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Rickwood Field: A Century in America

By: Allen Barra
Reviewed by: Bill Plott
W. W. Norton Company, 2010
$27.95, Hardcover

What a spectacular year for the descendants of A. H. “Rick” Woodward. The Birmingham industrialist, Birmingham Barons owner, and builder of historic Rickwood Field was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Alabama Sportsman this spring. Now, here is a centennial history of the team and the ballpark.

Rickwood Field, patterned after Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and Shibe Park in Philadelphia, was among the first steel and concrete stadiums. Both of those major league parks are long gone but Rickwood remains—the oldest ballpark in America still in use.

Allen Barra, a notable sports author and Birmingham native, has put together a quite readable history of Woodward, the ballpark, and the rich baseball history that transcends the past century.

There is the obligatory recounting of the great Dizzy Dean-Ray Caldwell duel in the 1931 Dixie Series, arguably the greatest game in Barons and Southern Association history, and the exploits of colorful, troubled Jimmy Piersall. He defuses a popular Babe Ruth legend (i.e., a home run ball landing in a railroad car) but, perhaps, perpetuates one with Satchel Paige. Contrary to Barra’s narrative, Paige’s own recollections, and other accounts, he did not beat the Black Barons the first time he faced them. In fact, Paige was the losing pitcher in a 13-9 game at Chattanooga. In his first appearance at Rickwood he was beaten 3-2 in eleven innings.

But Barra offers a much broader scope of Rickwood highlights. His narrative on the trials of civil rights and integration, the showmanship of Charlie Finley and Art Clarkson, the exhibition games with major league clubs, and the struggles with City Hall that ultimately led to the building of the Hoover Met (now Regions Park) makes for lively history and good reading.

Also, there is a deserved tribute to the Friends of Rickwood (FOR), the support group formed in 1992 that unquestionably is responsible for the ballpark still standing today. In fact, the first appendix is FOR Executive Director David Brewer’s essay on the group’s history.

Indeed, the extensive appendices are a highlight of the book. Barra’s 1987 interviews with Piper Davis are fascinating in Appendix 2. Appendix 3 is a series of oral histories from sportswriters, fans, and baseball greats such as Bob Veale, Walt Dropo, Reggie Jackson, and, yes, even Piersall. Appendix 4 is a look at other venerable minor league ballparks.

There is a nice juxtaposition of Barons and Black Barons experiences, albeit with an occasional disconcerting research flaw, particularly regarding the Black Barons. For example, references to Willie Mays and Piper Davis attending Fairfield High School in the 1940s. No black person attended that school in those years. Blacks attended Fairfield Industrial High School, which has a proud and active nationwide alumni association.

Barra’s effort makes a good bookend to Good Wood, Ben Cook’s memoir about the old ballpark. Aug 2010

Bill Plott is a freelance journalist in Montevallo.

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