Lost Americana is going a bit off the topic from looking at fading small rural towns, for a brief few posts to explore the few remaining old ballparks in America.
America's oldest baseball stadium Rickwood Field is a must visit for any baseball purist and fan of Americana.
The Cubs’ Wrigley Field (1914) in Chicago and the Red Sox’s Fenway Park (1912) in Boston have become bucket list items for most baseball fans to visit. Often making getting a ticket for even a less popular opponent either hard, or at the very least expensive.
Yet with the exception of those two stadiums, no other Major League venue comes close to being as old. Dodger’s Stadium is the third oldest MLB stadium, and it was built in 1962. However, if you take a step back you’ll realize that baseball has been played and attended in small towns and semi-pro leagues since around the time of the Civil War, you may ask yourself what about minor league and college stadiums? Are there any older than Wrigley & Fenway? And the answer you’d most likely get is Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama.
Nestled on the edge of a residential neighborhood, Rickwood was built in 1910 and modeled after the Pittsburg Pirates’ Forbes Field, which itself was completed in 1909, Rickwood started as the home of the Birmingham Coal Barons, who are now known as just the Birmingham Barons (briefly the Birmingham A’s). The stadium was also home to the Negro League team the Birmingham Black Barons, as well as a spring training site for a few teams in the 1910s & 1920s.
Sadly Rickwood hasn’t had a full-time home team since 1987 when the Barons relocated to the suburb of Hoover. The stadium is currently owned by the city of Birmingham, but is managed by a nonprofit called The Friends of Rickwood.
Ironically, the Barons are on their second new stadium since leaving as they moved back to Birmingham to play at newly constructed Regions Field, built in 2013. However in a nod to the history of baseball in Birmingham, the Barons play one home game a year at Rickwood, usually referred to as the Rickwood Classic. The team and the umps don retro uniforms for an actual regular season game, this year’s potential opponents is the Chattanooga Lookouts June 8th. Those uniforms and some equipment are then donated to the Friends of Rickwood and sold for fundraising.
There are other chances to see baseball at Rickwood as the stadium is host to amateur games, a police game, occassional semi-pro games and an annual tournament called Play at the Plate Baseball featuring four adult teams from across the country.
Rickwood has some other cool little bits of baseball history besides just being old. In 1964 when the Polo Grounds, former home of the New York Giants was demolished, the general manager of the Barons purchased 1,000 seats from them and had them installed at Rickwood.
Of course standing on the field at Rickwood puts your shoes in the same spot as Reggie Jackson (1967) & Rollie Fingers (1968-69) who were both Birmingham A’s. Sorry NBA great Michael Jordan who briefly took up playing baseball with the Barons did so in in 1994, seven years after the Barons left Rickwood. However, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Dizzy Dean all made on field appearances according to Rickwood Field web site. Most likely in exhibition or barn storming games. The Black Barons’ Satchell Paige & Willie Mays round off the legends of baseball who stepped onto the field regularly at Rickwood.
Luckily it can be pretty easy to step onto that field yourself these days. The stadium is typically open to the public on week days from 9am-4pm. There was no admission fee when I went, but you can make a donations at select spots there. The main entrance is gated, but a large gate on the west side of the field was the way to get in on my visit. You can find folded maps for a self guided tour if you head under the grandstands.
Things you don’t want to miss and might make a good photo op:
- The painted pennants on the north side of the stands.
- Outfield scoreboard
- the bunker like dugouts
- vintage advertisements in the outfield
- the chalkboard lineup and vintage photos
- the classic refreshment & souvenir stands
- and of course a chance to run the bases
There was at least one caretaker manning the stadium when I was there, he was hanging out in a gift shop that stands apart from the grandstands on the west side of the field. That’s where you’re able to purchase some of the throwback jerseys and posters they sell.
If you really want to see Rickwood in person, but just can’t make it, start searching your favorite streaming services and see if you can find the movies Cobb, Soul of the Game, or “42”. Parts of them were filmed at Rickwood.
Vincent D. Johnson
When he’s not looking for Lost Americana down the rural roads of America, Vincent D. Johnson loves taking in a baseball game.