Wall Street Journal sports columnist Barra (Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee, 2009, etc.) weaves discussions of baseball and race into his history of Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala.
Birmingham had always been a different Southern city, an industrial center not tied to an agrarian past, where the steel barons who owned the mills ruled the town. Baseball was as old as the city itself, with both emerging in the mid-19th century as the blast furnaces began roaring and the Birmingham Barons began playing. It wasn’t until 1910, however, when industrialist Allen “Rick” Woodward built Rickwood Field, that the Barons had a “modern” steel-and-concrete ballpark in which to play. In 1920, the Black Barons also began play at Rickwood. “The little ballpark would survive the Great Depression, segregation, and the decline of the industrial age,” writes the author, and it survives to this day. Within its confines, the greatest players in baseball history—black and white—plied their trade. Birmingham, truly Southern in its rigid segregation, found in baseball a commonality across race, though for years blacks had to watch games in the “Negro bleachers,” separated from white fans by chicken wire. Still, when Dizzy Dean, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays or Babe Ruth played, a common experience unfolded and a common history was forged. When the integrated Barons moved to the suburbs in the late 1980s, a civic organization, Friends of Rickwood, insured that the ballpark would be restored and maintained. This effort became a model for other cities seeking to preserve classic ballparks. Barra supplements his fine history with an appendix that includes oral histories by generations of fans and players who shared the experience of Rickwood Field.
More than the story of a ballpark, but also of memories, both good and bad, that should be preserved.