Post WW II History Rickwood Field, Birmingham Alabama
Having sustained the team through some horrendous playing years, not to mention the depression, Woodward was losing money and falling into debt. By late 1937 it became apparent that he would have to sell the club. In February 1938, after twenty-nine years in baseball and founder of the field carrying his name, Woodward ended his relationship with the Barons and professional baseball. Ed Norton, a local businessman with varied interests purchased the club for $175,000, holding it for less than two years before selling to the Cincinnati Reds organization in August 1939.
In 1944 local businessman G.J, Jebeles purchased the Barons and Rickwood Field from the Reds. A Greek immigrant who saw his first American baseball game as a teenager at the old slag pile in 1905, Jebeles had been a small business venturer throughout his life. Among other things, he owned the Reliance Hotel for eighteen years before retiring and settling down with the Barons. Jebeles brought General Manager Eddie Glennon to the club. A man for the era, Glennon was an organization man who brought Birmingham baseball into the next phase of the "modern era".22 In the 1950s minor league baseball attendance suffered from competition from televised major league baseball, and the increased pressure to cop the advertising dollar. Television also provided a new, easily accessible form of inexpensive entertainment that moved fans from box seats, hot dogs, and the Barons to "La-Z-Boys," TV dinners, and Milton Berle. At the same time questions reappeared about baseball's long-held exemption from anti-trust laws and the seeming monopolistic control owners had on the sport.
Responding to these new concerns and realizing the importance of the homerun to the national game, Glennon reconfigured Rickwood to suit a more offense minded style of play. Though Johnny Dobbs, manager of the pennant winning Barons during the late 1920s, had experimented with moving in the fences, they were not permanently shifted until the Reds owned the club in the early 1940s. This new fence placement cut over 55' down the left field line and 110' to center field, making the new distances 350' down the line and 405' to center with right field remaining a manageable 335'. In 1948 Glennon moved the left field line in to 345' and reoriented the scoreboard closer to home plate for a better viewing angle. Where the board had been 421' away at each corner it was now 358' and 381' on left and right corners respectively.
Prior to this time, Rickwood had been, if not a pitcher's field per se, a ballpark where the homerun did not dominate the game. Though the records are spotty and incomplete, it seems that Dutch Bernsen the homerun record at Rickwood prior to the fence shift, with twenty-two hits in 1921. But Bernsen was a left-hander who hit most of his shots over the right field wall. The Barons' Yam Yaryan, and the Black Barons' Mules Suttles were among the most prolific sluggers from the right side of the plate, but neither put up massive numbers in the homerun count. But the 400+ feet down the left field line and over 500' to center, while daunting, was not outside the norm for ballparks of the era.24 Before the enclosure movement in baseball the outfield, theoretically, extended infinitely into the wilderness. Fans who gathered to watch the action formed a circle in the outfield at some random distance from homeplate. At Rickwood the fence dimensions may have been influenced by custom, by those of Forbes Field, or perhaps the wall simply followed along the lot line. In either case the fences made for a different kind of game than the one played later at Rickwood and across the nation.
In the early days of the open field, triples and inside-the-park homeruns hit into "the groove" in left-center field were not uncommon and provided the major excitement for fans and players alike. They undoubtedly were, and still are to many fans, the most thrilling hits in a game. When major leaguers came through Rickwood during the exhibition season they gunned for the fence in left and though many reached it during batting practice few did during ball games. By most accounts, not until 1941 when Hank Sauer hit one over the old drop-in scoreboard did a ball leave the park in left field during a game. Following Glennon's further reduction in fence distance, Rickwood fell in line with most other professional ballparks of the period. The left field line remained challenging at 345' but the power alleys were brought in over 70', thereby making homeruns out of what had been doubles, triples and long flyouts. The fence-moving was but one of the many attractions used to draw fans back to the park. By the 1950s fans well versed in televised games began to expect more from the team than just a ballgame. Consequently Eddie Glennon found himself doing things he never thought possible. The ballpark increasingly took on a circus atmosphere with promotional gimmicks and giveaways becoming standard fare at Rickwood and across the minor leagues.
In the wake of the two-year hiatus on baseball in Birmingham, Glennon moved on to the general manager's position in Denver. Owner Albert Belcher began thinking about tearing down or selling Rickwood; by the end of 1965 negotiations between Belcher, the city of Birmingham and Jefferson County for the purchase of the field had reopened. Birmingham still contemplated using 1960 bond money for its purchase, but opinion remained divided inside City Hall, and Belcher's asking price of $450,000 was considered too high. After lengthy negotiations and continued motions by Belcher that he would liquidate the field, the City bought Rickwood on April 22, 1966 for $362,000.
Professional baseball remained absent from Rickwood for the 1966 season, but in 1967 the city lured Charlie Finley back to Birmingham, bringing a Double-A affiliate for his A's ballclub to town. From 1967 through 1970 the Birmingham A's thrived and Rickwood became home to the bonus babies of Birmingham29, the rising stars of Major League baseball.
Many of the players who formed the nucleus of Oakland's three consecutive World Series championships in the early 1970s passed through Rickwood on their way up to the big leagues. Future stars included Vida Blue, Reggie Jackson, Gene Tennace, and Joe Rudi. For older fans at Rickwood, Vida Blue with his hummer fastball and weak curve surely recalled images of a lanky right-hander who made news in 1927 - Satchel Paige.
Minor League baseball entered a new era after the 1960s and, though it survived the onslaught of televised baseball, in its revised form winning ballgames became the least of team owners' concerns. Places like Birmingham served primarily as developmental centers for major league prospects. Minor league teams, including the Barons, had always carried affiliations with major league clubs as far back as the days at the "slag pile", but by the late 1960s the corporate culture of baseball had superseded the 'play' element of the game.30 Once the bonus babies moved on, the A's fortunes plummeted. From 1971 to 1974 the A's finished in the cellar each season. Total attendance for 1974 was around 20,000; for 1975 about 30,000. On September 5, 1975, though uncertain at that time, professional baseball at Rickwood once again ignominiously came to an end as 705 fans watched the A's pull out a dramatic ninth inning come-from-behind 4- 3 victory. Columnist Wayne Martin, writing for the Birmingham News in July 1973 reflected on the demise of baseball at Rickwood Field: "The major emotion is disbelief that in this city once so baseball crazy, so few people now even care." The big crowds at Rickwood were reserved for rock concerts and circuses (and even the rock concerts were later banned for violating noise ordinances). The further corporatization of baseball, the ability to drive to Atlanta for major league baseball, and the rising popularity of football and basketball among young people all combined to work against baseball at Rickwood.
In the late 1970s Rickwood continued as the site of local college and high school baseball and football games. In 1978 "professional" baseball made a brief return to Rickwood in the form of the Freedom League, a four-team division composed primarily of recent college players who did not stay in the major/minor league circuit. The Alabama club carried the Barons moniker but after three days of undefeated play before 2,400 fans the club and the league folded and Rickwood became idle once again. In 1979-80, plastic seats replaced the deteriorating wooden chairs acquired from the old Polo Grounds in New York and installed at Rickwood in 1964. The lighting system was upgraded once more as speculation mounted that a minor league franchise would soon set up in Birmingham. In 1981 Art Clarkson brought professional baseball back to Rickwood when he started a franchise in the expanded Southern League.
Minor league baseball in the 1980s faced many of the same questions and challenges the major leagues had encountered in the 1960s. The game had moved into an age of increased commercialization, luxury boxes, diamondvision scoreboards, and an explosion of assorted American kitsch. The old, now classic ballparks like Rickwood appeared to have outlived their 'utility'. Cloaked behind talk about poor plumbing, leaky roofs, and poor parking facilities, Clarkson and others used the code words that, in the face of direct evidence, obviously implied their fear that fans would not travel to watch baseball in a Black neighborhood.32 The simple fact became, no matter how good the attendance, or how successful the ballclub, professional baseball was going to leave the West End, quite possibly forever.