Did you know there’s a little piece of baseball history tucked right in your own backyard? Rickwood Field might look like just an old baseball stadium if you drive passed. But it’s actually “America’s Oldest Baseball Park.”
That’s right – older than Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and any other baseball stadium on the list — Rickwood Field is the oldest of them all. And it’s right here in Birmingham.
Rickwood Field has collected its share of history over the last 107 years. Here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about the ballpark:
#1. Iron & Steel
Rickwood Field was built in 1910 by local industrialist Rick Woodward. He designed the stadium with help from Major League Baseball owners Connie Mack and Barney Dreyfuss. The three created a design that was influenced by Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, which was built in 1909. Mack played for and managed the Pirates in the late 1800s, and Dreyfuss owned the Pirates from 1900-1932.
The similarities between Rickwood Field and Forbes Field are striking – from the similar appearance of left-center-field scoreboards to later additions of right-field wraparound stands. The biggest difference between Rickwood and Forbes – upkeep. The City of Birmingham continues to pay for needed upkeep of Rickwood Field. Forbes Field was torn down in 1971 after two separate fires. The only remains of the ballpark are a piece of the brick outfield wall and an encased home plate, which is inside a University of Pittsburgh building.
#2. Play Ball! And More!
Rickwood Field is actually much more than just a baseball stadium. That goes for the past and present. Prior to Legion Field being built in 1927, Rickwood Field was home to most local football games. The ballpark was host to numerous rock concerts throughout the 1960s and ’70s, and even the circus has visited Rickwood. The stadium these days can be rented for weddings, birthday parties and other events.
For baseball, Rickwood Field is home to many games other than the Rickwood Classic. Local adult leagues and universities like Miles College use the ballpark. Historically, it was home to the Birmingham Barons and Black Barons, but also held games for the industrial leagues, spring training and barn-storming baseball.
#3. All-star Lineup
Some of baseball’s most well-known players played at Rickwood Field. This long list includes Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Reggie Jackson. During the Negro League era, Satchel Paige was a star for the Black Barons and others like Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and a 16-year-old Willie Mays played at Rickwood Field.
#4. Hollywood Home Run
There have been multiple movies and documentaries filmed at Rickwood Field. In fact, it was filming of “Cobb,” starring Tommy Lee Jones, that kick-started the park’s upgrades. Improvements needed for the movie included building a press box, painting signs on the outfield walls, seats being re-painted and the field being brought back to baseball standards. Rickwood Field was used for scenes that depicted Forbes Field and Philadelphia’s Shibe Park.
Once “Cobb” provided the work needed to bring Rickwood Field back to life, HBO included the old ballpark in a documentary on the Negro Leagues and ESPN filmed several commercials at the stadium.
Most recently, “42,” a movie about Jackie Robinson starting Chadwick Boseman, had scenes filmed at Rickwood Field.
#5. Friends of Rickwood
The City of Birmingham owns Rickwood Field, but it’s the Friends of Rickwood Field to thank for keeping “America’s Oldest Baseball Park” running. This 40-member board basically runs the day-to-day operations of the stadium. The Friends of Rickwood don’t have many signs of recognition within the ballpark, but there is one plaque honoring its first executive director.
High above the stands behind home plate, literally on top of the Rickwood Field roof, sits an unmistakable gazebo. It used to serve as the area used by the stadium announcer and press, and the current gazebo was built as an exact replica of the original that sat in that same location in 1910.
On Sept. 27, 1997, the gazebo pressbox was dedicated in memory of Chris Fullerton, who was the first executive director of the Friends of Rickwood Field. The plaque adds that Fullerton was “a leader, a scholar and a friend,” saying he “inspired all who knew him with his passion for life, for music, baseball and Rickwood, his own field of dreams.”
#6. Out of Date
Staying “out of date” is very important for Rickwood Field. The ballpark has some changes, mostly maintenance related, without fully adapting to the 21st Century, but current-looking advertisements are a no-no. The outfield walls are traditionally lined with advertisements, but some of those are actually current advertisers. What Friends of Rickwood Field has done is circled back with companies in attempt to learn what an advertisement would look like in the 1940’s. From there, the group designs the sign to fit the retro theme.
#7. Behind These Walls
Rickwood Field has had three outfield walls since it opened in 1910, but two still reside on the stadium’s property.
The original wall is gone. It was a simple chain-link fence from the park’s opening until a tornado destroyed it in 1927. A concrete wall was built the following year and was used for about a decade. However, even when a new wall was built closer to home plate, the concrete wall remained – and is still there today.
If you sit in the right-field bleachers and look to the right, you’ll see what appears to be a property wall, but if you look a little closer you’ll notice signs showing the distance to home plate – 436, 448, 478. That’s the second outfield wall of Rickwood Field, and those are the stadium’s original dimensions. That wall was built in 1928 and remained until the current wall was built in 1938 to appease baseball fans’ new fascinations with home runs.
No player at Rickwood Field ever hit a ball over the concrete wall. The closest anyone any player came was in 1948 when Walt Dropo hit a home run over the iconic scoreboard in left center and the ball hit the concrete wall. The spot the ball hit is marked with a big X and a plaque recognizes the 467-foot blast.
#8. Vintage Views
The last major renovations at Rickwood Field came in 1928. Aside from structural fixes and small work here and there, what you see is how it’s looked since the ‘20s. Those renovations about 90 years ago included the front entrance being remodeled, the seats down right field extending and including the wrap-around, the entirety of stadium’s seats being covered with a roof and the scoreboard being built and added to left-center field.
#9. Under the Bright Lights
Believe it or not, the lights do work. They’re used infrequently during late-afternoon games prior to Daylight Savings Time, but games at Rickwood Field typically don’t require the additional light. The lights at the ballpark are the originals, and the only work they’ve had are replacing or fixing light bulbs.
Friends of Rickwood Field Executive Director Clarence Watkins said the idea of having the Rickwood Classic being played at night has been discussed, but the group ultimately decided against it. However, if Rickwood Field were to have a major event at night, Watkins said he’d want to call it “Rick at Night” – a play on Nickelodeon’s “Nick at Nite” overnight programming block.
#10. A Steep Price
Rickwood Field’s current conference room was once known as the Dugout Restaurant. During the 1930’s it was the only place in Birmingham you could buy beer on Sundays. This room now also serves as a place to buy souvenirs during the Rickwood Classic and see photos and artifacts from Rickwood’s past.
Rickwood Field’s dugouts were in a different spot before the 1940’s. Prior to being moved to where they sit today, they were directly behind the batter’s box. Since the move, the field view from the dugouts surprisingly isn’t great. The dugouts are between 3 and 4 feet into the ground due to the steepness of the playing field.
Unlike modern stadiums, Rickwood Field doesn’t have a man-made drainage system, so the playing surface is what is called a “turtle-back field.” As the name implies, the field has a steep curving angle to help water drain. Due to this steepness, players in the dugouts sitting on the bench can’t see much beyond the infield.
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