Rickwood Field hosting of MLB in 2024 a chance to reinvigorate Birmingham
Nonprofit Friends of Rickwood sees the showcase at America’s oldest ballpark as more than just a game
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Upon entry, the atrium of the Negro Southern League Museum is a delight. The floor contains a circular map of the United States, complete with X marks for each city where a league team played in the country. It’s made from repurposed lumber from baseball bats, and the ceiling features a chandelier made of replica bats as well. On the first stage of the tour, the walls are lined with baseballs signed by various Negro leaguers, leading you to a gorgeous 7-foot portrait of the man who once took the field in this city as a ballplayer before he even finished high school: Willie Howard Mays Jr.
Today, the Birmingham Barons play at Regions Field, where the museum is located just beyond the scoreboard in the outfield. But in the Say Hey Kid’s day, the Birmingham Black Barons played at the place displayed in a large format photo along the other wall, Rickwood Field.
It’s the oldest professional ballpark in America and next year, MLB will be playing a regular-season game there between Mays’ old team, the San Francisco Giants, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Built in 1910, it feels like every bit of it. The sun-soaked seats are a bleak color of pale red and green, when it rains the water comes into the stands from every possible crevice, and the home plates in the bullpens are so close together that you couldn’t fit a batter between them.
In the outfield, the massive advertisements on the wall transport you to an era in which the industrial town got its baseball beginnings from the local factories that wanted to give their workers something to do. Complete with a analog scoreboard dented by baseballs that have crashed into it over the years, just standing on the warning track makes you want to start chewing tobacco.
The signs are an integral part of the experience, one that the guy in charge of them takes very seriously.
“Everything that I do here, I want to keep in a time period from 1946 to 1955. If it’s an old company, I want their old logo,” Sam Sanfilippo explained from his workshop underneath the right field bleachers. “We don’t want a new logo — one of the clean, new oval designs that somebody else has nowadays — because it doesn’t fit with the era of the ballpark. We’ve had to turn down some in the past — one of the sports book-type things — because No. 1, they didn’t exist. No. 2, there are signs that have been taken down that say, ‘no betting in this park.’ ”
Sanfilippo grew up just a few blocks from the yard and got his start in lettering race cars at the old Birmingham International Raceway, which was torn down in 2009. The small-statured grandson of a Sicilian has been an artist since he was a child. He travels to create murals with others in his field and is a craftsman who works every part of his baseball palette. He’s seen pretty much everything there is to see in the park.
“I take pride in what I do and I don’t want to see anything happen to it,” he explained while walking behind the storied outfield wall, an expanse of space that sits between the current and old wall, with a centerfield fence marked at a mind-boggling 478 feet. “My grandfather, they came over from Sicily after World War I and in his broken Italian, he’d say, ‘if you don’t have time to do it right the first time, you don’t have time to do it over.’ If you were a client of mine, I want you to come back because you want another sign, not because I did something wrong or screwed something up.”
It’s that kind of work ethic that’s kept the place that’s readying itself for MLB alive, right down to the groundskeepers. The group of three young Black men, who have been at it for various periods, don’t have the luxuries that many modern crews have. They’re still using strings to draw lines and regular lawn hoses as their irrigation systems.
“For the most part, man, like I said, it’s the holy grail of baseball here, man. Just the atmosphere itself, you can feel the history of walking in, man,” said Quindell Messer, 34, who’s been there all season. “Truth, being honest, I wasn’t a big baseball fan until I really started getting into it here. It’s been a real experience. I met a couple of Hall of Famers, like Negro League Hall of Famers, man, still walking around to this day. So that was exciting for me. And just brushing up on my knowledge of baseball has been exciting.”
For some of the younger guys, meeting and taking a picture with retired New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia, who showed up as a supporter, was the moment of a lifetime. As in, they talked about it with each other for hours afterward.
On the day, MLB unveiled the logo for the game, an event unfortunately soaked by rain. According to the league, “the logo’s inspiration came from the era and posters that were designed to promote Negro Leagues games. The type is reminiscent of wood block printing, the popular font of that time, while the Black and White are the core colors, selected to resemble the iconic scoreboard in left field.”
The building is so legendary that many people thought the Negro Southern League Museum should be located there, where some of the guys pictured in the displays actually played. All sorts of other players have played at the park over the years through exhibitions and barnstorming tours, Negro Leaguers aside. The Kansas City A’s took the field against the Milwaukee Braves at one point in the 1960s for a game there, one that Sanfilippo was at because he sneaked in through the outfield fence as a child.
Not all old ballparks are cool just because they’re old. Rickwood is old, fun, quirky and kinda janky. The foul lines are rather large ridges built up from years of chalk with no runoff. There’s a gazebo press box on the roof that you climb a perilously rickety ladder to get to. It’s the kind of place where you would not let your children play unattended other than on the actual field. But it’s got soul that only speaks to you upon arrival, which is why next year’s game is as important to MLB understanding its past as it is to reckoning with its future.
“We have never been able to have that huge fundraising effort to do some of the things that we really wanted to do. And so with MLB coming in, all of a sudden we’re the most popular kid in town and everybody seems to want help. And that’s what we’ve been longing for forever.” — Gerald Watkins
Even as the oldest ballpark in America, it’s still one of the busiest. Not remotely some dusty sandlot with the ghosts of segregationist past haunting the bleachers, the ballpark is not only a living museum of sorts, it’s a necessary community hub. When MLB comes to town next season, the circumstance will be a touch different from MLB’s other regular-season novelty acts.
In 2016, the Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves played just before Independence Day on what is the military base then-known as Fort Bragg, the first big league game played in North Carolina. In that case, it was not different from what was done in Dyersville, Iowa, home of the Field of Dreams game, in 2021. That effort was unique in that they were building an entire ballpark on an active farm, different from say, refurbishing an old golf course for a temporary one-off game.
“I don’t want to disparage Iowa, but our field is a real field of dreams,” said Gerald Watkins, chairman of the board for the Friends of Rickwood, the nonprofit that has kept the facility alive over the years. “It was a place where people came here and dreamed about making it to the big leagues and still do, not something that was made for a movie site. As much as we try to maintain the park and do some things periodically to update and renovate and just patch up, we have never been able to have that huge fundraising effort to do some of the things that we really wanted to do. And so with MLB coming in, all of a sudden we’re the most popular kid in town and everybody seems to want help. And that’s what we’ve been longing for forever.”
To be fair, Rickwood has seen its fair amount of Hollywood stardust, a far cry from the morass of mulch and manure with a corn maze in between. Three films have used the 10,800-seat stadium as a backdrop: Scenes from Cobb (1994), Soul of the Game (1995) and 42 (2012) were shot there.
What Watkins is referring to is the busy schedule the park maintains to keep the lights on, never mind serve the needs of local teams. The crown jewel event on the calendar used to be the Rickwood Classic, a day game held on the Wednesday after Memorial Day for 23 years, featuring the Birmingham Coal Barons against a Southern League opponent, in which they wore throwback uniforms. But when MLB took over the minors, it was deemed too unsafe for pro ball.
Still, multiple high schools, historically Black Miles College and a whole host of travel ball programs call the place home. Which is why keeping the charm is a difficult but necessary task.
“We want to keep the integrity of and the ambiance and that magic about that field. Rickwood is as consistent as it can be, as it has been for years,” said Murray Cook, the field and stadium consultant for MLB. He’s done a few of these in his day, including Iowa and England. He was on a site visit in Seoul, South Korea, before the ceremony held Aug. 3.
“Over the years, this field’s been loved to death and it’s just got this huge crown in the middle of it. I mean, if you’re in the dugout looking into left field, you probably see the left fielder from his chest up, because the hill’s so high on the field,” said Cook, a 63-year-old Salem, Virginia, native. “But it’s very similar to what we saw when we went to Williamsport. It’s just an old field that hadn’t been brought up to standards for professional play like that.”
Unfortunately, one of the quirkiest features will likely be going away. One thing that’s changed the most over the years at ballparks is the place where the team spends the most time — the dugout. At Rickwood, those bad boys were so tight that sometimes players would sit on top of it, providing one of the more whimsical visuals around the game that you’ll ever get to see.
“The dugouts are going to need some renovations, which we did the same thing again in Williamsport. Those had to be moved and replaced and moved down from where they were,” Cook explained, referring to Bowman Field, an adorable darling of a park that hosts the Little League Classic. “The same thing here, the dugouts are really sunken and deep and they’re too small. So we’re going to do a renovation on those. The dimensions of the field … We’re able to do some things there to tweak it. Currently it’s 390 to center, and 329, I think, to right field, and left field’s, like, 319, but the back stop’s like 85 feet away from home plate. We’re scooting home and the field back a little bit to give us some more distance in the outfield, where we have room to do that.”
For a state in which football is typically the beginning, middle and end of all major sports conversations, the Friends of Rickwood see this as more than just a game. It’s a chance to reinvigorate a whole city.
“This baseball event will be the first time a regular-season professional game has ever been held by one of the big three or four sports — football, basketball, hockey and baseball. First time ever. And it’s a real game and it counts and it will have the biggest impact of any sporting event that we’ve had other than an Alabama or an Auburn football game,” Watkins said.
“When the players walk through those tunnels next year and they see that grass that’s going to be as good as what they have at Yankee Stadium or Truist Park, they’re going to love it,”
Watkins said, beaming. “And they’re going to tell people about it. And we’re going to have not only baseball games here, but we’re going to have more and more tourist activity, and more and more corporate activity. So there’s just an endless array of things that are going to happen.”
The question is, for whom.
“Finally someone understands the history of this city beyond dogs and fire hoses. Birmingham just gets lumped in with so easily and so simple that it’s easy to forget how much of the history came through town.”
Roy Wood isn’t being remotely funny. The stand-up comedian is describing his reaction to the news, when it was announced in June. He grew up in Birmingham and baseball was a crucial part of his upbringing. Like many growing up, he too played at Rickwood along with plenty of other fields in the area.
“I enjoyed baseball because it was low-conflict,” Wood says without a laugh, but definitely telling a joke that isn’t really meant to be funny. “We had just moved to Birmingham when I was in third grade and a lot of [gang] bangers played football. So if you play football too good, you might have problems with somebody in the neighborhood later on that day. So I enjoyed baseball because it was a group activity, but it’s really isolationist.”
And it was mostly Black then, too.
“But in those days, we played other city schools and those teams were all predominantly Black. Black to the point of not even having the money for equipment sometimes. We played other high schools and sometimes they would show up in jeans because, ‘We just don’t have uniforms yet. We’re getting them,’ ” Wood said. “It’s very embarrassing to strike out to dude in a pair of f—ing Levi’s.”
In all seriousness, the connection to the soil of the game is something that’s vital in ensuring the growth of not just baseball, but the players themselves. Where you play is as important to morale as how you play, which is just a natural feeling. Hoover Metropolitan Complex, which hosts the SEC tournament but was more famously revamped for the arrival of one Michael Jeffrey Jordan, is the only other major facility for public use.
“When you’re playing on a good field, that energizes you. It makes you feel better. Because before Rickwood, the only time you saw a field that was decent was when you played Hoover High School,” Wood, the former Ramsay High first baseman, pointed out. “because in the ’90s, Hoover High played at the Hoover Met. And so you played where the Barons used to play. So playing in the Met was like, ‘wow, Jordan was here.’ And then across town you get to play your games at Rickwood, and it’s just this idea of what’s possible. It’s a beautiful stage. It’s one of the most beautiful stages in baseball.”
But youth baseball in Birmingham isn’t just all throwbacks and nostalgia plays. There are still very real issues on the ground that, at one point, cause a major schism is local politics, enough to effectively chase the big leagues out of town at one point.
Headlines such as MLB debacle shows Birmingham isn’t ready for The Show and MLB Urban Youth Academy whiff still haunts us, our kids are paying for it are still very much fresh in the minds of people around the game here. When a $10 million project walks out of the door because of what could somewhat easily be qualified as racially tinged local infighting, that doesn’t make anyone feel good.
“Glen Iris residents who huffed and puffed — drowning out neighbors who welcomed the academy — until MLB packed up and bolted before the council could even vote on the proposal know who they are. Council members who underestimated the loudest naysayers until it was too late to soothe them, or who cowed to them instead of countering their entitled rants of misinformation know who they are, too,” AL.com columnist Roy S. Johnson wrote in June 2021. “They know, too, the city is still paying for the embarrassing homestand and will do so in many ways for many years.”
Which isn’t to say that there will be some pall over the proceedings by the time next year comes around. Folks are excited and they should be.
“Considering its age, I can’t believe I’m still looking at original pieces of this field. And I think that’s what is going to be so beautiful and why so many people should come out to watch it in person, or watch it on TV, because it’s going to be a blend,” Mike Hill, senior vice president of on-field operations for MLB said Aug. 3, staring at the old school chalk lineup wall that greets you once you come through the turnstiles. “We’re going to preserve this history and all of these memories, but then bring it to the 21st century and upgrade it to a comfortable space for our current big leaguers, but maintain the integrity of this place. And I think that’s what makes it special, is that, you know, for me, walking in here, you go back in time.”
The way Wood, whose dad was a prominent broadcaster in town when he grew up, sees it, this is about more than just one day of baseball, which is a good thing. In certain places, the stratification between the haves and have nots is more obvious on baseball fields than anywhere. He still gets back to town occasionally to watch one of his old buddies who coaches in the area and help out with the kids.
But, there’s no world in which a city with this much history, coaches should be afraid to put their kids on the field because of dangerous playing conditions.
“I’m not angry, but I am adamant. I definitely want more to come out of this than a photo op and Rickwood getting some new turf,” Wood said. “I’m sure the field’s going to get a nice face-lift, but Rickwood represents a standing piece of history. And as long as something like that is still standing, then you have an opportunity to correct a lot of things.
“Recognizing the integration of baseball while at the same time ignoring the fiscal segregation that is happening in this game at the high school level, I just think is a disservice. I think there’s a way to do both of those things. After you have this conversation, let’s have that conversation. I’m not here to pressure. But, let’s talk about it, now.”