The history of the Birmingham Barons dates back to 1885, when the Barons (originally named the Coal Barons) played in many Southern leagues during the early years of baseball. As leagues came and went, baseball in Birmingham survived. In 1901, the Southern Association formed with teams in Birmingham, Chattanooga, Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, Selma, and Shreveport.
The modern Barons' first Southern Association title came in 1906 as the team went 85-47 under manager Harry Vaughn. It would be the first of 14 titles for the Barons in their long and storied history. Irving Wilhelm pitched the Barons' first perfect game on July 6th that year, a 7-0 victory over Montgomery. The win was one of the 87 Wilhelm would have as a Baron, still the most in club history.
In 1887, the Birmingham Barons were playing at the Slag Pile (West End Park), located on 6th street between 1st Ave North and the Alabama Great Southern Railroad tracks. The old Slag Pile grandstand would only hold approximately 600 fans. T.C.I., which owned the land, would only grant one 60-day lease at a time. A.H. (Rick) Woodward, the late Birmingham millionaire industrialist, decided to buy the team in 1910 from J. William McQueen, the Barons' owner since 1901.
After reaching the final terms of the sale in February 1910, Woodward's first objective was to construct a ballpark. In a short time, he produced plans for the first concrete and steel ballpark in the minor leagues. Woodward consulted legendary Philadelphia Athletics' manager Connie Mack about building the 12.7-acre park. Rickwood was modeled after such parks as Philadelphia's Shibe Park and Pittsburgh's Forbes Field. Construction of Rickwood was completed prior to the first game played there on August 18th, 1920. The Barons won the opener over Montgomery, 3-2, after a two-run rally in the ninth inning. A crowd in excess of 10,000 came for the contest.
An outfielder in addition to the manager, Carlton Molesworth arrived in Birmingham in 1908 and served longer than anyone as skipper of the Barons (1908-1922). "Moley" helped the Barons to two Southern Association (SA) titles, making his name synonymous with Birmingham Baseball. The Barons won their first SA pennant for Molesworth at Rickwood in 1912 as they held of Mobile with an 85-51 record. This was the season that Jimmy Johnston stole 81 bases for Birmingham.
The first of five Hall of Famers to wear a Barons uniform was Burleigh Grimes. The right-handed pitcher played in Birmingham from 1914-1916 and later became one of the last legal spitball pitchers in Major League Baseball. In 1914, the Barons took their third SA title with an 88-62 mark. In 1915, Grimes collected 158 strikeouts and won 20 games. During the following 1916 season, he tossed a team-leading 276.0 innings.
Four pitchers threw no-hit games at Rickwood Field in 1917; three Barons (Ralph Comstock, Carmen Hill, and Ray Milligan) tallied one each, and one Little Rock pitcher recorded the other no-hitter. Hill set a Barons record for wins with a 26-12 record during that season.
A tornado ripped through Rickwood Field on the morning of Saturday, April 16th, 1921. The twister destroyed the wooden outfield fence and the bleachers, causing $30,000 in damages. Cleanup operations started in the afternoon and a temporary fence was constructed for a series against Little Rock two days later.
Molesworth's long tenure ended when he resigned as manager during the 1922 season. He remains one of only two Birmingham managers to win two SA or Southern League (SL) titles.
Much of America's attention turned to sports during the 1920's. It was no different in Birmingham, where the Baros set attendance records at Rickwood Field. During the decade the Barons dew 160,000 fans or more to Rickwood eight times, including a then team-record 299,150 in 1927, a year in which the Barons played all their games during the day and had no Sunday games. During the 1927 season, Hall of Famer Rube Marquard pitched for the Barons.
A total of 14 years passed before the Barons won their next SA title. In 1928, the team posted a batting average of .331 and won a club-record 99 games for manager Johnny Dobbs. This was the first split-season schedule in the history of the SA; the Barons took the first-half title, then beat Memphis in three-straight games for the championship. The next season, the Barons made it back-to-back titles under Dobbs as 13 players hit .300 or better, an SA record. The Barons also won their first Dixie Series appearance, besting Texas League team Dallas, 4-2.
Baseball of the 1930's was played in the shadow of the Great Depression but started well for the Barons as the team won the pennant for second-year manager Clyde Milan. The top pitcher for the 1931 team, Ray Caldwell, was 43. Caldwell posted a 20-12 record in 1930 and was still effective the following year (19-7) as the Barons won 97 games. The Barons took the 1931 Dixie Series from Houston after Caldwell won the opener, 1-0. A total of 20,074 turned out to Rickwood Field under the lights on September 16th, 1931, to see Caldwell beat future Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean. The Barons came back from a 3-1 series deficit to take the title, four games to three. It would be the highlight of a decade in which the Barons finished in the SA's top three just twice. The Barons also played in the 1936 Dixie Series after winning the SA playoffs (despite a third-place overall finish) before losing to Tulsa in four straight. The Depression and its financial crunch forced Woodward to sell his beloved club to Ed Norton in 1938 after three years of virtual bank ownership.
The Barons did not claim a SA pennant during the 1940's, but the resurgence of baseball across the country after World War II brought record crowds to Rickwood from 1948-1950. In 1948, the Barons drew 445,926 to Rickwood while winning the Dixie Series over Fort Worth and followed with a total attendance of 421,305 in 1949. Unfortunately, the Barons did not win another SA pennant until 1958, when they won 91 games and the pennant by just a 6 /2 game under skipper Cal Ermer. The remainder of the 1950's and early 1960's saw the club finish first in 1959 (first-half) but did not see them claim the pennant. Then, for the first time since 1898, Birmingham did not have a professional team as the Barons moved after the 1961 season.
Rickwood Field remained dark for just two years before the Barons were reborn in 1964 and joined the newly-formed Southern League, composed of former Southern Association and South Atlantic League teams. The Barons survived for two years but moved again after the 1965 campaign. The Kansas City (later Oakland) Athletics, owned by Charles O. Finley, brought baseball back to the Magic City in 1967 with the Birmingham A's. Right out of the gate, the A's took the Southern League title by 3 ½ games in 1967 under future Red Sox manager John McNamara. During the time (1967-1975), the A's featured Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson (1967) and Rollie Fingers (1967-1968), who went on to be mainstays during Oakland's three consecutive World Series titles (1972-1974). The A's moved after the 1975 season and Rickwood did not see Southern League Baseball for five seasons.
The latest version of the Barons came to Birmingham in 1981 thanks to the efforts of Art Clarkson, who engineered the move of the Montgomery Rebels to Rickwood Field. The Barons played in front of their largest opening night crowd in 31 years (9,185) on April 14th, 1981, a 6-5 win over Jacksonville. Good times followed as the Barons won the 1983 Southern League title over Jacksonville in four games. It was apparent by 1986 that historic Rickwood Field would not host the Barons forever as the team was outgrowing its facility. Clarkson made plans to move the Barons to Hoover, a Birmingham suburb, and the 10,800-seat Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The final game at Rickwood Field (September 9th, 1987) was a 5-4 defeat to Charlotte in the second game of the Southern League title series. The team won "one more for Rickwood" by taking the title in four games.
The Barons took the field for the first time at the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium on April 18th, 1988, defeating Greenville 8-2 in front of 13,279 fans. The Hoover "Met" became the stage for some of the Barons teams in history as the club won three titles (1989, 1993, 2002) after the move to Hoover. Led by future big leaguers Craig Grebeck and Robin Ventura the 1989 "Runaway Train" team slugged its way to an 88-55 record and a first-half division title. After losing to Huntsville in the playoff opener, the team rattled off six straight wins to dispatch Huntsville and sweep Greenville in the championship series.
Just four years later, the Barons claimed another title. The 1993 team, under Baseball America's Minor League Manager-of-the-Year Terry Francona, won the flag in four games over Knoxville. Future big-leaguers James Baldwin, Ray Durham, and Scott Ruffcorn anchored the team which claimed a 7-6, 10-inning win over Knoxville in the final game of the playoffs.
The 1994 season was historic for the Barons simply for the attention it generated. NBA superstar Michael Jordan signed with the Chicago White Sox and was assigned to the Barons on March 31st. Jordan's popularity helped shatter the club's single-season attendance record (467,867). Jordan hit just .202 with three home runs and 51 RBIs but collected 30 stolen bases as the club was covered by journalists from around the world. The Barons drew 985,185 fans overall (home and road) and millions of other fans watched the club play on national and regional television four times. Jordan played his final baseball game at the Hoover Met before a crowd of 16,247 on August 27th, 1994.
After Elmore Sports Group Ltd. Purchased the Barons in late 1995, one of their innovations with team was to start the Rickwood Classic. Once a year, the Barons return to Rickwood Field to honor baseball's rich tradition in Birmingham with a "Turn Back the Clock" game at what is currently recognized as the oldest in-use baseball stadium in America.
The Barons started the new millennium on a high note as the squad claimed an exciting victory in the 2002 Southern League Championship, the 13th league title for the franchise. First-year manager Wally Backman, a former major league infielder, and 1986 World Series Champion, endeared himself to fans with his gritty style of "Wally Ball". After blowing a 2-0 series lead in the divisional playoffs, Birmingham cruised past West Tennessee in game five to set up a championship series against Jacksonville. The Barons swept the three-game series with the Suns (now Jumbo Shrimp) and claimed two extra-inning victories including a dramatic 12th-inning, walk-off win in the final contest. The 2002 championship as in the middle of a stretch (2000-2005), where the Barons tied a Southern League record by reaching the playoffs six straight seasons.
Through the Hoover Met era, the Barons roster featured stars such as 1993-1994 American League MVP Frank Thomas, 1993 Cy Young Award Winner Jack McDowell, and former White Sox Manager Robin Ventura. In 2005, reliever Booby Jenks became the 39th player since 1986 to jump straight from Birmingham to Chicago, eventually being named the team's closer as the Sox captured the 2005 World Series Championship.
The 2009 season marked the second consecutive first-half division title for the Barons as the team posted a 48-21 record in the first-half of play. Led by seven of the Top 10 prospects in the White Sox farm system, the Barons posted a 92-win regular season, the most in modern-franchise history (since 1964). The team's .662 winning percentage was the best in team history. That season, the Barons also hosted the Southern League All-Star Game at Regions Park (Regions Financial Corporation purchased naming rights to the Hoover Met in 2007).
The 2012 season marked the 25th and final season for the Barons at Regions Park in Hoover. A total of 7,186,159 fans came through the turnstiles at "The Met", over 200,000 during each of the 25 seasons in Hoover. The Barons closed out the park in style, picking up a 5-1 victory over the Chattanooga Lookouts on September 3rd, 2012.
In 2010, the Barons announced a decision to relocate the team to a brand-new downtown Birmingham ballpark. The ground was broken on Regions Field in February 2012 and construction was completed prior to the 2013 season. The Barons drew 396,820 fans during the ballpark's inaugural season, and led by first-year manager Julio Vinas, capped a magical season with the 14th title in franchise history. After drawing 444,639 fans in 2015, the Barons now hold the top three season-long attendance marks in modern Southern League history. The 2020 season will mark the 122nd season of baseball in Birmingham, as well as the 137th year of existence for a historic and celebrated Minor League Baseball Franchise.