— Matt Nelson
“America’s Oldest Baseball Park.” For a “Ballpark Nerd” or a “Ballpark Chaser” it’s one of the toughest to catch. Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama. Sure, you can stop by most any time and take a stroll through the park that opened on August, 18, 1910. But to find a minor league game being played at the old green facility on the westside of Birmingham, you have to be there on one specific day on the calendar.
In 1910 businessman Rick Woodward needed a new home for his baseball team, the Birmingham Barons. He built one that still stands. Modeled after early concrete and steel big league parks Shibe Park (Philadelphia) and Forbes Field (Pittsburgh), Woodward’s park hosted many teams for many years.
Rickwood Field was the home to the minor league Birmingham Barons for all but two seasons from 1910 through the 1987 season. That’s when the club moved to a new park in the nearby suburb of Hoover. The Birmingham Black Barons of the negro leagues played at Rickwood for many years. In its early days Rickwood was hosted spring training games for a couple of big league clubs. It’s hosted countless “barnstorming games” that included players like Babe Ruth. College baseball games. High school baseball games. Heck, it’s hosted college football.
June 2, 2010, marked the 15th Annual Rickwood Classic. That is the one game each season that the Barons return to Rickwood Field. It’s really a big undertaking. There are a lot of logistical issues to work out to get everything ready for a park that usually doesn’t handle crowds close to 10,000 like The Classic often draws. However, the Barons and the non-profit group “Friends of Rickwood” do a great job with the event.
In fact, the “Friends of Rickwood” do a great job with the park year round. The park is owned by the city of Birmingham but the funding for the park these days comes from whatever the friends can get. They’ve done a nice job of fixing up things that must be fixed, but leaving whatever they can, as it is. That’s the difference between Rickwood and Fenway Park (1912) and Wrigley Field (1914). The Red Sox and Cubs have put lots and lots of money into their facilities. That makes for a great fan experience day in and day out, but they’re not as historically accurate to the old days as Rickwood Field.
Everywhere at Rickwood there is something historical. On the exterior there are fantastic old signs that read, “Home of Barons Baseball” or “Barons Offices Upstairs.” Signs that look like they haven’t been touched in 40 years. The old outfield wall still stands. It was 478 feet to center field from home plate! The old concrete wall is a long distance behind the current fence. The dugouts are tiny. The lights are something you won’t find anywhere else. Same for the recreated press box on the roof. The “No Betting In This Park” signs are simply classic.
These old features are the reason that movies like “Cobb” have been filmed at Rickwood. You could build a Hollywood set, but why build a set when you have an old ballpark that fits many old eras of baseball?
It’s clear that playing at Rickwood is not just another game in the course of a long season to the handful of minor league players who have the opportunity to play at Rickwood each year. During batting practice some of them had their own cameras and were taking photos. Current Barons skipper and former Cedar Rapids Kernels Manager Ever Magallanes was clearly excited to manage his team in the Rickwood Classic for a second year in a row.
Willie Mays. Reggie Jackson. Rollie Fingers. Dizzy Dean. The list of big name baseball players who’ve played at Rickwood is very long. It’s one of the reasons that “Ballpark Nerds” and “Ballpark Chasers” love Rickwood Field. And why they flock to Birmingham for that one chance each year to see professional baseball at the 100-year-old place known as “America’s Oldest Baseball Park.” It is a trip worth any length of drive, for any big baseball fan.
Be sure to check out the video report from Rickwood!