BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- America's oldest ballpark will be in the public eye Wednesday afternoon,when the Birmingham Barons and visiting Tennessee Smokies square off in the 15th edition of the Rickwood Classic.
This annual ballgame gives the Barons to return to venerable 100-year-old Rickwood Field, which the team called home from 1910-'86. Harmon Killebrew -- who often visited Rickwood as a member of the Chattanooga Lookouts, is the guest of honor at this year's Classic -- and dozens of Southern Association and Negro League alumni will be in attendance as well.
The Rickwood Classic is certainly worthy of a baseball road trip, but it should be noted that the ballpark is open on a year-round basis. Visitors can pick up a brochure outside the stadium and then take a self-guided tour that offers a remarkable level of access to the facility. Fans are encouraged to stroll the aisles, take a seat in the exceedingly deep depths of the dugout and even stride atop the pitcher's mound.
This is precisely what I did Tuesday afternoon, taking an opportunity to enjoy the hallowed grounds on the eve of the Rickwood Classic. Here are four of a few of the many highlights in store for Rickwood visitors:
Spanish Mission Style exterior: Visitors to Rickwood are greeted by the facility's striking façade, which includes a red-tiled roof, arched passageways and ornamental plaster decorations. Allen Barra's upcoming book "Rickwood Field: A Century in America's Oldest Ballpark" includes these elements on its front cover. Barra explains that this seemingly random architectural touch, added in 1928, was quite fitting with the time period. D.W. Griffith's 1910 film "Ramona," set in Spanish California, sparked a nationwide Spanish Mission architectural craze. The city of Birmingham was smitten to such a degree that entire neighborhoods were designed in this style, and Rickwood's now-iconic exterior was an extension of this long-running fad.
Period advertisements: Did you know that Coca-Cola relieves fatigue, Budweiser is preferred everywhere and that Birmingham is a nice place to visit? These are just three of the hand-painted slogans that adorn the outfield walls, but most are of a more recent vintage. Many, in fact, were created for the movie "Cobb" (filmed at the ballpark in 1994 and directed by Ron Shelton of "Bull Durham" fame). I spoke with historian Clarence Watkins, author of "Baseball and Birmingham," at the Barons' "new" home of Regions Park on Tuesday night. He explained that "Cobb" was crucial to Rickwood's mid-'90s renaissance, as it "got the community involved [as paid extras] and reminded everyone that Rickwood was something really special that needed to be preserved."
Two press boxes: The original Rickwood press box was a gazebo on the roof of the facility, barely capable of holding a quartet of furiously scribbling baseball scribes. A replica of this idiosyncratic period piece was constructed in 1998 and named the "Fullerton Gazebo" in honor of one of the restoration movement's most fervent supporters. However, the stadium also boasts a second press box, once again courtesy of the motion picture industry. The particular journalistic holding pen is a full-size replica of the one used at Washington D.C.'s Griffith Stadium. It was constructed in 1995, for use in the HBO film "Soul of the Game."
Two outfield fences: The original dimensions of Rickwood were gargantuan (470 feet to left-center field), making home runs nearly impossible. Management constructed new wooden fences in 1948 at more typical dimensions, but the original foreboding concrete walls were left intact. Via the right-field grandstand, one can get a good view of the mammoth gap between the original and current fences. Upon reading I would be visiting Rickwood, former Barons batboy Sam Hamm emailed me the following recollection from the 1984 season:
"One of the jobs of batboys was to retrieve home run balls hit during [batting practice]. Every dollar counts. We'd sneak onto the field to shag balls sometimes, but generally had to chase down balls beyond the wall. That summer, Jose Canseco traveled with the Huntsville Stars, and he hit a ton of balls over the scoreboard and beyond the outer wall during BP. This was with soft BP balls and BP bats that were usually broken bats that had been taped up."
And so much more: Many aspects of Rickwood's history have been well documented, especially in regard to the many stars who have taken the playing field there. The ballpark has hosted over 100 Hall of Fame players over the past 100 years (some as Spring Training barnstorming stars, others as young prospects yet to experience their Major League debut), in addition to innumerable local heroes.
But so much of the ballpark's history is unique to the individual who happened to experience it, a point hammered home as I concluded my self-guided tour. Sitting in the front row behind home plate was Johnny Collins, a 59-year-old Birmingham resident who served as a Rickwood clubhouse attendant at age 12. (He recalled taking dirty uniforms back home for his mother to wash.) Collins lives two blocks away from the stadium, and he often visits it as a way to relax and revel in the past.
"So many memories are in this place," said Collins as I walked by, stretching out every syllable in a slow Southern drawl. "Just a whole lotta memories."