Rickwood Field and The Negro Leagues Rickwood Field, Birmingham Alabama
Black people had been involved in amateur organized baseball from the time of the Civil War. The game gained popularity during the War as Blacks joined in on contests played by Union Army troops on the outskirts of their encampments. Participation in organized leagues was scattered among professional clubs in the North (the major leagues), integrated minor league and semi-pro clubs, and college teams such as those at Oberlin College and the University of Michigan. In the South, Blacks played largely on industrial teams sponsored by the coal mines and iron works in which they worked, and also on independent teams like C.I. Foster's Birmingham Giants club that operated from 1904 to 1912.
In 1920, legendary player and manager Rube Foster, who had fielded the highly successful Chicago American Giants independent team organized the Negro National League (NNL). By organizing into their own leagues Black teams avoided being at the mercy of white promoters and booking agents and could take more control over their scheduling and finances. No longer forced into competition with one another for exhibition matches and barnstorming schedules, clubs in the league could work in the interests of collective success. In the same year Foster organized the NNL, a group of Birmingham players organized a local all-star team and entered the Southern Negro League, Black baseball's equivalent to the minor leagues. The Black Barons opened their season at Rickwood Field and though there was some question as to whether they would return in 1921, they did, playing at Rickwood until the league folded in 1963.
Birmingham immediately became the hot spot of Southern Black baseball. Norman "Turkey" Stearnes, a renowned slugger from the 1920s and 1930s played with the Montgomery, Alabama Gray Sox in 1921 and commented years later, "We'd draw 10-15,000. Memphis was a good baseball town, but Birmingham was the best in the South." The Black Barons continued in the Southern Negro Leagues for four seasons before elevating to Foster's Negro National League in 1924. While the team faltered for its first two years and took a hiatus for 1926, they returned to the NNL in 1927 and garnered national attention, capturing the second-half division title on the strength of star players like Harry Solomon, Sam Streeter, and a young pitching phenomenon named Leroy "Satchel" Paige.
Many of the young stars were found in the industrial and mining teams, especially the strong clubs at ACIPCO and the Stockham Valve and Fitting Company, which served as the "co-mothers" of the Black Barons. The Black Barons had ample opportunity to scout these teams as they provided ready opponents during the exhibition season. Unfortunately for the Black Barons, star players were hard to hold on to as Northern teams offered more money and a more attractive lifestyle.
The 1920s have been dubbed a golden age of major league baseball and perhaps the same could be said of the Black major leagues. Though many records from the period are gone and memories have faded, baseball historians and enthusiasts concur that some of the all-time greats of the Negro Leagues were in their heyday during the twenties. It was also the era of the Harlem Renaissance and Black baseball became a powerful symbol of social, cultural, and in many ways political achievement and resistance. In many cities the local team might have been one of the largest Black-owned enterprises. These were large-scale operations that, despite the appearance of disarray, were tightly run organizations. Exhibition, regular season, and barnstorming schedules were planned well in advance of the upcoming season and often evolved into a regular circuit of games for each club. Being a ballplayer was perhaps one of the most lucrative occupations in the Black community, hence the competition to keep a roster spot proved challenging. The players, whether they liked it or not, became important ambassadors of the community, often held to the standards and expectations of a Black elite that sought to mimic white notions of respectability.
As author Donn Rogosin aptly writes, "There is more reason to pay attention to the Negro Leagues than merely to correct the injustice of an inherently unjust era." The Negro Leagues had a style of their own and Black players did not consume their time beating their heads against the wall over being banned from the "major leagues". As far as they were concerned they were in the major leagues. But the style of play in the two leagues differed. Unlike their white counterparts, Black managers did not emphasize the long ball as much as they did speed. Rube Foster, originator of the hit-and-run bunt, continued to influence play for twenty years, emphasizing that games were won on pitching and defense. On offense managers emphasized bunting, stealing, the hit-an-run, and the excitement of snagging an extra base on long shots to the outfield. Rickwood Field was well suited to precisely this style of play and the Black Barons surely tried to use the field to their advantage.
By playing on the same field it became easier to make comparisons between Black and white players and inevitably we can be sure they were made. Cross-over patronage was not uncommon at another teams' games. To debate who were the best players and who would have beaten who could run one in circles for years since they never played with or against one another. In fact, all baseball records before the 1950s are suspect since they were not set in an inclusive and unified league. It is futile to attempt to figure it out now. The one fact we can establish with certainty is that prior to 1967 Rickwood never fielded the best team that Birmingham had to offer.
Availability of Rickwood for the Black Barons was based on off days or away games for the Barons. Consequently, the Black Barons, like most Negro League teams, had fewer home appearances. While seating for Blacks at Barons games was restricted to the wooden bleachers and a portion of the grandstand in right field, for Black Barons games Blacks sat in the grandstands and whites sat in reserved seats along the third base line. But since segregation was a white institution and Rickwood was such a large setting, the racial lines at Black Barons games were more fluid and open than at Barons games.
The growth of the Black Barons, and of the Negro Leagues in general, probably benefitted from the migration streams of the 1920s. Urban centers like Birmingham became way stations in the multi-stage process of migration of formerly rural southern blacks to points in the Midwest. As the Black population grew, presumably fan support and player strength improved and the league prospered. In the North, white team owners recognized the strength and success of the Negro League teams and began playing exhibitions, all-star games, and barnstorming tours with Black teams in the remaining warm days following the World Series. In the South, or at least in Birmingham, presumably, this did not happen.
When the Depression hit the Negro Leagues struggled alongside everyone else. Having fallen under hard times, many National Negro League teams, particularly those on the East coast, turned increasingly to local numbers men and racketeers for financial support. Teams in the south and midwest found it difficult to compete against these forces and lost many top players in the process. Gus Greenlee, head of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, lured Sam Streeter and Jimmie Crutchfield away from the Black Barons. The Kansas City Monarchs, perhaps the most popular club on the circuit, barnstormed across North America during the early 1930s while other teams like the Black Barons, feeling the budget constraints, joined smaller regional leagues and barnstormed locally. In 1937 Abe Saperstein, owner and promoter of the Harlem Globetrotters, revitalized the Black Barons and joined the newly formed Negro American League (NAL) comprised of clubs in the South and the Midwest, most notably the highly successful and popular Kansas City Monarchs. His skillful promotion ushered in a new era in Black baseball.
The 1940s represented another high period in Negro League baseball as the Black Barons won the NAL pennant in 1943, 1944, and 1948. On each occasion, they lost the Negro World Series to the Homestead Grays, a powerful rival from the industrialized area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Negro World Series never attracted the kind of attention the annual major league East-West Ail-Star game at Comiskey Park garnered (a crowd of 30-35,000 was considered a poor turnout); consequently, the Negro World Series games were barnstormed across the country. Game six of the 1943 series was played at Rickwood and with Blues legend W.C. Handy in attendance the Black Barons' John Markham won a pitcher's duel, 1-0. However, they fell to the Grays in game seven played at Montgomery several days later, with a score of 8-4.
In addition to the regularly scheduled games the two teams barnstormed their way from Washington D.C. to New Orleans playing exhibition games all along the way. Since only one official game was scheduled at Rickwood they even played a Thursday afternoon exhibition game at Rickwood. The series was fraught with irregularities as teams used ineligible players (the Black Barons picked up Chicago catcher Ted Radcliffe along the way). Practices such as this generally left people in Birmingham dissatisfied. But the following season the Black Barons won both halves of the season title and the series opened at Rickwood Field before a crowd of 12,449. But the Black Barons were without the services of Johnny Britton, "Pepper" Bassett, and Leandy Young, all of whom had been in a car wreck a week earlier. The Barons quickly fell down 2-0 in games and by game three it became obvious the team could not win. Only 6,300 fans showed up at Rickwood to watch the team suffer a 9-0 one hit shutout.
The 1948 club won the first-half division crown and faced the Kansas City Monarchs, perennial fan favorite, in the NAL Championship Series. The series went to seven games with the most dramatic victory coming on Willie Mays' two out bases loaded, infield single in the bottom of the ninth that scored the winning run of game seven. That team was loaded with talent including player/manager Lorenzo "Piper" Davis, pitchers William Greason, William Powell and Joe Bankhead, catcher Lloyd "Pepper" Bassett, veteran outfielder Ed Steele, and Artie Wilson, mentor and friend to rising star Willie Mays.
Mays, a local from Fairfield Industrial High School joined the Black Barons out of high school and roamed center field till the 1950 season when he was purchased by the New York Giants for $15,000. It is no coincidence that Mays played with the Barons in 1948 and 1949, the two years they won the championship of the Negro American League. Black Barons owner Tom Hayes later gave $6,000 of that sum to Mays who, of course, went on to an illustrious Hall of Fame career and is classed by many as the greatest baseball player of all time.
The reintegration of Major League Baseball began in 1947 when the Brooklyn Dodgers acquired Jackie Robinson. For many Black owners, players, and fans the integration that ensued did not represent the vision many held when the Negro Leagues were first formed. The hope had been that Black-owned, Black-majority franchises would be able to enter the major leagues and compete on an equal level. White owners who were recalcitrant about admitting Robinson to the league were unlikely to permit Black teams to enter the league. But exactly who fought for desegregation and who stood in the way remains a murky issue. Some writers and fans in the late 1940s charged Black owners with being in collusion with white owners to keep baseball segregated. Black owners sought to preserve their terrain, fearful that, following integration, raiding parties would descend upon their teams, leaving behind the tattered remains of what had been top level baseball action. On one side stood considerations about the future of black baseball and black ownership of franchises, while on the other was the ability of individual Black players to earn a higher wage and reach their full potential. These were not necessarily conflicting forces but, based upon the recalcitrance of white owners toward desegregation, Black-owned membership in the major leagues seemed an impossibility. Of course in the end the owners' fears came true and the Negro Leagues slowly disappeared. In effect, baseball had desegregated but not integrated. Today few if any franchises attract Black fans to the ballpark in the multitudes once so common in the Negro Leagues, and baseball franchises still await the first Black owner.
The breaking of the "color line" in 1948 spelled doom for most of the Negro League teams. However, unlike Northern teams that had to compete with the major leagues for fan support, in Birmingham Black and white fans had no alternatives. The Black Barons continued to play at Rickwood until the Negro League folded in 1963. They served as a bargain-priced talent pool for major league owners who wanted to "season" young Black players before bringing them to the big leagues.
By 1951 the Black Barons began feeling the effects of desegregation as stars like native sons Willie Mays, Artie Wilson, and "Piper" Davis all made their way into the major leagues. The NAL dwindled to six teams and the Black Barons opened the season facing New Orleans before 3,554 fans. Attendance waned during the season though nearly 5,000 fans still turned out for the always attractive Indy Clowns visit to Rickwood, But the Black Barons would never again pack the park as they did during their heydays in the 1920s and 1940s. In late October Roy Campanella's all-stars came to town to face the NAL all-stars on "Willie Mays Night" at Rickwood. Shortly after the end of the season, Tom Hayes put the team up for sale after twelve years of ownership. In the 1950s the team moved through a series of owners, some white with Black frontmen, as they continued play in the hodgepodge league and circuit. Piper Davis became involved once again with the Black Barons following the end of his playing career. In 1958 the team won the NAL championship on a thirty-four game schedule. By 1963 the NAL ceased operations and the Birmingham Black Barons dissolved after over forty years of professional baseball.