I don’t think we’ll see any uproar around here. Voters hereabouts are too busy not paying attention to the upcoming municipal elections to get involved in histrionics over health care. Besides, every single Alabamian is blissfully happy with whatever insurance monopoly dictates his or her medical care options, and even if he or she is not, their elected representatives, bought and paid for or operating on a long-term lease by one of the aforementioned monopolies, are.
August is just too muggy and uncomfortable for outrage, so kudos to the party planner who decreed that Birmingham elections should be held therein. With the future of the city arguably at stake, let’s do try to get as few people as possible involved, the better to manipulate the outcome. Then we can get on with the ultimate solution to all the civic woes we face, namely that catalyzing, exorcising, oh-so-tantalizing domed stadium.
Constant among the discussions pro and con is a wishful refrain about attracting a pro team to Birmingham; which league, which sport, which franchise. The thing is, we already have a pro team performing quite well here, and a historic franchise it is, too.
I was reminded of this over the weekend, listening to Curt Bloom call the end of a wild game with the Bay Bears from Regions Park, as Clevelan Santeliz pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth inning. That’s right, baseball, and thanks to the Birmingham Barons, a diamond is forever in this town.
Better writers than I have rhapsodized over the stately allure of a game that drives a lot of people to distraction, and I subscribe to their every notion. Baseball is a game of tradition and statistics and sporadic activity and I hail its willful eccentricity. Maybe it’s because I am a member of the last generation for whom it was truly the national pastime, or maybe it’s because the mind of man has devised no finer team sport, but I like baseball.
Almost as soon as the city was founded, people were playing baseball in Birmingham. As early as 1901, a professional team called the Coal Barons was arrayed on a home field called the Slag Heap not far from the present junction of I-59 and I-65 downtown, and here’s some chewable irony: what originally put Birmingham and its Barons on the national baseball map was the construction of a new stadium.
That stadium, new in 1910, has survived to become America’s oldest ballpark, and today Rickwood Field remains on the national baseball map as a vibrant link to baseball’s past. I happened upon Rickwood’s biographer at Brookwood Village last weekend, signing copies of his 2005 “fan’s history” entitled Good Wood, and Ben Cook is just as fond of Rickwood now as when it was practically his second home, during his childhood.
“It was a showplace when it opened. It was the finest minor-league ballpark there was,” Cook enthuses. Costing a whopping $75,000 to build, Rickwood Field was the vision of a rich industrialist and baseball nut named Rick Woodward, who took the best innovations from major league stadia such as Shibe Park in Philadelphia and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh for the Birmingham version. “Connie Mack [legendary owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics] is the one who actually stepped off the field and said you need to position it this way because you’ll have late afternoon sun coming here,” Cook said.
Rickwood’s state-of-the-art design attracted teams like the New York Yankees and the Cincinnati Reds to play exhibitions with the Barons. Consequently the list of stars who have trod the turf on Second Avenue West reads like a roster from Cooperstown, a fact current Barons who participate in the Rickwood Classic appreciate, according to Cook: “The fact that they play that one game a year there makes them part of the history of Rickwood, and those guys love it. When you start listing the names of guys who played there, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, they may have a knowledge of that. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, that they know. Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle. But the one old-timey name you say that they all immediately know — this is the same field that Shoeless Joe Jackson played on.”
The original baseball gangsta represented only one side of the ledger, for Rickwood was where the Black Barons, a team necessitated by segregation, played as well. Their fans filled the grandstands to watch their own legends: Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Willie Mays. Rickwood also hosted industrial league games, as well as the occasional college football matchup before Legion Field was constructed.
Like many another Birmingham kid, I remember my father taking me to Rickwood to watch the hometown team play. I still recall the rich green the walls were painted, almost as vivid as the field’s grass under the lights. I still have a tattered pennant from the year Cal Ermer managed the Barons to a pennant, and a team ball from that era autographed so illegibly that not one name can be properly discerned. I saw Reggie play at Rickwood and caught MJ mania at the Met, and this year’s version of the Barons, playing at what is now called Regions Park, is on track to make some more Barons history, having already secured a spot in the upcoming championship series.
If you need to catch a break from life’s travails, catch a game at Regions Park before another season passes. It’s the Barons. It’s baseball. It’s Birmingham.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org