Birmingham Baseball History

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Turn onto 2nd Avenue in West Birmingham, and you’re in for a surprise.

Rising among the rundown houses and railroad tracks, is a handsome green grandstand, wrapped neatly around a pristine baseball diamond. On a sunny afternoon, Birmingham’s Rickwood Field looks straight out of some young boy’s daydreams of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. Today, it stands as a quiet reminder of the sport’s legacy. But for much of the past century, it was at the center of the city’s life, with people coming from all over to catch a game.

“So you would have exited the trolley, and approached the front of the park to purchase your tickets. In the heyday of the minor leagues, going to the ballpark was a big, big deal.”

David Brewer is Executive Director of the Friends of Rickswood, a group devoted to keeping the old stadium in its historic condition.

Brewer: “People tended to dress, literally dress for going to the ballpark. Many of the old photographs of the park, it looks like everyone is wearing a Sunday hat.”

For nearly 50 years, Rickwood Field was the city’s biggest draw. The hometown team, the Birmingham Barons, started out as an Industrial League team called the Coal Barons, playing in a tiny stadium known as the Slagpile in the city’s West End. The turning point came in 1910, when the heir to a pig iron fortune decided to indulge his passion for baseball. He bought the team and built the grandest stadium south of the Ohio River.

“Rick Woodward, who owned the Barons, was a very flamboyant personality.”

Timothy Whitt, the author of “Bases Loaded with History,” a chronology of the Birmingham Barons.

Whitt: “He bought the team because I think he secretly wanted to play with them. When the first game was played at Rickwood, he inserted himself into the game and threw the first pitch. He didn’t throw the first pitch out. He was in the game, on the mound, as the pitcher, and threw a pitch, which was called a ball. Then he retired and let the Baron’s regular pitcher take his place.”

The mound Rick Woodward pitched from more than 90 years ago still rises from the center of the field his money built. Rickwood Field is the kind of park baseball fans fall in love with. In its heyday, the park could claim, rather mischeviously, the longest homerun hits in history. There are stories of balls landing on the roofs of trains passing behind the outfield wall and making it all the way to Washinton or New York before ever touching the ground. Accounts of the legendary games played here still sound fresh.

Whitt: “For many years in Birmingham, the game that was remembered the most took place in 1931, it was in the Dixie series, sort of a small World Series for the South. And the Barons had won in 1931, and the Texas team that won were the Houston Buffs. And their star pitcher was a guy named Dizzie Dean, and of course, Dizzie Dean invented trash talking. In the weeks leading up to the series, he started taking pot shots in the media and the citizenry was enraged.”

Brewer: “He had suggested that his Houston team would come to Birmingham and very handily beat the Birmingham Barons. That generated a furor of sorts in the Birmingham community. Close to 20-thousand people came out to a ballpark that only seats 10-thousand.”

Whitt: “So they were standing in the outfield out there in roped out areas. 20 thousand people waiting for the game. And they got there hours before the game because they hated Dizzie Dean so much because he had insulted their team. Well the pitcher for the Barons was a guy named Ray Cauldwell'”

Brewer: “Ray Cauldwell, in his mid-40s, a former Major League pitcher, sort of on the downhill side of his career. So it was the old guy versus the young guy.”

Whitt: “But the game goes and it starts off and neither team scores. It goes back and forth, nobody’s getting anywhere. Dizzie Dean’s facing the minimum, threw 6 or 7 innings. But so is Ray Cauldwell, old Ray Cauldwell is doing just as well. And it comes up, bottom of the 8th inning and Birmingham scores one run. They manage to push one run across. Birmingham gets past the 9th and won, 1-nothing. And for many years in Birmingham, that was considered the greatest game ever played. The defeat of Dizzy Dean was probably the biggest game for the Barons in the history of the franchise.”

For the first 50 years of it’s history, that franchise was all-white. But when you’re going through the roster of the greats who got their start at Rickwood Field, it pays to look at a different team list. Piper Davis, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, all of them took the field every other Sunday, when the white Barons were playing on the road, and the Birmingham Black Barons got a chance to shine.

Announcer: “Strike Three! Another perfect game for Satchel Paige…”

That’s an echo of the excitement of the Negro Leagues, captured in the H-B-O movie, Soul of the Game. Unfortunately, that’s about the closest you can get to that era now ‘ few recordings of the league have survived. But there is one other place where those long-ago afternoons still burn brightly ‘ in the memories of their fans.

Harris: “The first game I saw in the Negro League, I jumped the fence; being a little boy, we were running balls. And I saw them practice. It was just amazing. They didn’t never drop a ball. And watching them take infield was better than watching the game. I said, that’s the way I’m going to play.”

Donnie Harris did go on to play for the Black Barons, signing with the team in 1959 as a centerfielder. He was on hand for the last days of the Negro Leagues. As the Major League teams integrated, they drained the best talent from the Negro Leagues. And the Black Barons, which at their height drew capacity crowds all over the Southeast, disappeared into a changing world.

Harris: “The kids, there is nothing in writing they are being taught. This month right here, they’re being taught Civil Rights, that the Civil Rights struggle was about Martin Luther King, things like that. But they’re just one segment of what was happening.”

For Harris, integration was a bittersweet victory. He says the Black community still feels the loss of its team. But if the success of integration did in the Negro Leagues, it was the struggle to maintain segregation that brought an end to the white Barons’ golden age. Of course, there were other factors strangling minor league ball all across the country — air conditioning, television, and the rise of other sports. But the end was hastened for all-white minor league teams because they became a liability to integrated Major League clubs. The first attempt at integration came to Rickwood Field in 1954, with an exhibition match featuring the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson. Again, historian Timothy Whitt.

Whitt: “But very shortly after that, you saw a great downturn in the number of exhibition games played because the integration crisis and the gathering storm gradually drug down interest in the southern Association with the white fans who were sustaining it. And to some extent, there was a transference to college football.”

Of course, today the current incarnation of the Barons playS fully-integrated games at their new home in Hoover. And across town at Rickwood Field, the Friends of Rickwood debate the historic value of restoring the park’s main symbol of segregation — the “Negro Bleachers” which used to sit, exposed to the sun, in right field. But for now, all traces of its racial history have melted away from the park. On the ‘Wall of Fame,’ pictures of white and Black Barons teams hang next to each other without comment. The historical tale it tells is not of social movements or grand themes, but the simpler story of men, and long afternoons, and the swing of a bat against a clean, true pitch.