By: Matthew Shalbrack
On May 29, 2013, I stepped back into a different era in baseball history for the 18th annual Rickwood Classic between the Tennessee Smokies and Birmingham Barons.
Played at historic Rickwood Field, the oldest professional baseball park in the United States, was the home park for both the Birmingham Black Barons, who were a part of the Negro Leagues and the Birmingham Barons. From 1910-1961, both teams played at Rickwood Field, with the Black Barons playing on weekends when the Barons were on the road.
To pay homage to past players, the Barons play one game a year at Rickwood Field for the Rickwood Classic. Since 1996, after a stadium restoration process was almost completed, the Barons, Double-A affiliate for the Chicago White Sox, play one “throwback” game featuring the players, umpires and fans wearing vintage clothing that was worn during that specific time period. This year, Smokies wore uniforms of the 1935-36 Knoxville Giants and the Barons wore the uniforms of the 1948 Black Barons.
For me, this was my first experience at Rickwood Field. Before I wrote an article at the beginning of the season highlighting this game, I had never even heard of Rickwood Field.
I was lucky enough to be able to go to Birmingham, Ala., for the game and as a baseball fan, it was by far the best experience I have ever had with the great sport.
After going through the VIP entrance, I headed to the Will Call area to pick up my ticket and my all access badge to the field. Walking into the front area, I noticed the lineup board on the wall. This lineup board is a blackboard where the lineups and positions of each player on both teams were written in chalk for the fans to see. When I saw this, I knew I was in for a special experience.
Originally from Racine, Wis., I went to a lot of Milwaukee Brewers games at County Stadium. I vaguely remember my experiences there, but after walking through the corridors of Rickwood Field, a lot of my County Stadium memories came back to me.
Once I got my bearings of where things where in the stadium, I went to the field to take pictures. I walked out to the outfield and saw the old school scoreboard, but more on the scoreboard later.
As I continued to take photos and soak up the atmosphere of Rickwood Field, the Smokies players sitting on the dugout before warming up. Donning the throwback uniforms, the players were posing in random batting stances that could have very well been used on the diamond. For me, this part of the whole experience was great because not only were these guys goofing around; they were inadvertently fitting the historical tradition that the Rickwood Classic is all about.
After getting some good photographs on the field, I headed up to the press box to check out the view, see our radio broadcaster Mick Gillispie and pick up a lineup sheet. Surprisingly, the press box is quite modern – there’s even Wi-Fi available for working members on the media. The same way the players wear vintage uniforms; the members of the media and umpires also wear attire from that era. Gillispie was sporting a black and white houndstooth sport coat, dark slacks, a red bowtie and a boater hat with the word “press” written on a piece of paper and inserted to the band of the hat.
One of the things that I had heard about from other staff members who had been to Rickwood Field was the ability to go on the roof and view the game from there. After figuring out where to go, I headed to the roof to take in the Rickwood Field experience from up there. The view from the roof was great. I was up there for roughly three innings and I took a lot of great photos from up there as well. The view from behind home plate was interesting, especially when a foul ball whizzes past your head. There are no nets on the roof, so you must pay attention to the game for your own safety. For me, the most interesting thing about being on the roof was being at eye level with the ball when it was hit in the air. The bird’s eye view really gave me a new outlook on the game and a memory that I will never forget.
The next thing that I did was take a seat in the stands and take in some of the game. All of the tickets are general admission, which gives fans free range to sit wherever they’d like in the ballpark. I sat in a couple places mainly to just see a different view of the game. After my quick break, I went back to using my All Access pass to get me to the other historical areas of the ballpark.
To keep the tradition of Rickwood Field alive, the original outfield wall is still erected behind the current outfield wall. The outfield was moved in 1938 and now stands 399 feet to left center from home plate instead of the 478 it was to one part of the outfield. On one part of the wall, there was an plaque with an “X” next to it marking a home run by Walt Dropo in 1948 that flew an astounding 467 feet. Another one of the signs I saw down the first base line said “No betting in this park,” further signifying the era that this ballpark was built in and how the stadium curators have preserved it in its old state.
Blending in with the current outfield wall is the old, iconic scoreboard. This scoreboard, still manually updated throughout the game, reminds me of the iconic Wrigley Field scoreboard. One of the perks of my all access pass was the ability to go up onto the platform behind the scoreboard and take in the game through one of the open slots.
Even though the Smokies lost 6-3, this experience was the best I have ever had involving the game of baseball. For anyone who loves the game of baseball and wants to go back in history, visiting Rickwood Field is a must. It’s a pilgrimage of sorts not only the fans, but the players as well. I saw some of the Smokies players on the field with their cellphones, taking pictures of their surroundings in order to document the memories they were making by playing in the game.
As a baseball enthusiast, I plan on going back to Rickwood Field one day to re-experience the atmosphere, the sights, the smells and the sounds of baseball as it was played in a different era.