We came home feeling like we had witnessed baseball magic, a minor league extra innings nail biter in the oldest baseball stadium in the world. The news on the television when we walked in the door — that Ken Griffey Jr. had retired, coupled with subsequent live viewing of human frailty ruining Armando Galarraga’s perfect game? Well, we knew it was one of those Field of Dreams kind of perfect baseball days — the kind you really never have anymore. The kind where you don’t just remember that baseball is awesome, you feel it in your bones and connective tissues.
Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama prompts this kind of feeling. It’s sort of like going to Wrigley or Fenway (minus the mega-corporations), knowing you’ve been to church. There have been enough paeans to those famous temples to fill George Will’s cavernous Chevy Chase mansion, but Rickwood is still relatively unknown except among the most hardcore baseball fans. But this won’t be one of those tiresome odes that white dudes write about the budding potential of rebirth as symbolized by green grass, infield dirt, and Opening Day. And although the star of the show is the stadium, we’ll try not to add to the stacks of bad poetry out there about Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds, rhapsodizing about the body politic taking the day off work to track the flight of a leather sphere against the clear southern sky.
This is about a trip to watch day baseball at the simple and beautiful Rickwood Field, the oldest baseball stadium in the world. It’s about history, and pure baseball, and impure baseball (because there’s really no such thing as pure baseball), and yes, it’s also about white dudes. Lots and lots of white dudes. Before explicating Rickwood and our awesome trip there, first you have to understand the crowd. Who skips work on a Wednesday to watch a minor league team play in a stadium that’s used only once a year?
If you want to understand white dudes and baseball, especially minor league baseball (which is seen as more pure than big league baseball) and baseball history (ditto), it helps to understand the kinds of white dudes that are civil war history buffs and/or those who are big fans of the blues (who go to shows to watch old people play guitar and who ramble on about Lightnin’ Jim Puddin’cup who once made a scratchy demo for Chess Records). Baseball’s obsessive white dudes are (and of course these are all generalizations, but true) people who think nothing of thrusting a baseball encased in a cube of plastic under the nose of a wheelchair-bound former Negro league player named Cleophus, which nose is hooked up to an oxygen tube and crinkles slightly at the thought of prying this baseball out of the case to scribble some ink onto it. Many of these guys aren’t just collectors. They are also amateur historians (and sometimes, hopefully, preservationists) who all-too-often take a smug racial satisfaction in their interest in old black blues musicians or old black baseball players. They have a head for data and arcane facts. The old days were the better days, they’ll tell you — before electric lights brought night baseball, before HGH — although they’ll tiptoe around the “before integration” part. Ruddy-faced teens riding buses to tiny towns — good. Sixteen-year-olds from the Dominican — new and scary. The 99 percent white crowd’s racially-sensitive applause for the Negro league vets rubbed awkwardly up against the fans overheard planning to leave before the end of the game because they didn’t want to be away from their car “in this kind of neighborhood” after dark.
Nonetheless, Rickwood is chock full of this genre of older white dudes, and a couple of younger ones with their kids. The kids are great, wearing their little league uniforms that clash with their stained mouths, dyed garish shades of red and blue and green by the icy snow cones on sale under the grandstand. Their dads are often their coaches, sporting the same team jerseys, confident that their kid’s ability to turn a double play at age 9 is a good indicator that he’s the next Chipper Jones.
We sat near several groups of fathers and sons, the former talking strategy while the latter glanced at the game while consuming all the concession stands had to offer ($7 pizza, $4 lemonade, pretzels and mustard, popcorn, Cokes, with barbecue sandwiches and Bud Light for the dads).
We’d arrived super early to get a good look at the stadium and were glad we did – the traffic into the stadium was rough and disorganized, winding through a neighborhood that seemed like it was considerably worse for wear than the stadium (presumably the neighborhood is less interesting to preservationists than the stadium it houses). There was one parking lot. It was full, so the rest of us were diverted into “parking lots” by a sparse corps of volunteers paying only a little attention to the process. It was baking hot. Alabama in June hot. We parked in one of the few shady spots next to a Negro League veteran (we would later see him go out and kiss the Rickwood grass) telling stories and selling memorabilia to two fat white baseball nerds. The air smelled of charcoal and cooking things.
In the crowd milling around the ticket booths there were a hundred different jerseys, with everyone from babies to grandparents repping a player or a team. It was only a short wait to get our tickets which, we discovered, were General Admission. This stopped us short once we got into the stadium. Really? General Admission? We could sit anywhere we wanted to? We picked out great seats on the first base line just to the side of home plate. We didn’t have many neighbors. This was because it was fiercely, seriously hot and we were completely exposed to the sun. The shady grandstand seats filled up quickly. But what great seats! And close to the band. Yes, we were surprised, too. We’ve never been to a baseball game with a band – especially not a swinging jazz quartet whose singer grooved the very best National Anthem either of us has ever heard in person.
The scene before the game was part baseball nerd riot (Memorabilia auction! Harmon Killebrew! Negro Leaguers!) and part civic love-fest (Rep. Paul DeMarco! Mayor William Bell! Alagasco!). The umpires wore bowties, the teams wore period jerseys. As one of us is a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, this meant we were rooting for the Appalachians, the Tennessee Smokies‘ period doppelganger. Towards the end of the 11 inning nailbiter, many of the fans who remained were Cubs fans just like us – not the first time we’ve seen the local fans drift away while the faithful in Cubbie blue remain. But that was to be several hours later. In the meantime we settled into the sharp contrast between the sun’s heat and our seriously cold beers and prepared to enjoy (with about 10,000 other folks) one of summer’s best offerings: the day game.
The Barons (farm team for the White Sox, famous for being home to Michael Jordan’s brief minor league baseball career) gave up early runs to the Smokies (managed last year by Ryne Sandberg), but came back. The Barons seemed to have the best player on the field — a tall rightfielder named Salvador Sanchez. He looked like he could be in the majors soon. The Smokies did not start their highly-drafted Josh Vitters, who has struggled this year and didn’t look good when we saw him play in Montgomery last week.
The extra frames were the cherry on top of the icing of a lovely day of baseball. With a Marquez Smith home run in the top of the 11th, the Cubs, er, Smokies pulled out the win and we left sunburned but happy. The official write-up from The Birmingham News is here, and includes some great video and a set of pics (in which we can be somewhat seen in the background of one).