When Baseball Was King
On the eve of this year’s Rickwood Classic, an interview with former Birmingham resident Allen Barra, whose latest book is about Rickwood Field.
By Allen Barra
W.W. Norton & Company, 346 pages, $28Wall Street Journal sports columnist and author Allen Barra (The Last Coach: A Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant and Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee, among others) has written a fascinating history of Birmingham’s Rickwood Field. Rickwood Field: A Century in America’s Oldest Ballpark is an engaging account of the role baseball played in defining race relations as Birmingham came of age. Barra weaves in little-known details of the city’s history without straying far from the sport at hand.
It was common for former slaves from Alabama’s central regions to relocate to North Birmingham, where work could be found in mines and steel mills. They soon began to play on company baseball teams in industrial leagues. Decades later, those teams became the primary source of talent for the Birmingham Black Barons, a professional team active in the Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1960. Not long after organizing the Black Barons, owner Rick Woodward, who built Rickwood Field in 1910, realized the economic merit of having black teams play at his stadium. Thus, the Black Barons would play there when the all-white Birmingham Barons team was on the road. (Woodward also rented the ballpark to the Ku Klux Klan for rallies.)
Readers will be surprised to learn that Chicago’s Abe Saperstein, the owner and coach of the Harlem Globetrotters, was also part owner of the Birmingham Black Barons. One of the Black Barons’ most memorable stars, Piper Davis, was hired by Saperstein to be a Globetrotter when not playing baseball. Davis recalls the relationship between white fans at Rickwood and the black players. “It was kind of funny, the way the white fans would cheer us on in the ballpark and then ignore us everywhere else. I don’t necessarily mean treat us badly, I just mean that on the field we were entertainers, and off the field it was almost like we were invisible.”
In 1946, Eddie Glennon was hired as general manager of the Birmingham Barons. He put an end to Klan rallies at Rickwood Field and allowed the Black Barons to use the locker room and shower facilities, which had formerly been off-limits to them. They had previously been forced to dress on the team bus or in the tunnels leading from the locker rooms to the playing field.
The book includes many pages of memories from those who passed through Rickwood Field, players and fans alike. Movie director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Tin Cup) filmed 1994′s Cobb at the ballpark, casting Tommy Lee Jones as the hot-headed Ty Cobb, who retired from the game in 1928. Shelton writes of his biggest dilemma, which concerned race, ironically: “The biggest problem, though, and this was really awkward for us, was in finding enough white people to show up for the crowd scenes. The crowds were segregated back then, and we couldn’t very well advertise, ‘White people only.’ We hit on a great solution—Jimmy Buffett was a friend, and he wanted to do a cameo in the film, so we gave him the part of the amputee who was heckling Cobb so bad that Cobb went into the stands after him. Jimmy agreed to give a concert, and I don’t know how to say this, but we figured he wasn’t going to draw too many black people. We asked the crowd who showed up to come back as extras in the baseball scenes. And it worked.”
This year’s annual Rickwood Classic will be played on June 2, celebrating the ballpark’s centennial. Barra will be in Birmingham in August for several book-signing events. He is currently writing a book about the parallel lives of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Black & White spoke with Barra from his New Jersey home, where he had a few choice words to say about Mays.
Black & White: What’s your favorite memory of Rickwood Field?
Allen Barra: Going out there with my mother on several occasions. She took me to a game in 1968 or ’69. It was Mickey Mantle’s last year or next-to-last year, and we saw a Yankees/Red Sox exhibition. Carl Yastrzemski was still playing.
Do you prefer day or night games?
I remember in 1967 at school in Mountain Brook, they let us listen to some of the Cardinals/Red Sox [World Series] over the P.A., and it was communal. There’s something about the game being on during the day. If it was an important game, it was on car radios or transistor radios everywhere; it brought everybody together. I know more money is made when they televise them at night in prime time, but it’s a shame for there to be so many games at night, because it becomes just one more form of entertainment. How did baseball survive for so long? People always found ways to get off work. I want all the games to be during the day, but it would be nice if they even played half then.
There have been a couple of movies filmed at Rickwood, including the Ty Cobb story.
Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed Cobb, is a friend of mine. My favorite story about Rickwood was when Tommy Lee Jones and Roger Clemens [cast as an opposing pitcher] were insulting each other while filming a scene. Clemens was throwing about 85 miles an hour. And he threw one under Tommy Lee’s chin. These guys were really getting into their parts, you know? And Tommy Lee couldn’t wear a batting helmet, because they didn’t wear batting helmets back then. One of the assistants said to Shelton, “What do we do if he throws another one like that but five miles an hour faster and hits Jones in the head?” Shelton mumbled, “Then we’re shooting The Ray Chapman Story.” [Chapman was the only batter ever killed by a pitched ball, in 1920, some 30 years before batting helmets were required.]
There were Major League exhibition games at Rickwood in the 1950s that had white and black players playing together, right?
I was shocked to find out that the 1954 games between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Milwaukee Braves were in direct defiance of Bull Connor’s edict that forbade any sporting event—even dice throwing, I think—that involved blacks and whites. Everybody looked the other way and said, “Well, Bull’s not here, we’re just going to let this happen.” And I think, also, they didn’t want to get in trouble with the big leagues and have big league teams stop playing there. There wasn’t much they could do about it because all the big league teams, just about, were integrated by then.
I love the way you weave Birmingham’s history into the Rickwood Field story.
I didn’t realize that Birmingham was specifically started in 1871, and baseball was there at the same time that the city was founded, so they grew up together. I didn’t realize that Birmingham was mostly a baseball town for a long, long time. And then things started to sink in the late ’50s and early ’60s as far as minor league and Negro League baseball. In the ’30s and ’40s, football popularity was confined mostly—not exclusively, but mostly—to people that went to college.
Regarding the memories that players and others share in the book, were most of the players cooperative?
The only person that was totally uncooperative to me was Willie Mays. I made all sorts of overtures, I kept calling his representative, and they said, “Oh, he’s not available.” So I used some notes that I took in 2006 at the Rickwood Classic. It was freezing that day. I tried to interview him and made the mistake—the second time in 20 years—of asking him about his lack of involvement with the civil rights movement. And did he regret that? And he said, “I don’t got to tell you a fu**ing thing about the civil rights movement!” Painting this image of him now as a kindly, old ambassador for baseball? Willie has been something of a jerk for, like, 30 years. I don’t know why, and it’s a shame, it’s sort of destroyed the image. I grew up in a Willie Mays household. It was getting up every day and checking the box scores to see how Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle did. The book I’m working on now is called Mickey and Willie. I really believe that no two professional athletes will ever be loved as Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were in the ’50s and ’60s. &