Arts & Culture

Why Birmingham’s Rickwood Field Is a National Treasure

Poised to host a Major League game next month, America’s oldest ballpark is finally getting its due. Plus, more Negro Leagues landmarks around the South

An illustration of a ballpark with a cloud in the shape of a person pitching

Illustration: Tim Bower

In 1991, Chicago’s Comiskey Park became a parking lot, passing the title of America’s Oldest Baseball Park to Birmingham’s 10,800-seat Rickwood Field. Built in 1910, the spearmint-green, mission-style gem had long been home to Birmingham’s minor-league Barons and Negro Leagues Black Barons as well as, from 1912 to 1927, Crimson Tide football. Even Lynyrd Skynyrd played there—a 1974 concert included the band’s new single “Sweet Home Alabama.” Since the Barons left in 1987, though, Rickwood had served as little more than a restroom for birds, and it appeared an errant feather away from collapse. 

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But a group of young Birmingham professionals had different plans. They cherished childhood memories of storybook sunny days spent rooting for the home team at Rickwood, which they regarded as a veritable time machine. You could step into the park, they felt, and, without trying, channel the Birmingham Coal Barons boosters overflowing the stands in 1910. You could breathe a bouquet of talc, freshly poured Stroh’s beer, and broiling woolen suits. You could hear the hurrahs; you might catch a suggestion that the umpire should have his spectacles checked. A resounding crack of the bat was almost a certainty—and then you kept an eye cocked, half expecting Ty Cobb to charge, like a locomotive, toward the ball. Cobb had played exhibition games at Rickwood, as had Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. Satchel Paige graced the mound. Willie Mays began his career as a Black Baron. As an A’s minor leaguer posted to Birmingham, Reggie Jackson belted balls, it seemed, to Oakland.

“We couldn’t let something as beautiful and significant to our city be torn down—or fall down,” says Tom Cosby, one of the young professionals who collectively took the name Friends of Rickwood. They went to City Hall in 1992 and pleaded that Rickwood Field wasn’t just unique in baseball, but unique in general. They left with a ninety-nine-year lease at $1 per year.

photo: O.V. Hunt Collection, 7.25, Birmingham Public Library, Archives and Manuscripts Collection
Opening Day at Rickwood Field, 1914.

Next, they rolled up their sleeves and fixed and scrubbed whatever they could, putting more sweat into the park than any team ever to play there. Raising $2 million, the group went on to restore the facade, rebuild the grandstand roof in painstaking period detail, and revitalize the hand-operated scoreboard.

In 2004, during his first visit to the park in forty years, Willie Mays looked it over and said, “It hasn’t changed.” Which perhaps was the greatest compliment he could have given the Friends of Rickwood. The group also earned Rickwood a listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and when minor league baseball was reinstituted there, the park landed on ESPN’s “101 Things All Sports Fans Must Experience Before They Die.”

photo: Ben Powell
Modern day Rickwood Field.

Rickwood soon added high school and NCAA games, and on June 20, it will debut as a regular-season Major League Baseball venue by hosting “A Tribute to the Negro Leagues,” a game between the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals with a significance summed up by its honoree, Mays, now ninety-three. “I never thought I’d see in my lifetime a Major League Baseball game…on the very field where I played baseball as a teenager,” he said. “To learn that my Giants and the Cardinals will play a game there and honor the legacy of the Negro Leagues…is really emotional for me. We can’t forget what got us here, and that was the Negro Leagues for so many of us.” 

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All 155 living Negro Leaguers have been invited to the game—in some cases, former National League MVP Ryan Howard delivered the invitations by hand. The festivities will also include a Birmingham Barons vs. Montgomery Biscuits contest on June 18 and a celebrity softball event on June 19.