Photos by Marc Viquez, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.57
Rickwood Field 1137 2nd Ave W Birmingham, AL 35204
Year Opened: 1910
A Historic Palace for Baseball in Birmingham
The Rickwood Classic is played annually in late May at the world’s oldest ballpark Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama. It was constructed by owner Rick Woodward for his Barons baseball club in 1910. The team would play until 1961 before returning as a Southern League member in 1964. In 1987 the Barons would play the final season at the historic ballpark and relocate 18 miles south to the suburb of Hoover to a $14 million sleek new ballpark.
The $75,000 stadium was modeled after Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and designed by Southeastern Engineering Company of Birmingham. There were more than 10,000 fans in attendance when it played its first game on August 18, 1910 many businesses were allowed to close early to allow workers to watch the game. When it played its last season in 1987, it was the second oldest ballpark, only six weeks newer than Chicago’s Comiskey Park.
The stadium was home to the Black Barons (1925-1930, 1937, 1940-1960) of the Negro Leagues, Alabama Crimson Tide football (1912-1927), and was the spring training site for the Philadelphia Phillies (1911 and 1920) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1919). The major motion pictures Cobb, Soul of the Game, and 42 were filmed here at Rickwood.
The majority of why Rickwood Field is still standing is due to the work of the Friends of Rickwood, the volunteer group of baseball purists and historic preservationists who have worked profusely on restoring the stadium to its former glory. At the time of the Barons departure, the stadium required much-needed repairs. The electrical system was on its last legs, water pipes underneath the field were broken, lights would go out during games, and a two-by-four plank held up the ceiling in the cramped manager’s office.
Steadily, improvements were made to the grandstands, press box, locker rooms, light, roof, and main entrance. They are responsible for the overall revitalization of the ballpark, including the scheduling, marketing, fundraising, and implementation of the restoration project itself. There are over 200 events held per year at Rickwood, and it’s the home to high school, semi-pro, police, and travel baseball. Miles College plays its home games at the historic stadium.
One of these events is the Rickwood Classic which began in 1996. The Barons play annually against another league member, don period uniforms, and play underneath the sun in the afternoon. The proceeds from the game help with the maintenance of the facility. Rickwood Field is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Food & Beverage 3
There is a main concession area underneath the grandstand on the main concourse, and two portable areas are set up down the first and third base lines. The basic ballpark food is here: hot dogs, soda, peanuts, and nachos.
The grill down the third base side offers Italian and Polish sausage, chicken fingers and fries, and cold Miller Lite and Yuengling. A Papa John’s pizza cart on the third baseline sells personal pizzas, and a giant grill serves hamburgers, hot dogs, and brats on the first baseline.
However, bring cash, since Rickwood Field does not accept credit cards. In case you are light on dollar bills, there are several portable ATMs located outside the stadium on the first base side.
Rickwood Classic is a nostalgic trip back to a time when the game was played differently. All the modern comforts at nearby Regions Field are replaced with vintage ads on the outfield walls, a hand-operated scoreboard, large foul territory, and narrow concourses and walkways. They don’t build them like this anymore, and thankfully there is the chance to experience this living museum once a year.
“The place looks the same as it did when I played here, but it sure was a lot of fun to play at this stadium, said former Negro League player Russell “Crazy Legs” Patterson, one of the many former players who make the trip annually to take in the game.
The players are dressed in retro uniforms, along with umpires, staff members, and fans in attendance who also dress their part for the game. This particular afternoon game harkens back to the mid-1950s when the club was a farm team to the New York Yankees, but other games may have featured the mod styles of the late 1960s or formal designs of the Roaring Twenties. Just in case you wanted to know, you can’t smoke cigarettes or cigars in the stadium.
The players seem to relish their time at the old ballpark, many sit on top of the dugout, take practice on opposite ends of the outfield before the game, and pull up their socks to their knees. The game begins with a former major league player throwing out the first pitch; today’s pitch was former All-Star and World Series MVP Bucky Dent.
The atmosphere might remind many of the minor league experience during their childhood a few decades past. The concessions are limited, and not varied by today’s standards, and only a small booth sells paraphernalia that includes t-shirts, caps, posters, and balls. There are no promotions on the field between innings, no zealous announcer yelling his head off, and the score is kept by hand by a small staff up above the right-field fence.
The seats are covered and wrap around the right field wall, which at one time was segregated seating for Barons games. The main entrance has been restored to its 1940’s era design, and those are the original light towers from 1936 on the roof. Still, watching a game is comfortable from your seat, even though the home plate is much further out from current ballparks.
Rickwood is in an old residential neighborhood west of downtown and not within walking distance of restaurants, bars, or retail. You will need to have a car to get to and from the ballpark. The Baron's current home Regions Field is 3.1 miles. The city offers a few places to visit including the Civil Rights Museum, Vulcan Park & Museum, Birmingham Zoo, and Birmingham Museum of Art.
Saw’s Barbecue and Eugene Hot Chicken are two local restaurants that are favorites among locals. Dreamland Barbecue is also a popular destination and features numerous locations. El Barrio and Carrigan’s Public House are two other great establishments in town for dining.
Good People Brewery, TrimTab Brewing Company, and Ghost Train Brewing Company are three well-established places for craft beer, and each offers an eclectic setting for beers and good times. Good People benefits being located across the street from Regions Field.
The annual game draws average crowds between 5,000-7,000 at the stadium. The facility is filled with local Barons faithful and many visitors who are here just for the game itself. Today’s game was threatened with inclement weather, but that did not stop many from waiting in line for the skies to clear.
Rickwood Field is almost 120 years old and features elements of its days and many that we don’t miss at today’s ballparks. The main concourse is narrow and features a chain link fence separating the lower box seats from the upper box seats; maneuvering them can be tricky since the entrances are limited. The steps to the upper seating area are wide and take some stretching of the feet.
The main concourse offers a terrain that features concrete, gravel, grass, and some uphill walking. However, it’s spacious enough to ease through traffic, except if you are at the main concession stand in line for food or a souvenir hat or cap. This section of the ballpark is congested, at times, and wait times can be longer.
Return on Investment 5
The price of a ticket to the Rickwood Classic is $10, one heck of a bargain to be able to travel back in time to enjoy a baseball game. Public parking is $5 and is available on a first-come, first-served basis adjacent to the stadium. Space is limited, and fans tend to arrive early. If you want to save money, there is street parking in the neighborhood surrounding the field.
One star for the Friends of Rickwood, who through hours of dedication and service, have made the Rickwood Classic possible. There have been over $2 million worth of renovations at the stadium in the past 26 years that have included improvements to the press box, seats, roof, field, and many other areas.
A second star is for the hand-operated scoreboard in left field. It is a replica of a version that once stood in the stadium during the 1940s.
A third star is for the vintage ads that are painted and weatherproofed on the outfield walls. They include real and past businesses in town and were designed with a 1920s look and feel. There is also hand-painted signage for both the Barons and Black Barons pennants, during their existence at Rickwood Field.
A fourth star to the Negro League players who make the annual trip and are accessible to talk to about their experience and Rickwood. These men are accessible, pose for photos, and offer plenty of stories to tell about their days here in Birmingham and beyond.
The word unique gets used a lot in writing, but attending the Rickwood Classic is a one-of-a-kind event that attracts ballpark hunters like myself and legions of fans who appreciate that a minor league game is still held in such a palace.
The world’s oldest ballpark looks good and hosts up to 200 events each year. It is a ballpark, a museum, a history lesson, and a trip back in time. Rick Woodard is probably smiling somewhere, knowing his ballpark is still being used for its intended purpose-baseball.