Rickwood Field and Race Relations Rickwood Field, Birmingham Alabama

In the wake of the paradoxical combination of euphoria and hysteria that followed the post-war recession, life on the homefront returned to a seeming sense of normalcy. Living under the fear and uncertainty of the emerging Cold War, Americans much like the Romans cried out "Give us games" In 1948 the Barons drew a Southern League record 445,926 in attendance while finishing third in the league standings.

The Black Barons, deep in their heyday, won the Negro American League pennant from the Kansas City Monarchs in an exciting seven game series, as the fans continued to occupy their segregated seats. Thousands of Black people fought in World War II with the 'Double V ' slogan on their minds; soon the paradox of fighting fascism and racism abroad while maintaining segregation at home became too heavy a burden for America to carry. Nevertheless, across the United States, and particularly in Birmingham, the era of Jim Crow, which codified segregation by race, persisted.

joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Heralded across America, the breaking of the "color line" in baseball marked some of the first stirrings of the modern freedom struggle. As a corollary to this event the Negro League's popularity waned and teams began recruiting white players to fill roster spots. In July 1950, Chicago American Giants owner Dr. J.B. Martin signed two white players, Louis Chirban and Louis Clarize, both products of local Crane Technical High School. The following month on Sunday, August 6 the Chicago American Giants left their downtown hotel, boarded their bus and came to Rickwood in uniform ready to play a doubleheader with the Black Barons. The players entrance gate, normally open, was closed and two uniformed police officers stood waiting at the entryway. Louis Chirban, scheduled to start the first game of the doubleheader, manager Ted Radcliffe (a former Black Baron), and the rest of the team were stopped at the gate by officer John Purdy. They were informed that Chirban, Frank Dyll, and Stanley Miraka could not play at Rickwood against the Black Barons as it was a violation of City Ordinance 597. Furthermore, if they did not get out of uniform they would be arrested and thrown in jail. The game was delayed forty minutes and after some discussion, Chirban and the others returned to their hotel, changed clothes and returned to Rickwood where they watched the games from seats in the white reserved section along the third base line. The fans knew what had happened. In an interview a few days later by the Birmingham World, one player put it in simple terms, "Eventually racial barriers in athletics will be broken down."

The following month-presumably in response to this incident and the fact that technically the existing laws did not cover segregation in private parks-Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor amended section 597 of the City Ordinance to include the prohibition of Blacks and whites from playing sports, cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, or similar games together in any park or playground. But the issue would not go away. In 1953, with the Barons on the brink of making the Dixie Series where they would face the champion of the desegregated Texas League, moderates on the City Commission announced their intent to amend the ordinance. Mayor James Morgan acknowledged that section 597 was unconstitutional, and citing integrated play in numerous Southern cities in his motion, attempted to repeal the law. But in February 1954, attorney Hugh Lock, Sr., a crusty old dixiecrat segregationist, challenged the Commission ruling and called for a city-wide referendum on the issue. A ballot date was set for June 1, 1954, just two weeks before the vote the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. Bd. of Education (1954) decision rescinding the doctrine of "separate but equal". By June 1 the vote effectively became a referendum on the court ruling and went down to a resounding 3-1 margin of defeat (19,640 - 6,685). In response, Birmingham voters aligned their city laws to enforce segregation, and the moderates were subsequently voted out of office. The issue would not resurface till Autumn 1958.


Questions about the integration of the Southern Association dogged the league throughout the 1950s. In 1955 the New Orleans Pelicans started the exhibition season with five Black players on their roster but a week later, under pressure from the league, cut them from the team. Three years later, the Barons recaptured the Southern Association pennant for the first time in thirty-one years. As they awaited an opponent to emerge from the Texas League for the upcoming Dixie Series, City Ordinance 597 crept back into the picture. Both the Corpus Christi and Austin ballclubs, finalists in the Texas League championship, had Black players on their squads. Barons General Manager Eddie Glennon unequivocally stated that "we will not buck any city law and we will definitely play the Dixie Series here." Corpus Christi agreed to substitute white players for Black players in any games played at Rickwood. For some reason, perhaps pressure from League president George Trautman, the Austin club refused to make a similar deal. In a display characteristic of Birmingham's intransigence over race relations, Glennon went so far as to suggest Austin could substitute any player they desired to fill their rosters, "major leaguers, triple-A, anybody" and furthermore the Barons would pay half their salaries so long as the Black players did not don their uniforms while at Rickwood. The point became moot when Corpus Christi won the Texas League title in seven games. On September 26, 1958, Corpus Christi brought their club to Rickwood Field. Starting third baseman Bo Bossard, infielder Carl Dorsey, and one other reserve player remained at home in Corpus Christi.

The Barons could not escape the issue of integration, nor could the Southern Association or the City of Birmingham. Issues surrounding race relations coupled with dramatic changes in professional baseball, including the influence of television and monopolistic practices by major league owners, spelled doom for the Southern Association and the Birmingham Barons. By 1961 total attendance for the year bottomed out at 112,217, an average of fewer than 3000 fans per game. In late November the Barons announced they would not play integrated baseball and Rickwood shut down for the next two years. Albert Belcher, principal owner of the Barons and Rickwood, sought assurances from the fans that if baseball returned they would have to "accept the way it will have to be"; if not. Belcher would be forced to either sell the team or dismantle Rickwood Field. Though unsurprising that team owners could not be swayed by the social imperative behind integration, the economic argument did not sink in quickly. Black people boycotted Southern Association games with "Stay at Home" campaigns in all cities, including Birmingham, as the Barons, in the words of Birmingham World sports editor Marcel Hopson, "danced to the Jim Crow serenade."

As the 1961 season closed and the Barons withdrew from the Southern Association, concern about the fate of Rickwood Field mounted. In October 1961 Federal Judge H.H. Grooms declared the City Ordinance prohibiting integrated play unconstitutional. Despite that fact, Barons owner Belcher pulled the club out of the league and took a two year hiatus. Some proposed that a $350,000 city bond issue intended for the construction of new high school football facilities be transferred to the purchase and use of Rickwood. Following two seasons of suspended play and the tumultuous occurrences on the civil rights front in Birmingham during 1963, baseball returned to Rickwood for opening day 1964. From that point forward, baseball would be played "the way it had to be;" the Barons took the field in a new Southern League and under a new affiliation, Kansas City Athletic's colorful and controversial owner, Charlie Finley.

The 1964 Barons carried twenty-two players, four of whom the local press identified as "Negroes": pitcher Stan Jones, infielders Santiago Rosario and Berto Campaneris, and outfielder Luis Rodriguez. In reality, only Jones was an African American from nearby Bessemer, the other three were of hispanic origin; Campaneris was from Cuba, Rosario from Puerto Rico, and Rodriguez out of Venezuela. Hispanics and Native American Indians had been marginally admitted into white professional baseball since the early twentieth century. The opening day crowd topped 6,000. Eighteen years after Robinson reintegrated professional baseball, local sports columnist Benny Marshall carried Birmingham's chip on his shoulder as he chided the national media for ignoring Birmingham when it finally did the right thing. The Barons' integrated teams did well, ending the season in a tight pennant race. Due in large part to African-American fan support, attendance was good. But in 1965 they finished dead last and drew poorly at the gate all season long.

In 1967 the Oakland A's captured the Southern League pennant with several Black stars on the team, most notably future Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson. Professional baseball in Birmingham regained its popularity though never matching the attendance and excitement of the heydays of the 1920s and 1940s. A few years later fastballer and rising star Vida Blue arrived in Birmingham. Working with veteran catcher Elmo Plaskett and rising star Gene Tennace, the 20-year-old Blue threw fast and hard, worked on his control, and found easy work of the hitters at the double-A level. Only 374 fans turned out for Blue's debut, but he soon gained popularity as he compiled a 10-3 record and struck out 112 batters by the summer break. A product of Mansfield, Louisiana, Blue reflected his ambivalence about playing in Birmingham: "It was back to the boardinghouse routine. Birmingham is Alabama, and Alabama is the South and Vida Blue is black and southern towns aren't black men's towns... this was a strange town to me, and I didn't know it, I felt out of place here. It was alright. There were no incidents. I was pitching good, but I wasn't being put up for mayor." Blue left Birmingham by mid-season and less than two years later became a starter on the Oakland A's team, approaching twenty wins by the all-star break. Vida Blue then received the attention he deserved, gracing the cover of Time magazine at the age of twenty-two.