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The Rickwood Classic and baseball in America

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The Rickwood Classic and baseball in America
Page 2: Still in Need of TLC
Page 3: The Power of Inertia
Page 4: History
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Carrying the weight of 100 years of baseball history -- never mind the 100 years of social and civil-rights history as well -- is an awfully heavy load for any ballpark. But Birmingham’s Rickwood Field was equal to the task during the 15th annual Rickwood Classic Wednesday, as fans celebrated the upcoming 100th anniversary of this historic venue. Some thoughts on that impressive legacy and where we are today.

FAST FACTS

Year Opened: August 18, 1910
Past Tenants: Birmingham Barons (Southern League), Birmingham Black Barons (Negro Leagues)
Address/Directions: 1137 2nd Av. W., Birmingham, AL. From I-20/I-59, take Hwy. 78 south at Exit 123 to Hwy. 11, also marked as 3rd Avenue West. Go west (right) on 3rd Avenue to 12th Street West. Hang a left (the turn is marked); the ballpark will be two blocks south on your left.

Certainly at the core of the event was a baseball game: a Class AA Southern League matchup between the Tennessee Smokies and the hometown Birmingham Barons. But with anything old in the South, the actual meaning of the event reverberated far beyond the action between the foul lines. In many ways, the most important lessons of the day extended far outside the foul lines.

For better or worse, much racial history can be seen through events at Rickwood Field. The ballpark was a hub of baseball activity since opening in August 1910, hosting various professional minor-league teams as well as the Birmingham Black Barons, one of the preeminent Negro Leagues franchises. (Among the legends who played for the Black Barons: Satchel Paige and Willie Mays.) Racial integration didn’t necessarily come easy to Rickwood Field – side events hosted there included KKK rallies, some as late as 1946 -- but it did. By the 1950s MLB teams played integrated exhibitions at Rickwood Field, despite an edict from Bull Connor that integrated baseball was forbidden in the city (and no one seemed to care), and further integration in professional baseball saw the demise of the Black Barons in 1963. By the 1960s a talented group of African-American players, including future Oakland Athletics Vida Blue and Reggie Jackson were making their marks on the field with the Birmingham A’s. It took years of opposition to segregated baseball to reach a time when integrated baseball was an accepted practice in a city where many infamous civil-rights battles were fought.

Now, this isn’t to say that Rickwood Field today is this racially diverse nirvana where skin color doesn’t matter. Indeed, one of the failures of Minor League Baseball has been to connect with minority populations across the county: Black, Hispanic, Asian alike. Before the start of the season MiLB President Pat O’Conner challenged affiliated teams to change this state of affairs, we’re told.

But if yesterday’s Rickwood Classic is any indication, baseball still has a long ways to go. It was a predominantly white crowd in a city with a majority African-American population – and a sizeable majority at that, some 73+ percent, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Take away the former Negro Leagues players honored there and the crowd would have been even whiter. It was also an older white crowd, heavy on the nostalgia. Now, there’s been a lot of recognition in recent years about the Negro Leagues and barnstormers like John Donaldson, but we’re not sure the definitive history of Negro League baseball has yet to be written. It was a much larger industry than thought, and the notion that there are only three existing ballparks once hosting Negro Leagues baseball is a load of hooey. We can name several off the cuff: Phil Welch Stadium in St. Joseph, Mo.; Jack Brown Stadium in Jamestown, N.D.; Cardines Field in Newport, R.I.; Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, N.J.; Engel Stadium in Chattanooga; Point Stadium in Johnstown, Penn.; Durkee Field in Jacksonville; Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, Md.; McCormick Field in Asheville, N.C.; and, of course, Rickwood Field. We’re guessing there are lots more. And there are undoubtedly stories connected with all these facilities.