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Traveling through American history01/18/2010 10:00 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com
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Today is a day set aside to reflect on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
With that in mind, this edition of Roadtrip focuses on three Minor League cities in which King's influence was particularly felt: Memphis, Birmingham and Montgomery. These Southern cities offer opportunities to learn about America's civil rights legacy, with plenty of baseball, BBQ and idiosyncratic local attractions along the way.
Day 1: Memphis Redbirds (Memphis, Tenn.)Redbirds tickets | 2010 Redbirds schedule
Stax Museum (AP)
It may seem like a grim place to begin, but the Lorraine Motel, the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination site, is an excellent example of turning a negative into a positive. King was gunned down on the motel's second-floor balcony in 1968, and after the establishment ceased operations in 1982 it was converted into the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum features a wide array of exhibits that, together, explore and illuminate the key events of the civil rights struggle.
Memphis also is known for its rich musical history, especially when it comes to the evolution and popularization of blues, soul and rock and roll. Certainly, the city's most famous musical attraction is Graceland, the sprawling estate occupied by Elvis from 1957 until his death in 1977. It now ranks as one of the most visited tourist destinations in the U.S., with more than 600,000 people a year making the pilgrimage.
Two other must-see musical attractions are the Stax Museum and Sun Studios. Stax, the most famous soul label of all time, was responsible for launching the careers of Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding and Booker T and the MGs (among many others). The Stax Museum, billed as the "only soul music museum in the world," features an unparalleled collection of memorabilia from the genre. Sun Studios, meanwhile, boasts a mind-boggling catalog that features works by Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Tours are offered on a daily basis.
And finally, there are the Redbirds. The current incarnation of the franchise began play in 1998, but professional baseball in Memphis dates back to the turn of the 20th century. AutoZone Park, a 14,500-seat facility with Major League amenities, opened in 2000. The stadium served as the home of baseball's Civil Rights Game in 2007 and 2008 before it was decided that the annual contest would be played as a regular-season Major League game.
Day 2: Birmingham Barons (Birmingham, Ala.)Barons tickets | 2010 Barons schedule
Rickwood Field (Marvin Gentry)
Known as the "Blues Highway," this rural road is famed for its ramshackle music venues and down-home restaurants. A more direct route would entail driving southeast through Mississippi on Route 78, a path that leads straight through the Holly Springs National Forest. Comprising more than 155,000 acres of protected land, the forest offers chances to hike, swim, fish and camp.
With all due respect to the great outdoors, however, the best course of action might be to get to Birmingham as soon as possible. Once there, a stop in the city's so-called "Civil Rights District" is certainly in order. This downtown area was home to several significant events from that era, perhaps most notably the Kelly Ingram Park protests (in which local law enforcement used fire hoses and police dogs on protestors). Today, theis area is highlighted by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a large interactive facility that vividly brings the events of the '50s and '60s to life -- including Dr. King's influential "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
Moving on to the world of sports, Birmingham boasts one of the greatest attractions in all of baseball: Rickwood Field. The oldest professional baseball stadium in the United States, Rickwood Field hosted a variety of Minor and Negro League teams between 1910-87. Each season, the Southern League's Barons return to their old haunt to take part in the Rickwood Classic. This year's Classic, scheduled for June 2, is part of Rickwood Field's season-long centennial celebration. The stadium welcomes visitors year-round, however, and hosts more than 200 games (both amateur and collegiate) annually.
The Barons have since moved from Rickwood to Regions Park, which in actuality is located in nearby Hoover. The stadium became the center of a season-long media firestorm in 1994, when Michael Jordan suited up for the Barons. Since then, things have been quiet but only comparatively speaking. The facility also hosts high school football as well as the annual Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament (incidentally, the SEC's headquarters are located in Birmingham).
Day 3: Montgomery Biscuits (Montgomery, Ala.)Biscuits tickets | 2010 Biscuits schedule
Talladega Superspeedway (AP)
Those taking a more direct route to Montgomery will travel along Route 75 (train buffs should plan on a stop at the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum in Calera, while everyone should keep their eyes peeled for Clanton's peach-shaped water tower).
The city of Montgomery played a prominent role in the civil rights struggle; it's where Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott first brought Dr. King to national prominence. The boycott is immortalized at Troy University's Rosa Parks Museum, which features a replica of the public bus in which Parks sat that fateful day.
Another memorable Montgomery attraction is the Hank Williams Museum, dedicated to the life and legacy of the country music legend. The museum is stuffed to the gills with Williams memorabilia, including 13 suits of clothing and his 1952 baby blue Cadillac. Finally, there's the MOOseum, which is billed as "a fun and interactive way for people of all ages to learn about Alabama's $2 billion cattle industry." I'd visit based on the name alone.
A Montgomery Biscuits game can easily be integrated into an evening in the city, as Riverwalk Stadium is a one of the primary components of the revitalized downtown area. The Biscuits offer quality concessions that go well beyond hot dogs and peanuts, but it's also worth noting that there is an abundance of nearby food and drink options. These include Saza's (a classy Italian restaurant owned by Joe DiMaggio's nephew), world-famous Dreamland BBQ and the Alley Bar. Amazingly, the Alley Bar offers more than 50 different types of martinis, 100 different beers and a menu that includes SpaghettiOs, Spam and saltines and "a block of cheese stuck in a mouse trap with crackers."
Finally, a tour of Montgomery isn't complete without a mention of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The ASF is a year-round operation, annually producing 14 of the Bard's works at the Carolyn Blount Theatre. Plays scheduled to be performed during the 2010 baseball season include "Hamlet" and, fittingly, "All's Well that Ends Well."
Where art thou, Opening Day?