Caple: Rickwood Field a Nod to an Earlier Era

Photo gallery: Rickwood Field

The only things missing from Birmingham's Rickwood Field are players emerging from a cornfield and James Earl Jones talking about the glories of baseball. Not that you really need Jones; the park speaks pretty eloquently on its own.

In an age when we knock down historic, beloved ballparks and spend $500 million (or more) to build retro-stadiums designed to make us fondly remember the old ones we just destroyed, Rickwood Field provides a welcome lesson.

If you preserve it, they will come, too.

The oldest ballpark in America, Rickwood Field has connected generations of ballplayers and fans as surely as a 6-4-3 double play for the past century.

Heck, the park was nearly 40 years old when Willie Mays, who grew up nearly within a Vic Wertz home run of home plate, played here with the Negro League Black Barons. And Mays might not even be the best hitter to ever step to the plate here.

Thanks to decades of minor league and Negro League ball, barnstorming tours and exhibition games between teams heading north from spring training, half the Hall of Fame's membership, including Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Ted Williams, likely played at least one game here.

About the only player of note who missed out was Michael Jordan, whose tenure with the AA Birmingham Barons was in 1994, more than six years after the team moved to nearby Hoover Stadium and two years before they began returning for the annual Rickwood Classic. The ballpark probably would have been destroyed then, except for one bit of financial fortune: The city didn't have the money to tear it down.

Fortunately, some fans had a better idea. Why not preserve the stadium as a piece of living history? And so that is what the Friends of Rickwood did, raising $2 million in cash, labor and supplies, then pouring countless hours of sweat and love into returning the park to its former glory.

Thanks to the Friends of Rickwood, the 97-year-old stadium is a community treasure and national gem. It is a real city park, open to everyone to visit every day and available to rent out for games. More than 200 high school, college and amateur games a year are played here. And one day each summer, the Barons return to play a Southern League rival in the Rickwood Classic.

I was on hand for the 11th annual Rickwood Classic in 2006. The 12th Classic (Web site) is scheduled May 30. The Barons take on the Jacksonville Suns. The first pitch is set for 12:35 p.m.

It makes you grateful someone had the foresight to save this park in north-central Alabama. And angry that no one did before turning the wrecking balls loose on Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds and Comiskey Park.

"The Friends of Rickwood said this is a treasure that needs to be saved," said the group's director, David Brewer. "We think it's a project worth doing. It's become both a cultural and economic asset to the city.

"The story of the park is more than just about baseball. It's about community identity and civic pride. It has a role in the civil rights story, too, with Negro League baseball and the segregated sections."

No kidding. Bull Connor, who turned the fire hoses on civil rights marchers in 1963, once broadcast games from here.

Built in 1910, Rickwood is only two years Fenway Park's senior, but it feels much older. So much older, in fact, that you could imagine Julio Franco playing here as a rookie. The emerald stadium is in superb condition; there is air conditioning in the clubhouses and wireless in the press box. But walk through its turnstiles and the year could be 1954, 1942 or 1925 for all you know.

The low grandstand stretches gracefully to the outfield corners. Depression-era advertisements fill the outfield fences. The park has such a vintage look it was used for the movie "Cobb." How old-school is this park? There is even a Burma-Shave sign.

"The ultimate compliment we get," said Coke Matthews, one of Rickwood's 1,200 official friends, "is when an older fan or player visits and says, 'It hasn't changed a bit.'"

Well, not every player said that. In a rare return to Rickwood a while back, Mays took one look at the field and asked, "Why did you move the scoreboard?"

Mind you, the scoreboard (hand-operated, of course), had been shifted all of four feet. Willie can be a tough man to please.

Two-time All-Star pitcher and Birmingham native Bob Veale threw in Forbes Field, Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium. Yet he is so devoted to this little Southern ballpark that when it was being renovated, he personally spent a couple of afternoons working on the mound with a shovel and a pick to make sure it was just right. Veale's a beauty.

Local sportswriter Ben Cook was selling copies of his loving tribute to the stadium, "Good Wood," at last season's Classic, with some proceeds going to the park's upkeep. I was talking to him when Veale started working on me.

"Did you come here with anyone else from ESPN? Do you have any friends with you? Any friends where you live? Don't tell me you have a lot of friends, because that's bull----. But you must have some."

Well, a few.

"Do they have any birthdays coming up? Or graduation? Christmas?"

I suppose.

"Wouldn't that book make a great present? Maybe you should buy a couple books."

I already bought one.

"I can see that. ESPN makes all that money and you can only buy one book?"

Well …

"I'm not talking to you until you buy a couple more."

I dug into my wallet again. My brother-in-law would get a birthday present. Rickwood would get another light bulb.

Not that I would be willing to install it. The stadium light standards are a strange, cantilever design, hanging out from the grandstand as if peering over the roof for a better look. "No one would build lights like that. They defy gravity," Matthews said. "They were out of fashion when they installed them in 1931."

Yet, they've been there for almost eight decades. Not even Hurricane Katrina could blow them down.

Of course, there is one very significant departure from the old days. There no longer are segregated sections. In fact, the seats of honor behind home plate for the Rickwood Classic went to a group of former players known as the Negro League Legends.

"A year ago we had 33 Negro League Legends," Clayton Sherrod said. "This year it's 21. That lets you know how fast we're losing them."

Bull Connor may have been the voice of the Barons, but these men are the true voice of Rickwood Field. Over the course of an inning or two, Sherrod and former outfielder James Jake Sanders described the old days at Rickwood.

Renowned as a chef with his own catering company, Sherrod was a batboy for the old Black Barons and said he personally handed Louisville Sluggers to the Say Hey Kid. "Other than being inducted into the Academy of Chefs, coming out here and being a batboy was the proudest day of my life," he said.

Sanders played for several teams in the Negro Leagues, as well as in the Dodgers farm system. He still was playing ball into his 50s, until a wicked ground ball struck him in an eye socket and blinded him in one eye. He jokes that he could still hit despite the injury.

"I could always hit. I was like Ichiro," Sanders said. "I would slap that ball around, and I could flat-out run."

While he endured dreadful bus trips in the Negro Leagues — his team once was stranded on the side of the road after the bus broke down in South Carolina — he also played in several major-league parks.

"When I walked through the tunnel at Yankee Stadium, it was so beautiful that I just fell down on the grass and started rolling and rolling," he said. "I got up and walked out to the monuments. I didn't want to play the game; I just wanted to take in the beauty of Yankee Stadium."

There was a lot of that feeling going around. Despite the midday heat, an announced crowd of 4,704 had gathered for the game … and a trip back to another era.

The "Tennessee Waltz" played on the loudspeaker. Children sold snow cones at a concession stand. The smell of hot dogs wafted through the stadium. The Barons wore pinstriped flannels. And worries melted away within minutes of walking into the deep-green grandstand, though perhaps it really just was sweat rolling down the back from the 100-degree heat.

The Tennessee Smokies scored a run in the second and another in the fourth. But each time the Barons came back to tie the game, then won on a sacrifice fly in the ninth inning, turning Barons reliever B.J. LaMura into the winning pitcher.

"I love everything about Rickwood," he said. "Just the smell of this ballpark is different than the others. You can smell the hot dogs here and you don't get that anywhere else. You can really feel the energy of the park."

As soon as the players left for the clubhouses, the fans poured onto the field. They ran the bases, posed on the mound, wandered the outfield and drank in the ballpark as if it was a refreshing lemonade.

"Sometimes I come out here to sit in the stands even when there isn't a game," said John Harmon, who watched games here as a boy in the 1930s and 1940s. "I don't know why. I guess I just like to look at it."

He doesn't need to explain. I understood. The wrecking ball couldn't destroy Rickwood. Katrina couldn't, either. It remains as it has been for nearly a century — an emerald retreat where you want to take a bat or roll on the grass or just sit behind home plate and look out at the field and beyond.

Even with just one good eye, if you squint long enough you can make out Mays running full speed with his back to the plate as he chases down a fly ball.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His Web site is back up at a slightly different address, jimcaple.net, with more installments of 24 College Avenue. In addition to his book "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," his new book with Steve Buckley titled "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans" is now on sale.

(If you have a sports travel-related question or tip, write to the Road Warrior and Jim will try to answer it.)

Photo gallery: Rickwood Field | Note: All photos by Kenny Smith