honest appreciation of the game for its own sake. In this, Rickwood is as important a place as we have in the city, one that says “Birmingham” — and imparts to us some knowledge about ourselves — in uniquely evocative and powerful ways.

Birmingham’s treasure

After the seventh-inning stretch, we made our way back to the third base bleachers, finding some seats a little farther out in left field than our previous ones. The crowd diminished following the traditional communal rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” but most of those who started the game were still in the ballpark, still pulling for the Barons.

Not that it did much good. Neither team generated anything like a rally in the eighth, and Mississippi went down just as easily in the top of the ninth, leaving the Barons one last chance.

The lack of action made the kids restless, and they had spent most of the previous inning or so roaming the ballpark, exploring various of its nooks and crannies. They tend to do this at some point in every game we attend, but isn’t that part of being a kid at a ballgame? In any case, I am at the center of their orbit; I am their landmark, and always they gravitate back to my side — just as they did to join me in watching the bottom of the ninth, an impressive display in which the Mississippi closer struck out the side to end it.

Photo by Mark Kelly.
Photo by Mark Kelly.

The game over, we took part in a Rickwood Classic tradition, joining a few thousand other spectators of all ages on the field. It was a scene. Two grown men ran a footrace from home plate to first base. A father stood on the pitcher’s mound, holding his infant child close and whispering into its ear. Behind the plate, a young couple kissed as they posed for a photo with the reveling hoard as a backdrop. Kids whooshed tirelessly around the bases.

We checked out the dugouts, ran the basepaths a little, sat on the outfield grass and looked around for a bit, and then walked around behind the outfield wall to climb the metal ladder up the big scoreboard. Up top, we poked our heads out the holes where the numbers are dropped in, silent as we looked across the expanse of the oldest baseball park in America, this treasure that Birmingham, and no one else, has.

Heading to our car, we walked out around the perimeter of the park, between the current outfield wall and the concrete one that was the original boundary of the park. We stopped to look at the plaque with a big “X” that marks the landing spot of a 467-foot homer by Baron and future big-leaguer Walt Dropo helped win the 1948 Dixie Series for the Birmingham team. Walking past the area where the Colored Bleachers once stood, I pointed in the opposite direction, out to the railroad tracks that run behind Rickwood, hard by the waters of Village Creek.

“That’s where Babe Ruth’s homer went,” I said. “More than 500 feet from home plate, close to 600.”

I was referring to an apocryphal tale that I’d shared with the kids earlier, not long after we sat down in the rightfield bleachers after arriving for the Classic. As legend has it, the Bambino, playing in an exhibition game at Rickwood, hit a home run that not only made it to the railroad tracks, but landed in a boxcar being pulled by a passing train that didn’t stop until it got to Atlanta — the longest home run in history. Now, as I pointed out the spot, my son piped up.

“I know,” he said. “I met this kid earlier, and I told him about it.”

Like I said, we enjoy going to baseball games together.

Mark Kelly

VintageSports.com wishes to thank Mark Kelly.

5 comments
by OK on September 01, 2019

Where is Weld. Reading this article reminded me how much I enjoy reading it. Good work Vintage sports good news

by Porter Whiting on August 30, 2019

Is Rickwood still a professional stadium. I thought Fenway was the oldest stadium in the country. Anyone??

by Margie Elmwood on August 30, 2019

Beautiful. reminds me of the times my Dad would take me to the classic. its a lovely place to visit full of ghosts and happy memories high recommend taking the family.

by Jason Weeks on August 30, 2019

Fell in love with the Barons on a recent visit to the States. I had no idea, never heard of Rickwood. Thank you Mark for making me a better dinner guest. I have a lot more meet for my love of Barons conversation going forward.

by Eric F on August 30, 2019

I loved Weld but never saw this piece. Thrilled that the Vintage Sports group found it and ran it. Birmingham has a rich sporting history. It isn’t all about Alabama and Football. Take five minutes to enjoy life…

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