The faded green right field seats at Birmingham's Rickwood Field tell a story that only those who've sat there can truly understand.
America's oldest ballpark was the one-time home of the Minor Leagues' Birmingham Barons and Negro Leagues' Black Barons, but Alabama state law prohibited black and white players from competing against each other for decades.
"The black fans mostly came out for the black teams, but the white fans came for both," said Dr. Larry Powell, author of the 2009 book, Black Barons of Birmingham. "The white fans wanted to see the stars, and you had to go to the black games to see Satchel Paige. No one on the [white] Barons drew that kind of attention."
Birmingham's antique ballpark, set to host its 100th season of professional baseball, may be one of the best examples of the sport's history through the early 20th century and serves as a reminder of the nation's struggles with segregation and civil rights.
"In the '50s, the black community tended to coalesce around two groups -- the church, with Dr. Martin Luther King, and the other was baseball," Powell said. "That was something they could take pride in."
The Barons, currently the Double-A affiliate of the White Sox, and the Black Barons, led by Hall of Famers Paige and Willie Mays, shared Rickwood for many years, and the park was a place both teams -- and their fans -- called home.
"It was sort of a relationship of mutual respect," said Powell, a professor at the University of Alabama - Birmingham. "It was part of the times."
The Barons, established in 1885, opened Rickwood in 1910. The park later became one of the first with lights and also hosted college football games for Samford -- a Birmingham university that remained segregated through 1967.
The literal divide between baseball fans could be seen in the outfield on a weekly basis. Barons owner Rick Woodward built the park and allowed both teams to alternate homestands, with the Black Barons often outdrawing the Barons. The right field seats, reportedly taken from the original Polo Grounds before its demolition, were designated as the "Negro Bleachers." Black fans were allowed to watch the Barons but only in the roped-off section.
"The Black Barons had a very good relationship with the Birmingham Barons but had no scheduling rights as far as the Southern Association was concerned," explained John Klima, author of Willie's Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, the Last Negro League World Series and the Making of a Baseball Legend (Wiley 2009). "They could only rent the park when the white team was not playing, period."
White fans kept to themselves in the segregated area when they came to see the star-studded Black Barons, whose fans occasionally watched from the warning track.
"White fans could go wherever they wanted during black games," Klima said. "But most preferred to segregate themselves in right field."
Alabama was one of several Southern states that had laws against interracial games, and Powell said the Birmingham police chief strongly upheld that way of life, well into the civil rights movement.
"Alabama was a little different, but what people had in common was baseball," he added. "Baseball overrode the racial differences. [Tensions] seemed to be a problem that bothered both teams and there were definitely some racists among the white Barons, but there was always this sort of feeling of, 'Which one of us is better?'"
Paige undoubtedly was one of the best, and in 1928 he was paid more than the rest of his Black Barons teammates combined. His success in Birmingham led to him being rented out to various Negro League clubs.
|At a glance: Some Negro League teams that played in current Minor League cities:
- Akron Black Tyrites
- Birmingham Black Barons
- Chi Cole's American Giants
- Dayton Marcos
- Harrisburg Giants
- Indianapolis ABC's, Clowns
- Little Rock Black Travelers
- Louisville Black Colonels, Clippers
- Memphis Red Sox
- Montgomery Grey Sox
- Mobile Black Bears
- Nashville Elite Giants
- New Orleans Eagles
- Omaha Rockets
- Toledo Crawfords, Tigers
- Wilmington Potomacs
According to Klima, affiliated clubs looked to cash in on the popularity of black stars and Negro League teams looking for venues. "Minor League teams price-gouged Negro League teams on park rental fees," he said.
Mays' success in Birmingham had Major League scouts taking notice. After the Braves passed on him, choosing instead to go after Hank Aaron, the Giants signed and assigned him to Trenton.
Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, Md., home of the Class A Suns and one of the oldest ballparks in the Minors, hosted its first black professional player on June 24, 1950, when Mays played in his first Minor League game there. According to the Negro League Baseball Players Association, the stadium housed Negro League teams after its completion in 1930, but the community did not warm to the young Mays.
Fans yelled racial epithets and other derogatory names at him, Mays said. He was forced to stay at the all-black Harmon Hotel, away from his white teammates, and said his time in Hagerstown was one of the worst he endured at the beginning of his career.
"In 1950, when I was here, it was such a sad, you know, moment," Mays said during a return to Municipal Stadium in 2004. "But, still, everything works out. I have no regrets coming back."
Powell said fans, commonly segregated at all Minor League parks, managed to coexist.
"They seemed to get along, but the whites would use a lot of racial slurs, but in a complimentary manner," he continued. "There didn't seem to be any animosity or any fights, but it's not exactly like they were friends."
"Baseball crowds were dwindling right after the war," former member of the Black Sox Reuben Smartt said in a 2003 interview with the Associated Press. "But a lot of people would come to see us play. The Negro Leagues had a lot of fans, especially the All-Star games. A lot of times, white people couldn't even get a ticket to get in."
Municipal Stadium is one of several current parks that hosted Negro Leaguers. Asheville's McCormick Field, built in 1924 and the home of the Class A Tourists, hosted the Asheville Blues of the Negro Southern League in the 1940s.
The Chattanooga Black Lookouts, Nashville Elite Giants and Chattanooga Choo-Choos all played at Engel Stadium along with the Double-A Lookouts after the park opened in 1930. One of the first stadiums to feature a press box, it had a separate entrance on the third base side for black fans.
Many of the parks of the defunct Southern Association have been abandoned or torn down, but nearly all of the current Minor League cities in the Southeast saw Negro Leaguers beginning in the 1930s.
Jacksonville's J.P. Small Memorial Stadium, once known as Durkee Field, hosted a pair of South Atlantic League clubs in the 1950s and '60s. In 1946, the park was scheduled to host a game between the Jersey City Giants and Montreal Royals, featuring Dodgers prospect Jackie Robinson. The game was canceled when the city prohibited "white and Negro athletes" from playing together, and the Royals refused to leave their star player home. The ballpark had, however, housed the Negro League's Jacksonville Red Caps in 1938.
The Negro National League's Philadelphia Stars played at Wilmington Park in the 1940s, sharing the stadium with the Wilmington Blue Rocks, then a Phillies affiliate. Altoona, Penn., home of the Pirates' current Double-A club, became a popular baseball venue when fans poured off Pennsylvania's railroad system and packed 35,000-seat Cricket Field to see Negro League stars like Paige and Josh Gibson. The Homestead Grays also spent part of the '30s at Altoona's Pennsylvania Railroad Park.
Acknowledging the past
The annual Rickwood Classic, which showcases the old park and its former stars, is Barons general manager Jonathan Nelson's favorite game of the season.
"The Black Barons are a very important part of baseball in Birmingham and of our tradition as well. We realize those players were pioneers in the sport," he said. "They did a lot for the game itself and for people."
Many former Negro Leaguers return to Rickwood and remain a huge draw for Birmingham baseball fans.
"It's like stepping back in time, to think what Willie Mays looked like when he roamed the outfield, those great teams the Black Barons had over the years. What did people do, what did the crowds look like?" Nelson said. "It's something I can't wrap my arms around, but it's fun to imagine. You can't help but sincerely appreciate the players and fans who attended those games and what they did."
Nelson also said the former Negro Leaguers enjoy being back in Rickwood.
"There's always a long line of people going to get autographs from them and you'll see young fans, asking them, 'Tell me a story about Satchel Paige, about Piper Davis,'" he explained. "'Tell me the way it was back in those days.'"
The Rickwood experience is a valuable one, Powell said.
"It's an amazing feeling [that] I don't know how to describe," he said. "It's like being transported back in time. I think for baseball, the Negro Leagues have been overlooked for what they did for the civil rights. Baseball has shown that blacks and whites can play together. And if they can play together, they can work together, and it moved on from there."