MLB: Rickwood Field a time capsule of opportunity and oppression

Published 9:43 am Wednesday, June 19, 2024


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Gerald Watkins watched Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and other New York Yankees wade through stalks of corn onto an Iowa field in 2021, near the filming site for the 1989 baseball movie “Field of Dreams.”

Watkins thought about Rickwood Field, the 114-year-old ballpark in his hometown Birmingham, Alabama, and he called Major League Baseball with a pitch.

“The Field of Dreams is really cool,” Watkins, 68, said, “but we have a real Field of Dreams here. This is a place where Willie Mays, among others, was standing in the outfield dreaming about being in the big leagues.”

Now, the big leagues are coming to Birmingham. Rickwood Field, the oldest professional ballpark in the U.S. and former home to baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays and the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, will host an MLB game between the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants on Thursday.

The game meant to honor Mays and many other Negro Leaguers will be both somber and reminiscent. Mays, the electrifying center fielder who left an enduring mark on baseball, died Tuesday afternoon, a day after announcing that he wouldn’t attend the game in person.

“All of Major League Baseball is in mourning today as we are gathered at the very ballpark where a career and a legacy like no other began,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “Willie Mays took his all-around brilliance from the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League to the historic Giants franchise. From coast to coast in New York and San Francisco, Willie inspired generations of players and fans as the game grew and truly earned its place as our National Pastime.”

Rickwood Field — a landmark of hopeRickwood Field sits just a few miles west of downtown Birmingham — a rustic and modest green landmark with hints of history layered in its walls.

It’s a time capsule of opportunity and oppression — a site for social gatherings like women’s suffrage rallies and other political events, and host to the best baseball talents of the 20th century. Commercials and baseball films have also been shot there, including parts of the Jackie Robinson biopic “42.”

Rickwood Field hosted Alabama’s first integrated sports team, the minor league Birmingham Barons, in 1964 — 17 years after Robinson integrated the majors. And it has seen more than 50% of baseball Hall of Famers walk its grounds, from legendary Negro Leaguers like Mays, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige to MLB greats Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle.

“The majors? I didn’t dream about the impossible,” Mays recently told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I was taught to see your goal in your mind and work toward it. I could work toward getting to Rickwood Field and the Birmingham Black Barons. I didn’t need to dream for that. For that, I needed to work hard. So, I did. Rickwood became my training ground.”

Mays became a star there at only 17 years old, helping the Black Barons reach the Negro League World Series in 1948. Major league scouts came to see him play, and the Black Barons were so popular locally that ministers sometimes preached early on Sundays to accommodate fans eager to attend games.

“Rickwood is special because it’s where so many baseball careers began, and it’s still standing,” said Roy Wood Jr., a comedian and actor born in Birmingham. “When you’re there, you can still feel that history. I feel as strongly about Rickwood as someone would (feel) visiting their childhood home as an adult.”

Wood played high school baseball at Rickwood Field in the 1990s. At the time, he said Rickwood was just another place for him to play the sport he loved. That changed when he learned the history.

‘A place where horror was allowed to take a pause’The 10,800-seat stadium opened in 1910 during a time when baseball was the premier sport in Alabama. With few major league franchises in the South during those days, baseball fans in Alabama clung to minor league teams like the all-white Birmingham Barons, who played at Rickwood from 1910-1961, 1964-65 and 1981-87. Other white stars — like Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner — came through Rickwood for spring exhibitions. Alabama and Auburn both used Rickwood as home fields for their college football teams.

For Black people, Rickwood and the Negro Leagues were an introduction to Black athletic talent.

“This league creates common heroes, common teams,” said Rob Ruck, a historian focusing on Black and Latino roots in sport, “a national institution that Black Americans rally around, and it gives them a collective self-esteem because of their abilities in sport.”

The field was also a bright spot amid the fight for racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s. Alabama, one of the epicenters of the Civil Rights Movement, was the site of marches for voting rights and boycotts, as well as brutal beatings, civil unrest and deadly bombings.

“It was a place where horror was allowed to take a pause for nine innings,” Wood said. “ … Rickwood was never going to solve Black people’s problems, but it represented a place where Black people didn’t have to think about them for a few hours.”

Maintaining historyThe ballpark is still standing against many odds. Built around the same time as Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, Chicago’s Comiskey Park and Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, Rickwood has outlasted them all, with high school and college games still being played there.

Watkins and the Friends of Rickwood organization made up of about 30 volunteers have maintained it, along with others like Jabreil Weir, the head groundskeeper in charge of the field’s day-to-day upkeep.

“Who would have thought MLB would come to Birmingham, Alabama?” Weir said. “Who ever thought that I would be in the position that I am to be a part of this event? These are moments that you dream of.”

Weir has worked with MLB in preparing the stadium to host a major league game. Renovations include a new field with lights, upgraded dugouts, a new drainage system and a new backstopping netting system to protect fans during the game, according to Murray Cook, MLB’s field and stadium consultant.

Other events have been held this week, including a Double-A game at the ballpark on Tuesday between the Birmingham Barons and Montgomery Biscuits of the Southern League. The game was paused while the PA announcer shared news of Mays’ death, and fans reacted by standing, cheering and chanting “Willie! Willie!”

The game is part of an ongoing effort by MLB to highlight and celebrate achievements of Black players — a push that comes amid criticism for a league where the percentage of Black major leaguers is historically low. MLB’s endeavors have also included grassroots programs for underprivileged youth players and the recent integration of Negro Leagues statistics into its official records.

“This gives us an opportunity to talk about race in the context of sport,” Ruck said, adding later, “We’ve got to talk about race in serious ways, and I think this game, the stats, make that happen.”