Only one professional baseball game takes place at historic Rickwood Field each year, so the Birmingham Barons and Tennessee Smokies figured they might as well make it last.
In the end, it was the visiting Smokies who emerged victorious in the 15th annual Rickwood Classic, edging Birmingham, 8-7, in an 11-inning, 214-minute affair. The Barons twice came back, but a solo homer by Smokies third baseman Marquez Smith that did them in.
The Rickwood Classic is a tradition for the Barons, who return to their former home for an afternoon of nostalgia-drenched baseball. Rickwood Field, the oldest professional ballpark in the country, served as the team's home from 1910-86.
For this year's centennial celebration, the teams wore 1910-era uniforms (the Smokies' read "Appalachians" in honor of the region's team during that period). Dozens of the ballpark's Southern Association and Negro League alumni were in attendance and the guest of honor was Harmon Killebrew. The Hall of Fame slugger was a frequent visitor to the stadium during his years with the Chattanooga Lookouts.
Smith's game-winning blast cleared the wall in left-center field, traveling over a vintage advertisement that reads "Drink Coca-Cola: Relieves Fatigue." It is safe to say that nearly everyone in the ballpark was feeling considerable fatigue by that point, having languished in Alabama humidity during an afternoon that featured plenty of stimulating sights and sounds.
"I was leading off the inning and just wanted to get something started for the guys coming up behind me," said Smith as he prepared to board the Smokies' bus while still wearing his sweat-soaked uniform. (Rickwood, perhaps not surprisingly, lacks adequate shower facilities).
"I ended up getting a fastball down and in and was able to get good wood on it. It was pretty cool to get that hit in the late innings, in this great atmosphere and in front of a good amount of fans. The whole day was fun."
Despite the imperfect ending, Barons fans surely would have agreed. From the moment one approached Rickwood's iconic Spanish mission-style exterior, there was a distinct sensation of going back in time. In the dank concourses, vendors were selling 10-cent editions of The Rickwood Times while fans stooped in front of the low-hanging concession windows to place their orders. In the seating area, a Dixieland-style jazz band pumped out tunes from a spot directly behind home plate. The players sat atop the dugouts taking in the surroundings as the bow tie- and dress shirt-wearing umpiring crew commiserated near home plate.
And as all this was going on, Killebrew held court with the assembled media.
"It's like going back in time being here today," he said. "It's hard to believe, but it was 50 years ago that I played here. The stands are still the same, and while they've made improvements on the playing surface everything else is just about how I remember it.
"The Southern League was a real strong league when I was there, one of the premier places to play."
Barons starter Matt Long got into the spirit of things with his first pitch of the game, employing an exaggerated old-time windup in notching strike one against Tony Campana. Perhaps wisely, he did not utilize that motion throughout the remainder of his six-inning outing.
The game turned out to be an up-and-down affair, with the Barons' two-run first quickly eclipsed by Tennessee's five-run third. Birmingham knotted it at 5-5 in the fifth, then both clubs tacked on a pair of runs in the seventh.
Some fans remained attentive throughout, perhaps finding it easier to concentrate without sound effects, at-bat music, scoreboard prompts and other modern-day ballpark entertainments. The value of such an anachronistic setting was not lost on Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner.
"The essence of Minor League Baseball is history and tradition. And to come back to Rickwood for its 100th anniversary allows us to return to our roots and celebrate what Minor League Baseball means to our country," he said.
But baseball, a reflection of American culture if there ever was one, is always changing and adapting -- even at Rickwood Field. The greatest indicator could be found beneath the shaded tents of the left-field picnic area, where an impressive collection of Birmingham's Negro League alumni gathered to swap stories after being recognized in an on-field ceremony.
When these individuals suited up as members of the Birmingham Black Barons in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, the picnic area was the location of a since-demolished "Negros-only" seating bowl -- the only section of the ballpark lacking any sort of refuge from the sun. On Wednesday, the Black Barons were in the same area, in the shade, as VIP guests.
"It's very inspiring to come back here and very gratifying, said Frank Marsh, who suited up for the Black Barons in 1954. "Back then, there wasn't any money in baseball. We just played for the love of the game."