Rickwood Field:

The Finest Minor League Ballpark Ever

Rickwood Field, America's oldest standing baseball park and the home of the Birmingham Black Barons, was built in 1910 by Birmingham industrialist Rick Woodward. Woodward dreamed of building "The Finest Minor League Ballpark Ever," and after buying a controlling interest in the Coal Barons team, he made his dream a reality.
After enlisting the help of designer Connie Mack, Woodward started building the park of his dreams, a minor league park modeled after Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. The city of Birmingham was booming at this time; its attractive industrial opportunities made it the fastest growing city in the country. The new field would fit in perfectly with all of the business and building booms in the city.

As opening day approached, Woodward's publicity fervor reached a high pitch; he had played it up so much, the entire city was "baseball-wild." Woodward had everyone so excited that the whole city closed for business on opening day. The field opened to wild success, and soon became an important, lasting institution for the whole city.
Woodward soon opened Rickwood up to another Birmingham team: the Birmingham Black Barons. African-American baseball fans could now go to Rickwood and watch "their" own team play at home, in a prestigious ballpark famous throughout the baseball leagues. Woodward allowed the Black Barons to play every other week at Rickwood; the white Barons team would play on the alternating week. Black players and fans now had a place they could almost see as their own.

Black Barons fans stand in line for a game at legendary Rickwood Field, which was the Black Barons' home every other Sunday, when the "white" Barons were out of town. (Courtesy of T.H. Hayes Collection, Memphis Shelby Public Library and Information Center).

Despite the inclusion of the Black Barons, race relations were not rosy at Rickwood. Black Barons could not use the locker room facilities that the Barons could use. Black fans were allowed to attend white Barons' games, but could not sit with white fans. African-American fans sat in a separate set of stands behind the outer right field wall. Every other Sunday, though, the roles reversed. When the Black Barons played, the African-American fans flooded the park. After church, the crowds would pile onto the streetcar that ended just outside the ticket gates. Black fans filled the park; they sometimes had to set up extra bleachers on the grass inside the outfield walls just to accompany all of the fans. Any white fans who showed up to watch the great baseball being played by the Black Barons and their opponents found themselves sitting in the separate set of bleachers past right field, just where African-American fans had to sit during Barons' games.
The fans at Rickwood saw some of baseball's greatest legends play over the years, such as Satchel Paige, Piper Davis, Josh Gibson, Willie Mays, and George "Mule" Suttles. Others who are less well known, such as Rendon Marbury, Jesse Mitchell, and Lyman Bostock, also played a critical role in making Rickwood Field and the Black Barons what they are remembered as today. The Black Barons achieved fame and notoriety at Rickwood, and made this stadium famous throughout the Negro leagues.

Rickwood is still standing, and is still revered as one of the most important baseball parks in the nation. The field continues to be an important part of the Birmingham community. Local high schools play games there, retired players still gather there, and the community still cherishes it.

For more on Rickwood, visit the Friends of Rickwood site at http://www.rickwood.com.

For more images of Rickwood Field, click here.