On Wednesday, May 27 at 12:30 p.m., the Birmingham Barons, currently 21-24 in the Southern League (AA-level minors), will host the last-place Jacksonville Suns. In and of itself, no, it's not the Game of the Year. Still, if you can see just one game in 2015, this is it. Because it's the only game of the year at Rickwood Field.
If you aren't a baseball zealot or don't otherwise know Rickwood, you probably need a bit of explanation: In 1991, when Chicago's old Comiskey Park became a parking lot for the new Comiskey Park, Birmingham, Alabama's Rickwood Field, built in 1910, earned the distinction of America's oldest professional baseball stadium. The home of both the Birmingham Barons and the Black Barons of the Negro Leagues had mostly stood empty since 1987, when the Barons (now a White Sox affiliate) split for the suburbs, and it had a date with a wrecking ball--if gravity didn't take down the rickety old place first.
Enter a group of young Birmingham professionals who might have gotten together for cocktails at the club. But they cherished childhood memories of storybook sunny days spent rooting for the home team in Rickwood's grandstand. Moreover, they viewed Rickwood as a treasure. You could step into the park, they felt, and, without trying, channel the ten thousand Coal Barons boosters who overflowed the stands on Opening Day 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. Then you kept an eye cocked, half-expecting Ty Cobb to charge, like a locomotive, after a fly ball.
Cobb played at Rickwood, as did Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. Satchel Paige graced the mound. Willie Mays began his career as a Black Baron. As an Oakland--then Kansas City--A's minor leaguer posted to Birmingham, Reggie Jackson belted balls, it seemed, to Oakland.
Lynyrd Skynyrd played there, too -- at concert in 1974, the group tried out a new song called "Sweet Home Alabama." Chapters of the Civil Rights story took place there as well: Rickwood was singular as a venue for civic pride, both black and white. And if that's not enough, the stadium is a home run for the Mission Revival architectural movement.
"We couldn't let something as beautiful and significant to our city be torn down," said Tom Cosby, who in 1991 was a vice president at the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. He joined the group of young professionals who decided to revitalize Rickwood. They went to City Hall and pleaded to Mayor Arrington that Rickwood was, as they put it, "a national treasure that wasn't just unique in baseball, but unique in general." They left with a 99-year lease at $1 per year.
Some people considered it a lousy deal. The roof was caving in, the grandstand was crumbling, and the field looked like it had hosted a war. Also the locker rooms were furnished to the tastes of the disco era, and dilapidated. Similarly, many of the vintage wooden seats -- imported from the Polo Grounds when that historic ballpark was razed -- had been discarded and replaced with garish ("interstate highway orange," as Cosby puts it) plastic ones that birds had been using as restrooms for years.
Cosby and his fellow Friends of Rickwood rolled up their sleeves, fixing and scrubbing whatever they could, possibly putting more sweat into the park than any team that played there. With $2 million they raised, they also restored the stadium's majestic, spearmint-green facade, rebuilt the grandstand roof in painstaking period detail, revitalized the hand-operated scoreboard, constructed a new (though antique in feel) press box, and installed memorabilia displays. Then they opened the park to visitors.
In 1993, Rickwood Field was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Warner Brothers used the stadium for the movie Cobb, and USA Today listed it among its 10 Great Places for a Baseball Pilgrimage.
In 2004, during his first visit in forty years, Mays stepped to the plate, looked the park over and said, "It hasn't changed." Which perhaps best summed up the Friends of Rickwood's accomplishment.
In 1996, the Barons returned to Rickwood too, for one game, and have since played one game there every season. But the "Rickwood Classic" is no mere game. ESPN ranked it among 101 Things All Sports Fans Must Experience Before They Die.
Come on out, watch players bound onto the field in flannel uniforms, hear jazz piped through the funnel-shaped speakers, lick a snow cone, and good luck convincing yourself that you did not pass through a wormhole in time to 1910. And if that's not enough, there's a baseball game.