How The Friends Of Rickwood (Field) Brought MLB To Birmingham (2024)

How The Friends Of Rickwood (Field) Brought MLB To Birmingham (1)

This is the second in a series of articles about Rickwood Field and MLB’s Salute to the Negro Leagues, which was held from June 18-20, 2024. The first article can be found here.

Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama opened its doors in 1910 as the home to the Coal Barons baseball club (eventually shortened to the “Barons”). In 1920, the Black Barons took up residence at the ballpark, playing on alternate Sundays and when the white team was on the road.

As previously reported, for years Rickwood didn’t just host baseball games. The park’s owner, A.H. “Rick” Woodward, rented the stadium to any group willing to pay a rental fee. As such, the park saw college football games, the circus, a women’s suffrage march, and a full-throated KKK rally, with 7,000 hooded members traipsing across the field.

Rickwood has a storied history going back more than a century. However, no professional team has called Rickwood “home” since 1987. By the early 1990s, the stadium stood vacant and decrepit. There was genuine fear in the community that the relic had a wrecking ball in its future.

Around that time, a group of gentlemen who lived in and around Birmingham, and/or who had previously played high school baseball on that famous field, formed a group called “Friends of Rickwood” (FOR), in an effort to stave off destruction, and potentially bring the park back to its old glory.


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FOR began conversations with the city, and set out to raise funds to get the stadium back in working order. As luck would have it, around the same time, a filmmaker named Ron Shelton was looking for an old-time park to film his biography of the alleged racist, and former all-time hit leader, Ty Cobb.

Wormhole Whenever anyone from Hollywood shows up in a small town, the citizens get excited. The glitz and glamour are like magnets for attention and dollars, and with that heightened enthusiasm, FOR was able to raise enough money to get Rickwood prepared to serve as the main shooting location for Cobb.

Unfortunately, when the cameras left town, so too did the ardor for keeping Rickwood in playing shape. The city either didn’t have the funds or the desire, so FOR stepped in. They leased the park from Birmingham, hired an executive director and a board of directors, and got to work.

In short order Rickwood was hosting high school baseball games, as well as 30-40 adult ballgames every year. The University of Alabama-Birmingham called Rickwood home until they built their own stadium, as did Miles College, an HBCU located in town (which, it should be noted, previously conferred an honorary degree to Birmingham’s own Willie Mays).

Around 1996, another movie company came calling. The producers of a documentary about the Negro Leagues sought out Rickwood to film Soul of the Game. That rental kept FOR afloat, and gave the organization the ammunition needed to get the city of Birmingham to agree to an annual stipend to keep Rickwood fully functioning.

FOR was constantly on the look-out for more events to burnish the park’s reputation and to keep their coffers full. In 1996, FOR began a roughly 20-year run of the Rickwood Classic, where the Birmingham Barons – the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox – would play one “turn back the clock” game per year at the park to honor the history of baseball in Birmingham. This continued until 2017-2018, when the stadium had to be closed to repair structural issues.

The 2020 season was lost to Covid, and in 2021, MLB took over the minor leagues. MLB officials toured all the minor league parks, and determined that Rickwood was not up to snuff for a Double-A team. This was a huge setback for FOR, as they relied on the income from the Rickwood Classic each year to balance its budget.

However, 2021 was equally propitious, as MLB announced it would hold a “Field of Dreams” game in Dyersville, Iowa, where the movie of the same name was filmed. When FOR Executive Director Gerald Watkins, Jr. heard that news, his wheels started to turn. In March of that year, he began his outreach to MLB. If they could play a big league game in a cornfield, they could play one in America’s oldest stadium.

With the help of a friend in the Braves organization, Watkins was able to arrange a meeting with MLB officials in October, 2021. And two months later, those officials came to Birmingham to see if such a game would be feasible. The league did some surveys and told FOR what changes would need to be made for MLB to even consider what, at that time, seemed like an audacious idea.

FOR went to work, and subsequently convinced MLB they could make Rickwood MLB ready. Mr. Watkins received a call during All-Star weekend in 2022 wherein the league said it was a go. Like the proverbially dog who caught the car, FOR now had to get into gear. They may have made some promises to people in New York that they down south didn’t have the funds to fulfill.

FOR immediately reached out the city of Birmingham, who quickly pledged $5.5 million to refurbish the field and for various safety measures (see below). The Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau also contributed, knowing the boon a week of baseball events would be for the city. And six major corporations – Alabama Power, Regions Bank, Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Alabama, Protective Life Insurance, Encompass Health, and ACIPCO, collectively chipped in roughly $650,000. The icing on the cake was the Jefferson County Commission, who pledged a quarter of a million dollars to make sure this event went off without a hitch. With all of these donors on board, FOR was in a position to make the Salute to the Negro Leagues happen.

In October, 2023, FOR began construction. The funds they raised were utilized to paint the park, improve the bathrooms, and make other aesthetic repairs. In-kind contributions from Sherwin-Williams, Vulcan Materials Company, and Protective Coverings, Inc. helped to keep the project on-budget.

The biggest issue, of course, was to make sure that the field itself was major league quality. That is where the city’s contribution made all the difference. The first order of business was removing two feet of playing surface, and then installing MLB-level grass (known as Tahoma 31, which was grown in Cartersville, Georgia) and specialized dirt (shipped in from Pennsylvania). The irrigation and drainage systems needed to be replaced, padding had to be added to the outfield walls, and netting installed from foul pole to foul pole. And then the old dugouts had to be demolished and replaced with larger and safer versions for the Giants, the Cardinals, and everyone who comes after them.

Construction rolled into the new year, thus forcing Ramsey High, Carver High, and Jackson-Olin High, all of whom play their home games at Rickwood, to relocate for their 2024 seasons. By all accounts, the schools and the players took this displacement in stride, knowing that when everyone left town, they would get to play in a genuine big league park.

Once this work was in process, MLB came in to build all the infrastructure for the fan plaza, which hosted events and concessions for the week of events, as well as an MLB-sized batter’s eye. And, no professional baseball game is complete without a Jumbotron, so MLB installed one in right field.

With Rickwood ready for prime time, FOR hosted a minor league game between the Birmingham Barons and Montgomery Biscuits on Tuesday, June 18th. Then there was the celebrity softball game on Wednesday, pitting the “Say Heys” against the “Hammers.” These two events were the prelude to Thursday night’s Salute to the Negro Leagues, which included honoring 60 former Negro League players on the field, a tribute to the recently-deceased Willie Mays, and a game between the Giants and the Cardinals.

It was a proud week for Watkins and every member of FOR. It was a proud week for the city of Birmingham, and all of its denizens. And it was a proud week for the Rising-West Princeton neighborhood, where Rickwood is located. RWP is low-income area, which has its share of crime and the same types of issues that afflict other small communities within larger cities. But, the citizens, the city, and the county all worked together to plan and execute a perfect week of remembrances, celebrations, and baseball.

FOR made sure to include the residents of RWP in all of its planning, and in the lead up to the festivities, FOR hosted a neighborhood clean-up, and then hired about 250 locals to serve as ushers, docents, sanitation workers, cart drivers, and additional security. When community members were interviewed by local news stations in the days after the events, there were no complaints or naysayers. Although there were some rumblings about the city’s outlay of $5.5 million to help bring the Salute to “Magic City,” they were no louder nor more pronounced than any other budget battles in any other city. By all accounts, the community fully embraced the event.

Mr. Watkins, who was born and raised in Birmingham and has never left, stated that it was the “most friendly and upbeat crowds” he has ever witnessed. He went on to say that “the MLB game and the game-week activities were the best things to happen to Birmingham in many years.” And, on a personal level, he believes that “the country got a new look at” his hometown, and he “couldn’t have been more proud.”

Since the teams and the dignitaries left town, Mr. Watkins has been deluged with calls, emails, and texts asking him to bring the game back. This writer personally witnessed Negro League Hall of Fame President Bob Kendrick make the same request to him in person. Buster Olney of ESPN has repeated that desire, as have many other members of the baseball media. Of course, the final decision lies with MLB. In an interview after the Salute, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle (and the co-author of Willie Mays’ biography), “We’re going to be back in Birmingham at some point,” which makes another game at Rickwood seem like a foregone conclusion.

In order to make certain that Rickwood is up to the task to host again, FOR spent $279,000 on specialized equipment for field maintenance, including watering, cutting, and irrigating the field on a regular basis. And, despite Rickwood Field’s long history of being available to anyone willing to write a check, FOR has elected to make the park “99% baseball only.” They do have a wedding scheduled, and they rent the park out for corporate events, like a local law firm’s “lackluster version of softball.” But all other events – baseball camps, travel ball tournaments, and home run derbies – must maintain the integrity of the high-quality, heavily-invested, Major League-used playing surface.

It took a few days for the contractors to dismantle what the Rickwood Field fans saw in person and viewers saw on television. The major league quality lights were portable and removed. The fan plaza was taken apart and taken away. A crane removed the Jumbotron in right field, but MLB did leave the scaffolding, which is a good sign for the future. MLB also left the custom-built batter’s eye.

But more than anything, MLB and Birmingham left an incredible impression on baseball fans the world over. Rickwood Field, with its 114 years of history, with the 182 Hall of Famers who have played between its lines, with its stories of racism and segregation and Willie Mays and Satchel Paige and countless others who have long been forgotten, still stands at the corner of 12th Street W and 2nd Avenue W in Birmingmam. Ghosts live in the concourses and visit the grandstands.

But, Rickwood only survives today because a group of baseball fans got together in the 1990s and put their sweat and their equity into an old ballpark in an effort to preserve that which they viewed as holy. And because of their commitment to their city’s past, to its present, and to its future, “The Mother Church of Baseball” was host to one of the most iconic nights in MLB history.

How The Friends Of Rickwood (Field) Brought MLB To Birmingham (2024)
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