Southern Agenda

The New Old Ball Game

An illustration of a baseball fields

Illustration: Tim Bower

In 1991, Chicago’s Comiskey Park became a parking lot, bequeathing 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 been home to Birmingham’s minor-league Barons and Negro League 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. But the Friends of Rickwood, preservationists who raised $2 million, put more sweat into the park than any team that ever played there, and reinstituted minor-league baseball on the site, winning listings in both the National Register of Historic Places and ESPN’s “101 Things All Sports Fans Must Experience Before They Die.” Next, Rickwood added high school and college baseball, and, on June 20, it will debut as a major-league 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, Giants—and Black Barons—great Willie Mays, who’s 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 says. “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.” Major League Baseball has invited all of the 150-plus living Negro League alumni to the game.