It is hot in Alabama. Spitefully hot. Recent rains have turned the grassy parking area at Rickwood Field into beef stew.
I exit my truck and step directly into a mud hole that reaches clear up to my shins.
A guy in the parking lot says, “They didn’t pave parking lots a hundred years ago, and the folks at Rickwood are all about preservation.”
I enter the ancient ballpark with muddy shoes. I pass through the antique turnstiles. I visit the concession stand and order a Coke. And I fall backward in time by about 112 years.
Rickwood Field is the oldest professional ballpark in the United States. It is a small park, seating roughly 11,000. Being here feels like walking into a James Earl Jones monologue.
These stands were built when William Howard Taft was still sleeping in the master bedroom of the White House. This press box was getting nailed together while the Titanic was still being constructed.
Today, there is a travel-ball game being played, so the park is filled with parents wearing team T-shirts and tennis shoes. But I can’t see these people.
Instead, wherever I look I see ghosts in fedoras. Women in A-line dresses. Kids flat caps and knickers. I see handlebar mustaches, spats, watch fobs, and bags of penny peanuts.
I take a seat behind home plate. The sun is brutal. But the Coke is sweet enough to break your jaw. And I’m now living in 1910, the year before my grandfather was born. The year Halley’s Comet visited the earth.
The boys are warming up. Pitchers are loosening their arms. The outfield billboards feature classical ads from a former era. “Drink Pepsi 5¢.” “Try Coca-Cola—relieves fatigue.” “Budweiser—with meals and lunches.”
This park is located 7 miles from my front porch, and yet I’ve never visited it. In fact, many people in Birmingham have never even heard of this ballpark. When I asked people how to find it, nobody seemed to know what on earth I was talking about.
“Rickwood WHAT?” said the clerk at the gas station.
“Rickwood Field,” I said.
She shrugged. “Is that a NASCAR thing?”
It’s a shame. Because this ballfield is majestic. The monumental steel-frame light towers sit atop riveted cross beams that form the awning for the seating area. The folding seats are as old as the Polo Grounds.
This baseball park is wholly different from the modernized Disneyland stadiums of today. This place is gritty, worn out, and every surface is covered in pancake layers of patina.
“This whole park was put together using hot rivets,” says Randy Ferguson, a volunteer with the Friends of Rickwood, the non-profit that maintains this park.
Randy is a tall, white-haired man in a ballcap. He speaks with a thick Alabamian drawl and smiles a lot. He points hither and yonder, spouting off dates and random factoids. In 1931, this. In 1919, that.
Right now Randy is putting on a show for a group of travel-ball middle-school boys from Kansas City.
The boys are clad in all-white uniforms, stained with clay, wearing knee-high stirrups. Randy is letting them handle an antique Hillerich & Bradsby bat, the same kind Jackie Robinson used.
Randy says, “Raise your hand if you know who Jackie Robinson is.”
The boys unanimously raise their hands.
Which I find remarkable. These kids exist in an iPhone and TikTok generation. And yet everyone knows who Jackie is. Because that’s the thing about this sport, our history is sacred.
Randy lets the boys visit the locker rooms. He give them a peek into the preserved manager’s office. The boys smirk at the 1930s pinup calendar beside the roll top desk. The kids try on antique mitts. They weigh antiquated baseballs in their little hands.
When Randy walks the boys through the narrow tunnel leading to the infield, everyone falls silent. There is something about the energy here. Something is different. It’s as if we are now standing on holy ground.
“This tunnel,” says Randy, “is the same tunnel Willie Mays walked through. Raise your hands if you know who that is.”
All hands raise.
I touch the smooth tunnel walls, and I’m thinking about how Ty Cobb, Houns Wagner, Josh Gibson, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, and a guy named George Herman Ruth Jr. once stood right here.
They would have been dressed in traveling grays. Sweating in the Alabamian heat. Tightening the laces on their cleats.
Hank Aaron stretched his hamstrings in this corridor. So did Bo Jackson, Roy Campanella, and Mickey Mantle. Ray Caldwell, last of the spitballers stood here.
So did “Mister October,” “the Say Hey Kid,” Duke Snider, Lou Gehrig, and the miracle that was Ted Williams.
“This park our heritage,” Randy says to the kids. “This park is a snapshot of our nation’s history.”
He’s absolutely right, this place is America in a nutshell. This is our game. This is our culture. Baseball is as American as Abe Lincoln’s beard.
It’s national anthems on lazy afternoons. It’s brass bands playing Sousa. It’s hotdogs. It’s Red Barber, Vin Scully, and Harry Caray, Skip Caray, and Chip Caray. It’s our ancestry, our present, and our future. It’s Blacks and whites and Latinos and everyone who ever had the gall to hold a bat.
“Sad thing is,” Randy goes on, “you’d be surprised how many folks in Birmingham have never heard of Rickwood Field.
“That’s why I always say, the best thing anyone can do is tell your friends about this place. Don’t let history die. Tell everyone you know to come visit us.”
Well, Randy. I’m telling as many as I can.