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Rickwood Field 's Tribute to Willie Mays and the Negro Leagues

Joe Moody
Rickwood Field

Birmingham’s Rickwood Field has been a working ballpark since 1910. This signifies it as the oldest professional ballpark in the United States. One of the highlights of its history is that the park was the home of the Birmingham Black Barons, a legendary team from the Negro leagues that hosted some of the best baseball players in American history. Major League Baseball is recognizing this history with a tribute to Willie Mays next year.

“This is the home team locker room. You can imagine who has come into this room. It's just if you're a baseball fan, it just sends chills up your spine…” says Mike Newton, marketing director of the ballpark.

I am standing in the locker room of the oldest professional baseball park in the world. The room doesn’t look like it has changed a bit since 1910.

Mike Newton
Joe Moody
Mike Newton

“Ty Cobb Hank here and Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Shoeless Joe, Roger Hornsby, Satchel Paige, I could go on and on, it's just incredible.”

Rickwood Field was named after Rick Woodward, an Alabama industrialist who bought controlling interest in the Coal Barons while still in his 20s. The ballpark has been busy preparing for a special game from Major League Baseball. It was recently announced that they will host the San Francisco Giants against the Saint Louis Cardinals in what is known as a Negro Leagues tribute game honoring Alabama native Willie Mays. As many are calling this the years Field of Dreams game, Gerald Watkins is the chairman of the board and executive director of the Friends of Rickwood, the organization that manages and markets Rickwood Field.

“It's older than Fenway Park. It's older than, than Wrigley Field. So yes, it is the oldest baseball park in America. And that really makes it the oldest baseball park in the world” says Watkins.

He wants to make it clear that this is not a field of dreams game, this is not what the game should be called. This game is a tribute to a great Alabamian:

“A lot of folks have called this already the Field of Dreams game and it's not a Field of Dreams game. Ours is called a tribute to Willie Mays and the Negro Leagues. Now that's a little bit longer title. It's not quite as catchy as field dreams. But that still, we want to separate ourselves from that we don't want to be known as a failure. names, they have their thing, we have ours. And I don't want to slight them in any way. But our field is a real field where real dreams were made… unlike a movie set,”

As you walk to your seat, it’s hard not to be reminded of the greats that have made the same walk.

“There's 220 Baseball playing hall of famers in Cooperstown that doesn't count writers or announcers and 180 of the 220 have walked through this same portal out to the playing field” says Newton.

He stresses that of all the names that have passed through the ballpark, they are most proud of Willie Mays who grew up just a few miles down the road. Newton says that the say hey kid learned how to play at a much higher level at Rickwood Field when he was with the Birmingham Black Barons. The Negro League team called Rickwood Field home from 1924-60.

Rickwood Field
Joe Moody
Rickwood Field

Rickwood Field is listed on the National Register of Historic Places but is not just a museum piece. It is still a working ballpark. The MLB game is set for June 20th, 2024. It is set to coincide with Juneteenth celebrations. There will also be an MILB game between the Birmingham Barons and the Montgomery Biscuits that is set for June 18, 2024.

Joe Moody is a senior news producer and host for Alabama Public Radio. Before joining the news team, he taught academic writing for several years nationally and internationally. Joe has a Master of Arts in foreign language education as well as a Master of Library and Information Studies. When he is not playing his tenor banjo, he enjoys collecting and listening to jazz records from the 1950s and 60s.
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