History Rickwood Field, Birmingham Alabama
On the afternoon of 18 August 1910, Birmingham entered the 'modern era' of baseball history with the opening of Rickwood Field in the city's West End. By three o'clock the city was deserted, shop owners had closed for the day, and only the industrial plants remained open, as "everybody who had a drop of sporting blood in his veins" found themselves at the new ballpark. Festivities began at 3:15 with bands playing, fans hollering, dignitaries cutting ribbons, and Birmingham industrialist and baseball mogul A.H. "Rick" Woodward tossing out the first pitch in high theatrical fashion at four o'clock. The crowd numbered over 11,000 with the newly built grandstand packed to the hilt and thousands roped in along the foul lines and on into the outfield, forming a circle around the playing field. The game itself turned out to be a tussle, Birmingham defeated rival Montgomery 3-2, and a new era of Birmingham sports history emerged.
The opening of the park had been anticipated for almost a year. Word of a new stadium for Birmingham began spreading in late 1909 when rumors surfaced that iron baron A.H.(Rick) Woodward, III planned to purchase the Birmingham ball club. Approval of the sale to Woodward came that winter. On March 5, 1910 Woodward, R.H. Baugh, president of the club, and manager Carlton Molesworth held a press conference announcing plans for the construction of a reinforced concrete grandstand to be completed by mid-summer. Apparently, Woodward traveled with an architect to several northern ballparks in search of the ideal design upon which to model Rickwood, settling on Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Rickwood was designed and constructed by the Southeastern Engineering Company, the southern representative of the General Fireproofing Company who built Forbes Field. Woodward apparently admired the size and philosophy behind Forbes Field with its expansive outfield, forcing hitters to earn their home runs, its large foul territory, and the absence of advertising on the walls. The original grandstand, which ran from dugout to dugout, seated 3,000 people, 500 in box seats and 2,500 in wood-back chairs behind them. In addition, uncovered concrete bleachers (later covered to form most of the present grandstand) along each foul line seated another 2,000 people. Any overflow crowd would be roped in along the wooden outfield in temporary bleachers or standing by the wall 400-500 feet from home plate.
Apparently, the location of the park was still uncertain at the time of the initial press conference. Size and accessibility surely played crucial roles in the selection process. The chosen lot, while outside the city center, was connected to downtown via a twelve-minute ride on the double-track South Ensley and North Bessemer streetcar lines. Unlike other ballparks of the era, Rickwood did not face the constraints of a tightly defined urban environment in designing the field. A wide open 13.5-acre lot at the time of construction, the neighborhood was sparsely populated, dotted with residential dwellings and open spaces. The field itself is bordered by a railroad line, at that time the Alabama Terminal Railroad, beyond which runs the Valley Creek. According to 1908 maps from the tax assessor's office the land belonged to the railroad company before being sold to Woodward.
At the time of Rickwood's erection in 1910 baseball had been played in the United States for over half a century in organized professional leagues as well as at the amateur level among working men's clubs and industrial teams. Professional baseball in Birmingham began as early as 1885 with a fledgling Southern League operation that folded under the financial constraints of the depression of 1893-97. But in 1896 a new park was built in the West End at the old slag pile, (so named because of an Alice Furnaces slag heap that piled up beyond the right field wall from which young people climbed to watch the games and have rock fights). That league quickly faltered and plans to convert the park to a bicycle track were undertaken. In 1901, under improved financial conditions, a new Southern Association formed and the Barons were resurrected. The Barons continued playing at the "slag pile" into the 1910 season.
In simple terms, Rickwood Field answered the call of strict economic necessity; the 'old' park at the slag pile was too small, dirty, cramped, unattractive, poorly accessible, and highly flammable due to its wood-frame construction. Rickwood Field solved many of those problems in grand fashion and became a symbol of civic boosterism for the urban gentry. Touted by local writers as the finest structure in the South and in all the minor leagues the field carried an imperial and impersonal presence, a grand style, that secured Birmingham's place as part of a surging urban and industrial America.
In recent years architects and baseball buffs who lament the "progress" of post-World War II stadium design gleefully harken back to the days of the old, now "classic" parks like Rickwood with their human scale and more intimate view of the game.8 While it is true that the view from Rickwood is closer to the action than at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, the grandstands of the early twentieth century were decidedly less intimate and less personal relative to their own predecessors. Prior to the enclosure movement in baseball, games were played in the open fields and parks still found amidst the widening urban sprawl. Some fans sat in wooden bleachers bunched around home plate, but many simply stood several rows deep, roped in along the lines of the playing field and across the outfield grass or dirt. The bleachers at Birmingham's old slag pile seated perhaps 700 people but overflow crowds of up to 2500 fans filled in along the base lines and on into the outfield. In the early days, as baseball made the transition to a commodified spectator sport, fans had a more intimate relationship to the players and the field. They were, literally, "on top" of the action. In contrast, the grandstand at Rickwood and the once uncovered bleachers along the first base line were almost 80' away from the base line, imposing a certain amount of detachment from the game. In part a response to safety concerns, this detachment also attempted to create a sense of order and discipline for the fans in the stands. What Rickwood did offer from its original construction through its later additions was more safety, comfort, and convenience than what had come before, while retaining the intimacy of social relations within the stands themselves.
In those early seasons at Rickwood an opening day frenzy continually overtook Birmingham. Often city officials declared a half holiday and businesses shut down as the newspapers implored fans to head out to Rickwood for the ceremonies.9 Fans who had little or no interest in the game (including Woodward's own father) could be found at Rickwood on opening day just to share the experience. The fans took great pride in capturing the Southern Associations's attendance trophy, and in beating out the hated rivals in Atlanta.
By the 1920s baseball at the major and minor league levels had reached peak popularity and while the Barons struggled with poor teams during many of those years, the club continued to return steady profits to Woodward and the stockholders. The 1924 season proved particularly poor and the "gang of wolves," as Woodward called the rabble in the bleachers, put pressure on club president W.D. Smith to produce a winning ball club. It was the first season since Woodward built the field that Carlton Molesworth was not manager, having moved on to a bigger job in Columbus, Ohio. Woodward, who admittedly knew little about the mechanics of running a ball club, was also a committed sportsman who clung to the ideals of his boyhood fantasy, not wishing to taint his hobbies with the confused ethic of his industrial life. In a letter to a friend, he made it clear that " ...I have been in baseball largely from the standpoint of a good, clean sport and the pleasure that we could get out of it. We have never considered it necessary to lose any money [as many owners did and still do], but our aim has been rather to give the public a good, square run, and break even, if we could."
In that spirit Woodward and club officials made preparations to upgrade Rickwood at a reported cost of nearly $200,000. The proposed improvements would bring Rickwood in line with ballparks in other parts of the minor leagues also responding to both the rising popularity of baseball and expanding an urban population. (In 1925, despite finishing in 7th place Barons season attendance topped 182,000.) In 1924, the right field grandstand was extended out over what had been the open-air bleachers, box seats added, and steel bleachers installed down the left field line. In 1927 additional box seats were added along the third base line and the concrete bleachers on that side were covered. The following year Paul Wright & Company, local engineers, added a new entryway and office space and a breezeway connecting it to the original grandstand, new grandstands down the right field line on into the corner, and a new scoreboard in left field (replacing the original that sat in right field). Black patrons who had sat in the concrete bleachers and stood along the outfield lines were moved to the very corner of the new right field grandstand extending into fair territory along with new open-air wooden bleachers adjacent to the grandstand. New parking spaces were carved out of the lots adjacent to the field and the streets paved for easier access to the field.
Apparently, the repair work on the field carried over into the team's field performance as the Barons went on to win the Southern League pennant in 1928, 1929, and 1931. The 1928 pennant winners went on to the Dixie Series and apparently embarrassed themselves after having too good a time celebrating their victories. The following season, when the Barons repeated as league champions, the team made a "no drinking" pact prior to the Dixie Series. But the most exciting series came in 1931, beginning with the memorable September 16 face off between Houston's rising star, 19-year-old Dizzy Dean, and Birmingham's aging veteran 42-year-old, Ray Caldwell. Over 20,000 fans witnessed what was perhaps the greatest pitchers duel ever at Rickwood Field, when Caldwell held off the upstart Dean and defeated him on a run scoring double by Billy Bancroft that won the game 1-0. The game carried its legendary status in the collective memory of Birmingham on into the next generation and perhaps always will be a landmark in the city's cultural history.
The 1931 pennant proved to be the last the Barons would win for another twenty-seven years. The depression hit all of baseball intensely, the Barons being no exception. In the Negro Leagues the Black Barons were forced to close up shop for six years. Despite the pennant drought the Barons continued to make news and draw fans to Rickwood. In July 1932 controversy brewed over the move to hold a referendum on Sunday baseball in Birmingham. A late arriving issue in Birmingham, the opponents of repeal were a vocal minority represented by approximately sixty Protestant ministers who felt an election was unnecessary since the ordinance fell under state law and therefore was outside the city's jurisdiction. But with the forces of business, labor, and fans behind it, the dinosaur law was removed from the books.
In 1934, after having been out of baseball for three years due to illness, Rick Woodward returned to his duties with the Barons. As part of a promotional package during the hard times, Woodward began publishing his memoirs of "Baronial" history in weekly columns for the Birmingham News. Woodward reminisced about such things as the days when he would put on a Barons uniform and workout with the club, or the time in 1916 when he slugged umpire "Bulldog" Williams during an altercation after the game. On the occasion of publishing these memoirs on the 5th of July 1934, he sponsored a free day of baseball at Rickwood to which 15,000 fans turned out, despite a downpour, to watch the Barons lose to their rival Atlanta Crackers.
As the Barons continued their slide during the 1930s, the team sought new ways of bolstering attendance. At 8:15 PM on May 21, 1936 Rickwood became one of the earliest parks to host night baseball. The Barons drew 43,000 fans for the first five night games, an average that practically filled the grandstand despite hard financial times. Sunday games and night baseball were two distinct adaptations of a game that increasingly entered the commercial age. Where baseball had once been a relatively fixed investment venture in which owners tried to reach a marginal utility of fan attendance in order to break even, the game had become a business in its own right, dominated by marketing strategies, radio, concessions, advertising, gimmicks, commercialism, and eventually television. The game, and the Barons, adjusted to a new era in baseball management. While politicians, real estate speculators, businessmen, and railway companies always had held a vested interest in the development of baseball culture in America, the pressures now became stronger and more timely.