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Over 10,000 Minor League Baseball games are played each season, but only one of them takes place at America's oldest surviving professional baseball stadium.
This much-anticipated annual event has been dubbed the Rickwood Classic, in which the Birmingham Barons return to their old haunt in order to play a regular-season game against one of their Southern League opponents. The Barons called Rickwood Field home for nearly eight decades -- from the park's inception in 1910 through the end of the 1987 campaign -- and it was also the home of the Negro League Black Barons (who existed in various incarnations from 1920-'60). The Rickwood Classic was established in 1996, giving the venerable franchise the opportunity to celebrate its history within the confines of a national treasure.
And Rickwood Field truly is a treasure, as evidenced by the fact that it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It predates Fenway Park by two years and Wrigley Field by four, and nearly five dozen members of the Baseball Hall of Fame competed on its playing surface at some point in their illustrious careers.
However, Rickwood Field is far more than an antiquated relic that gets dusted off once a year for a Double-A baseball game. It is a fully operational facility that hosts a wide variety of baseball events year-round. The Rickwood Classic is simply the most high-profile ballgame that takes place at the stadium, and therefore the best way to raise awareness and support for a Birmingham cultural institution.
A Trip Back in Time
The 14th annual Rickwood Classic was played May 27, and 7,396 fans watched the visiting Mississippi Braves eke out a 3-2 triumph. Like every Classic preceding it, this year's event paid tribute to a specific era of the ballpark's history. Both teams took the field wearing 1982 throwback uniforms, powder blue for the Braves and red and black for the Barons. This was a nod to that year's Southern League All-Star Game, in which the circuit's best players traveled to Rickwood in order to take on the big league Atlanta Braves (not coincidentally, the Barons are hosting this year's Southern League All-Star Game as well).
The Rickwood Classic is a joint effort between the Barons and the Friends of Rickwood, a non-profit group dedicated to preserving and promoting the historic ballpark.
"It's a partnership in the truest sense, as [Friends of Rickwood] are in charge of overseeing the operations of the ballpark," said Barons general manager Jon Nelson. "Each fall, we pick a date and contact the opposing team to see if they would have interest. ... Most of the time, the general manager will say 'yes' in a New York second. In the world of professional baseball, this game has a great reputation.
"After that, we try to find a theme that is appropriate for both the Barons and the visitors. We're hosting the All-Star Game this year, and the second-to-last time we did that the Southern League All-Stars played the [Atlanta] Braves. That made the Mississippi Braves a natural fit."
While Rickwood is kept in fine shape on a year-round basis, the Barons must nonetheless take special precautions when it comes to field maintenance.
"We send our groundskeeper over to Rickwood, have him do some troubleshooting and identify potential hazards," said Nelson. "This is a huge thing for us, because one injury to a prospect and the game could be history."
Finally, the Barons must kick their promotional apparatus into gear to make sure that the Rickwood seats are filled. According to Nelson, the game does a good job of selling itself.
"When Rickwood's up and running, it really is baseball in its purest sense," he said. "It continues to surprise me, the number of people who hear about the game and fly in from somewhere else in order to see it. I think fans really want to experience the game the way it used to be."
The Game Must Go On
Rickwood Field did not go dormant after the Barons departed for Hoover Metropolitan Stadium (now known as Regions Park) following the 1987 campaign. The facility continued to be used for high school games and other amateur baseball events, but there was no long-term plan in place regarding the stadium's future. This uncertainty, combined with the community's deep-rooted emotional attachment to the ballpark, prompted the founding of the Friends of Rickwood organization in 1992.
Seven years later, the group was able to bring on David Brewer as its first (and thus far only) full-time employee.
"I have a master's degree in American history, and was looking for work at a museum or historical site," said Brewer, who serves as the organization's executive director. "I fit what the Friends of Rickwood were looking for in an employee, because I brought both academic credentials as well as a willingness to be a hands-on manager.
"We operate according to the core belief that baseball should be played at Rickwood, because the alternative is for us to be running America's oldest empty ballpark. We schedule over 200 games and related events each year."
Accordingly, the stadium serves as a home field for many of Birmingham's high school and middle school teams, as well as nearby Miles College. Once those seasons conclude, Rickwood hosts summer and fall men's amateur ball as well as an array of youth and college travel tournaments.
Of course, in terms of sheer drawing power, none of these events can compete with the Rickwood Classic. While it is a labor of love in many respects, Brewer is also candid about how beneficial the game is to his organization's bottom line. A key component of his job is to secure the funding necessary to keep Rickwood operating at a suitably high level, and maintaining and operating a nearly 100-year-old facility isn't something that can be done on the cheap.
"[The Classic] is a profitable event, and we're in the business of generating revenue," he said. "At the time of the first Classic, there was the sense that the community would support an event like this. In the 14 years since, it's really taken on a life of its own."
99 Years of Memories
In addition to securing funding and booking events, another key component of Brewer's job is to serve as a Rickwood Field historian.
"I like to argue that there is more to the Rickwood story than just baseball," he said. "Through baseball we can tell the story of our community as well as the country. And included in that is the story is civil rights, and how a ball team contributes to a community's identity and sense of civic pride. ... I certainly see Rickwood in terms of its cultural history, and baseball is at the core of that."
While Brewer characterizes all of Rickwood as a "living history museum," a long-term goal for his organization is to create a traditional museum experience in the park. To that end, he is always on the lookout for artifacts related to the ballpark's illustrious past.
"The Rickwood story is very rich, and there's a trail of evidence out there." he said. "Recently, I stumbled across a lady whose mother, aunt and grandmother had worked concessions at the ballpark. She had photos from the early '50s of these ladies in their concessionaire uniforms. That provided a new angle on the Rickwood experience, and highlighted how much has yet to be discovered."
One ongoing project is the "Rickwood Memories" collection, which seeks to document and preserve ballpark memories from those within the community. In particular, Brewer is interested in locating former Barons players as well as those who suited up for the various industrial leagues that called the stadium home.
"There is a great collection at the Birmingham public library, an oral history of the Negro Leagues," said Brewer. "So a lot of those players, those who are still with us, have assumed a high profile. We have a relationship with them and know who they are. By contrast, a lot of the Minor League ballplayers are unknown to us, and that's one area we need to do a better job with. We need to seek out these stories."
The Best Is Yet to Come
While Rickwood Field already enjoys a modest level of national prominence, its profile will certainly increase over the next year. In July, the Southern League All-Star Game will take place at the stadium.
"We're ripping a page right out of the MLB playbook with that one, in regards to how their All-Star festivities feature multiple events over multiple days," said Nelson. "We want to put our best foot forward, Birmingham-style, and incorporate the past with the present day. So we're going to have a celebrity softball game and Home Run Derby at Rickwood and the All-Star Game itself at Regions Park."
Even more importantly, 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of the stadium. This will mark the first time that a professional ballpark has reached such a milestone.
"This is the big one, a one-time opportunity to generate a national level of exposure for our project," said Brewer. "Toward that end, we've put together a 100th anniversary committee, who will create and manage next year's activites. We've got a whole year in which to celebrate."
Of course, the 100th anniversary will be duly commemorated during next year's Rickwood Classic as well.
"This is something that only happens once, and we're going to really roll out the red carpet," said Nelson. "We want to put together something that people are going to remember for a long time."
Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.