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Passion Preserved - The Rickwood Classic

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Rickwood Field during the 2008 Classic

They return to this place once a year to play a game. No ordinary game, mind you, as it’s one that makes history every year just for occurring.

They are the Birmingham Barons, the place is Rickwood Field, and the game is the Rickwood Classic, a regular season Southern League contest that has been played annually since 1996.

The historical significance of the yearly game is that it makes Rickwood Field, built in 1910, the oldest ballpark in the nation to host professional baseball. Fenway Park is two years its junior.

But Fenway hosts at least 81 Red Sox games a year. Rickwood gets but one yearly opportunity to host the Barons, and that opportunity is the Rickwood Classic.

The Classic is the brainchild of the Friends of Rickwood, a non-profit organization formed in 1993 to restore Rickwood Field to the glory it enjoyed during the first half of the 20th century, baseball’s long gone golden era.

Most thought the ballpark itself would be long gone by the time the 21st century arrived.

When the Barons bolted for the Birmingham suburb of Hoover following the 1987 season it seemed likely that Rickwood Field would soon fall victim to the wrecking ball. After all, the city-owned ballpark no longer had a primary tenant to generate enough revenue to pay for its maintenance costs.

Fortunately for baseball fans everywhere the city of Birmingham didn’t have the funds available to pay for Rickwood’s destruction and in 1993 the ballpark was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

That designation marked the beginning of Rickwood Field’s preservation under the guidance of the Friends of Rickwood, or FOR for short. The grassroots volunteer organization of baseball aficionados now numbers 1,200 members strong and even more impressive than that number is the amount of money - over $2 million - they have raised to preserve the ballpark.

That money has been spent on restoring the main entrance, grandstands, roof, press box and locker rooms, among other things. The roof alone cost $300,000 to replace in 1994.

By the time 1996 rolled around Rickwood Field was in good enough shape that the Barons agreed to return for the ultimate throwback game, going one giant leap further than the usual wearing of retro uniforms to actually play in a throwback ballpark.

Just like in the old days, the game is played in the afternoon – 12:35 the anointed starting time in recent years. And since it is a turn back the clock game both teams wear jerseys of yesteryear.

The first Rickwood Classic drew a near capacity crowd to the venerable 10,800-seater, but the draw has averaged a lot closer to half that since then.

Regardless of the game’s attendance, the history of the ballpark and the loving preservation that's kept it out of date have made the Rickwood Classic one of the 101 Things Sports Fans Must Experience Before They Die, according to ESPN's Jim Caple.

Rickwood's Classic has some accomplished company, as Caple’s list includes the World Series and World Cup, the Olympics and watching bicycles tour France.

All of those sports institutions have been around for a while and so has Rickwood Field. The ballpark’s history traces to 1910, when Birmingham was the fastest growing city in the nation. A. H. "Rick" Woodward owned the Barons, officially known as the Coal Barons at the time, and he spent $75,000 to build his team a new ballpark in the city’s West End neighborhood on land he purchased from the Alabama Central Railroad.

Woodward’s ballpark was modeled after Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and the playing field dimensions were drawn up by the legendary Connie Mack.

When completed, it was the minor leagues’ first concrete and steel stadium, although the original outfield wall was made of wood…..and stood a staggering 478 feet from home plate in center field. That wall was concreted in 1928 and still stands today, with distance markers on it, behind the current wooden outfield wall.

The original press box was a small gazebo on top of the ballpark’s roof. It had a maximum capacity of four people.

The press had plenty to report on over the years, as most of baseball’s biggest stars showcased their skills at Rickwood.

Babe Ruth hit a grand slam here in 1925 for the Yankees. Three decades later Stan Musial proved he was The Man, connecting on a 486-foot home run over the right field bleachers.

Both of those homers occurred during the frequent exhibitions that were held at Rickwood during the barnstorming era, but there were plenty of Hall of Famers who regularly played in Birmingham before becoming Major League immortals.

Notable among them were a pair that played for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues: Satchel Paige and a 16-year old boy who grew up minutes from Rickwood by the name of Willie Mays.

Charlie Finley also grew up in the area and was a Barons batboy as a youth. Well-known for his flamboyant ownership of the Oakland A’s, Finley owned the Birmingham A’s during their tenure at Rickwood from 1967-75. His first general manager was none other than Bear Bryant's son, Paul Jr.

The A’s left Rickwood after 1975 in a rent dispute and the ballpark was absent of professional baseball until the Montgomery Rebels relocated to Birmingham in 1981.

Prior to that, Rickwood had lacked a minor league baseball tenant for just three years, all in the sixties (1962, 1963, 1966).

Now thanks to a partnership forged between the Friends of Rickwood and Birmingham Barons in 1996 the nearly 100-year old ballpark will continue to be a part of Southern League box scores for many years to come.

That partnership is also essential to Rickwood’s modern day revival, as the Classic serves as the main source of funds that are needed for continued improvements and routine maintenance.

And at 98-years old the ballpark has plenty to maintain. It’s one thing to keep the toilets functioning, but quite another to make the advertisements on the outfield walls weather resistant.

The vintage advertisements on Rickwood's walls add to the ballpark's nostalgia Rickwood was used a movie set twice in the 1990s and the ads are period pieces, originally designed as movie props. The cost to FOR to preserve them was $65,000.

Much like the ballpark itself, the outfield ads are a window into yesteryear and a symbol of the history that’s been preserved. The descendants of Rick Woodward sponsored a sign next to the left field foul pole touting their long-gone Woodward Iron Company. The once ubiquitous Burma-Shave advertising campaign is still alive at Rickwood next to the right field foul pole.

The ballpark was built well before the advent of night baseball, but Rickwood's most distinctive feature is its 75’ high steel-frame light towers. They date to 1936, the year that baseball after dark arrived in Birmingham.

Two years later, Woodward sold his ballpark to a local Birmingham businessman by the name of Ed Norton.

Seven decades later Rickwood Field is the oldest surviving professional baseball park in the United States. The game that makes that statement true is the Rickwood Classic.

So how does the ballpark compare to how it once was?

“I remember it like this pretty much,” said Barons hitting coach Wes Clements after the 2008 Classic.

Clements played at Rickwood in the early 80’s when he was a member of the visiting Columbus Astros, but the ballpark was actually more modern then than it is now.

When the Friends of Rickwood were organized in 1993 one of their very first objectives was to replace the existing scoreboard at the time – an aesthetically inappropriate 1970’s-era electric version – with the 1948-era hand-operated scoreboard that is used today.

Furthermore, the ballpark has been outfitted with two retro press boxes, the first courtesy of HBO, who recreated the press box from Washington D.C.’s Griffith Stadium for use in their 1995 movie Soul of the Game. Rickwood got its original 1910 gazebo-style press box back in 1998, when the FOR built an exact replica and placed it in its rightful place atop the ballpark’s roof.

"Our dream is for Rickwood Field to be a working museum, a place to actually see and experience baseball as it once was,” says the FOR in a brochure touting their master plan, which includes establishing a museum dedicated to chronicling Rickwood’s history.

As for the ballpark, FOR director David Brewer says his group has a list of improvements about a mile long. The biggest obstacle to getting them done is funding. The FOR split the profits from the Rickwood Classic with the Barons and the city gives them a little bit of money to help pay for maintenance. Beyond that the FOR needs and welcomes donations, which are tax-deductible.

Rickwood’s continued revitalizations are aimed at fully returning it into a vintage 1940’s-era ballpark. It’s already a field of dreams, if you will, that can be enjoyed by fans of all generations...and players too.

"It's always fun to come back. It's actually more fun for the players, the younger guys, to go in and see the nostalgia in the ballpark and the features inside the clubhouse," said Clements, who played at Rickwood when he was a young man himself and finally coached there two days after his 50th birthday.

Built long ago, fans have been coming to the ballpark at 1137 Second Ave. West ever since and thanks to the Friends of Rickwood they, and the Barons, still do.

Nowadays about 30,000 people visit the ballpark annually and more than 200 high school, college and amateur games are played on its field each year. Those games are all played on the same field where a teen-aged Willie Mays once starred and where, five decades later, Mike Cameron played center field in the inaugural Rickwood Classic.

Regardless of whether there’s a game going on, the ballpark is open year round and self guided tour pamphlets are available just inside of the picturesque Mission style entrance.

But do yourself a favor and make plans to attend a Rickwood Classic. It is, after all, a can’t miss experience. ESPN said as much, and so does anybody who has ever attended one.

The exterior of Rickwood Field, located in Birmingham's West End neighborhood

Rickwood Classics

The Birmingham Barons have played 15 games at Rickwood Field since they began returning to their roots in 1996. The team's record in Rickwood Classics is 7-8 and they have played before an average crowd of 6,860.

Year Day/Date Game Attendance
Wednesday, June 12
Tuesday, June 10
Thursday, June 4
Sunday, May 16
Sunday, June 11
Thursday, June 7
Thursday, April 25
Wednesday, June 11
Thursday, June 17
Wednesday, July 27
Thursday, June 22
Wednesday, May 30
Wednesday, May 28
Wednesday, May 27
Wednesday, June 2
Birmingham Barons 3, Memphis Chicks 2
Birmingham Barons 12, Chattanooga Lookouts 6
Greenville Braves 12, Birmingham Barons 8
Birmingham Barons 5, Huntsville Stars 4
Mobile BayBears 5, Birmingham Barons 4
West Tenn Diamond Jaxx 12, Birmingham Barons 3
Birmingham Barons 14, Chattanooga Lookouts 4
Birmingham Barons 5, Huntsville Stars 1
Huntsville Stars 8, Birmingham Barons 6
Montgomery Biscuits 6, Birmingham Barons 5
Birmingham Barons 3, Tennessee Smokies 2
Birmingham Barons 3, Jacksonville Suns 2
Jacksonville Suns 4, Birmingham Barons 2
Mississippi Braves 3, Birmingham Barons 2
Tennessee Smokies 8, Birmingham Barons 7 (11)

* The 2005 game was originally scheduled for Thursday, June 2 but was rained out.
* Tickets for the first Rickwood Classic cost $6. The cost was $9 in 2008. All tickets sold are general admission.

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Birmingham Pro Sports
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