Baseball in Minnesota — Little League, town teams, college level and, of course, the St. Paul Saints — each have their niche during our Minnesota summers. Interest in the big-league game peaks for many as the National League and American League superstars — including Twins Joe Mauer and Glen Perkins — compete in the All Star game, this year on Tuesday (July 16) at Citi Field in New York City.
But there are even greater thrills for this baseball fan.
I recently visited a special place in Birmingham, Ala., where a palpable aura remains of past players and teams performing their heroics. It seems fitting, then, that the legendary Connie Mack, the owner of the Philadelphia Athletics from 1937-53, laid out the original field and fence dimensions in 1909 for Rickwood Field.
As I walked past home plate onto the infield on a sunny June day, I found immaculate, sturdy green grass and perfectly manicured clay and dirt base paths. Eventually, I had to make way for players from a nationwide adult baseball “pay to play” program. They even plan some games at Target Field when the All Star game comes to town next year, according to Scott Green, the CEO of “Play at the Plate.”
AA feeder system to major leagues
For over three-quarters of a century, Rickwood was the home field for local teams playing in the Negro League and Southern League, a primary feeder system to the majors as an AA club for, at varying times, Boston, Oakland and the Chicago White Sox.
Added to the park in 1936 were four 75-foot-high cantilevered light towers, allowing Rickwood to be among the first minor league ballparks to offer night games for the fans.
Today the vintage field and park hosts upwards of 200 events a year, according to Dave Brewer, the executive director of “Friends of Rickwood Field.” The users now include high schools, colleges and industrial, police, and over 40 baseball leagues.
Baseball Hall of Fame performers
One in three of the current members of the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame performed at Rickwood, ranging from Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner and Dizzy Dean to Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers.
Negro Leaguers who played ball at Rickwood and now are in the Hall include Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Jackie Robinson. In 1948, a teen-aged Willie Mays reportedly cut school to lead the Birmingham Black Barons to the league championship.
The original gazebo press box seated only four reporters and was replaced by a replica of Washington D.C.’s Griffith Stadium’s larger press box in 1998 for the filming of the movie “Soul of the Game.” The movie “Cobb,” starring Tommy Lee Jones, was filmed there in 1994; artisans worked to replicate outfield fence signs from the 1920’ — “Budweiser on Draught in Philly” — that have been carefully preserved. Early in the current film “42” you can see Jackie Robinson, played by Chadwick Boseman, skillfully stealing bases as a Black Baron.
‘Negro Bleachers’ until 1963
Jim Crowism existed in Birmingham, called the most segregated city in America, and it played out in the seating at Rickwood. There were “Negro Bleachers” until 1963, where black fans were forced to sit in the blazing sun in right field to watch games, far from restrooms and food amenities. However, when the popular American Negro League came to town, blacks moved to the 10,800-capacity stadium and white fans sat in the Negro Bleachers.
All told, my visit to 114-year-old Rickwood Field felt like a flashback to the Golden Age when competition was gritty, players were larger than life and, even with its flaws, baseball was truly America’s game.
Chuck Slocum (Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com) is president of The Willston Group, a management consulting firm. A so-so 1950s Little Leaguer from Madelia, Minn., he visited Rickwood Field on June 21.
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