Play Ball! Part II
This column was finished and in the can, but then MLB unexpectedly did something very good.
Instead of a “Field of Dreams” game played in the wheat field in Iowa where the Kevin Costner movie was filmed, there will be a tribute game next year in the oldest professional baseball stadium in the country that will honor both the Negro Leagues and one of baseball’s greatest stars, Willie Mays, who at 91 is the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame.
Rickwood Field in Birmingham, AL was built in 1910 and is still in use today. As a teenager, Mays played there with the Birmingham Black Barons. Most major stars from the Negro Leagues played there, and because the city also fielded a minor league team affiliated with MLB teams, many other great players – from Reggie Jackson to Clayton Kershaw – competed on its field.
“We are proud to bring Major League Baseball to historic Rickwood Field in 2024,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “This opportunity to pay tribute to the Negro Leagues as the Giants and Cardinals play a regular season game at this iconic location is a great honor. The legacy of the Negro Leagues and its greatest living player, Willie Mays, is one of excellence and perseverance.”
“We look forward to sharing the stories of the Negro Leagues throughout this event next year,” when the game will be played around Juneteenth (June 19th) of 2024, Manfred said.
Gerald Watkins is the president of the Friends of Rickwood Field; a self-described “66 years young.”
He saw his first games at the stadium when he was 10 or 11, watching Charlie Finley’s minor league AA team in the Southern League.
“Rickwood Field has been given a great opportunity to host an MLB game. In order to get the game, we asked for and received a great deal of support from the Mayor and City Council. They stepped up in a big way, providing monies to bring the park up to MLB standards. The improvements will put Rickwood in the position to host many more high-profile events. If all goes well next June, I hope we can get MLB to return in 2025,” said Watkins.
“I think the greatest benefit for the city is that it gives us the opportunity to showcase Birmingham to folks all over the world,” added Watkins. “The game will be the biggest sporting event in Birmingham’s history other than college football and basketball – SEC of course! The economic impact will be tremendous, but our greatest benefit will be to show off our great city.”
In the 1940s, Negro League baseball was probably the most profitable black-owned and controlled business enterprise in the United States. Franchises such as the Kansas City Monarchs, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Newark Eagles and others were a component of African-American life in the United States that Blacks – denied the chance to play in and even attend Major League Baseball games – could call their own.
Now, decades after the demise of the Negro Leagues, only a few players and a few stadiums remain to remind us of the way it was.
I wrote about the opening ceremonies for Hinchcliffe Stadium in Paterson, NJ and James P. Small Park in Jacksonville, FL, where Negro League games were played – and baseball continues to be played on those fields.
There are three other stadiums in existence where the Negro League teams performed and in which baseball still occurs.
Rickwood Field in Birmingham, AL, opened in 1910 and is the oldest professional baseball stadium in the nation. League Park in Cleveland was home for both the Negro Leagues and the Major League Cleveland franchises that saw its share of history, and Hamtramck Stadium in Hamtramck, MI, near Detroit, saw one of the Negro League’s greatest players, Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, perform his magic on the field.
The three stadiums are in various states of completeness: Rickwood Field is virtually intact (although parts have been replaced or renovated – two buildings that housed the ticket houses are all that remain of the original League Park when it opened, although it does have an active and growing museum; Hamtramck Stadium recently had its grandstand renovated, and while many games are played there each year, it still needs an outfield wall and other additions. Fortunately, many fans and people with a love of history are working diligently to preserve these ballparks.)
Growing up in Birmingham, Allen Barra saw first-hand the impact Rickwood Field had on the city and baseball. He went on to write several baseball books, including an outstanding one on the stadium.
When it opened, the structure was the first concrete and steel stadium in the South and only the second one of its type in the country (behind Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, where the Philadelphia Athletics were managed by Connie Mack). Barons owner Rick Woodward invited Mack to Birmingham to give input into the edifice, which he named after himself.
In his 2010 book, Rickwood Field: A Century in America’s Oldest Ballpark, Barra wrote that at its opening no one “could (have) possibly have envisioned that its grass would be touched by the cleats of more great players, both dead ball era and modern, American and National League, white, black and Hispanic, than any other park the game has ever seen: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy Dean, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, “Cool Papa” Bell, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Frank Thomas and Clayton Kershaw to name a few.”
Rickwood Field was home to many leagues and exhibitions – it was a AA affiliate of major league teams; was home to the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues; teams heading north from spring training in Florida stopped by for exhibitions, and after the season it was host to barnstorming games.
Barra is surprised the stadium is still standing.
“So many landmarks in and around Birmingham have fallen to time, neglect, and the wrecker’s ball,” Barra recently said. “The original train station, which survives in thousands of paintings, photographs, sketches on the walls of local houses, restaurants, schools and libraries, was demolished for a new social security building that never happened on that site. It is much lamented. That’s just one example. Luckily for Rickwood, it was located in an area that nobody wanted to build and just sat there for decades waiting for someone to show interest in [it].”
The Birmingham Stars were one of the first eight teams of the Negro Southern League. Frank Perdue paid $200 for the rights to be the first owner of the new team and called it The Stars. The name was quickly discarded, and the team became the Black Barons – a reference to the name of the white team in the city. In 1923, the Black Barons became associate members of the Negro National League under new owner Joe Rush. They became full members of the league in 1925.
They were led by legendary pitcher Bill Foster and slugger George “Mules” Suttles with help from Satchel Paige and other Negro League stars.
The Great Depression caused the Black Barons to drop back to the Negro Southern League, basically a minor league, in 1931. The team was able to get back to the big-time Negro League in the 1940s under co-owners Tom Hayes and Abe Saperstein, who also owned the Harlem Globetrotters, and some Black Barons earned extra money by playing basketball during the off-season. These included Reese “Goose” Tatum, who became known as the “Clown Prince of Basketball.”
The Black Barons won the Negro American League pennant in 1943, 1944, and 1948, but lost the Negro League World Series both seasons. On the ’48 squad was an Alabama teenager named Willie Mays.
From 1967 to 1975, the Kansas City A’s (and later Oakland A’s) owner Charlie Finley had a AA affiliate at Birmingham that played at Rickwood. In addition to Reggie Jackson, such Oakland A’s stars as Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi, Dave Duncan, Vida Blue, Gene Tenace, and future manager Tony La Russa played there. Finley (an Alabama native) called the minor league club the A’s (the same as his big-league team) and players wore the same gold and green uniforms as Finley’s major league players. Finley moved the team around 1980, and a few years later the Chicago White Sox placed a minor league team in Birmingham, but it left Rickwood field after the 1987 season because the stadium needed extensive repairs. (The team moved to and played at The Hoover Met, in Hoover, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham. It was home of the Birmingham Barons of the Southern League from 1988 to 2012. In 2013, the team began playing at Regions Field, located within the city of Birmingham.)
Enter the Friends of Rickwood Field.
Gerald Watkins, the President of the Friends of Rickwood Field, spearheaded many fundraising activities and has been a pivotal figure for the “Rickwood Classic,” in which the present-day Birmingham Barons (a AA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox who play in another ballpark) play “The Rickwood Classic,” in which the Barons and another team will play at the field in throw-back uniforms. The game is also a fundraiser for the park.
The stadium is owned by the city of Birmingham and is leased for 99 years to the Friends of Rickwood Field.
There are three types of fans of Rickwood, said Watkins: fans of baseball who love the game at all levels, fans of Birmingham and its history, and people who belong to both of the first two groups. This citizen effort has helped keep Rickwood alive and well.
Not long ago, Watkins was at the stadium for a documentary about Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, who played outfield for Rickwood in 1967 (he batted .291 with 25 home runs, 79 RBIs, and 20 stolen bases). Along with Jackson were his Birmingham teammates Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers.
Rickwood has also been used as a backdrop in films. In addition to the Jackson documentary, parts of a 2022 Willie Mays documentary, Say Hey! Willie Mays, was filmed there, and scenes from the 2002 biopic Cobb, with Tommy Lee Jones playing the Georgia ballplayer, were shot at Rickwood. (One of the pitchers hurling against Cobb was portrayed by Roger Clemens, who, after seeing Jones-Cobb steal third, said, “Shoulda stuck it in that bastard’s ear when I had the chance”). A 1996 TV film called Soul of the Game was made in which Satchel Paige (Delroy Lindo) and Josh Gibson (Mykelti Williamson) vie to be the first to break baseball’s color line, only to see Jackie Robinson (Blair Underwood) selected to be the first.
On July 11, 2019, there was a fundraising game played at Hamtramck Stadium near Detroit, which had been home to the Negro League Detroit Stars and Detroit Wolves. Hamtramck saw one of the Negro League’s greatest players, Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, perform his magic on the field in the 1920s and 1930s, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000. On that July day, his daughters Joyce and Rosilyn sang the national anthem. (The facility is named Turkey Stearnes Field at Hamtramck Stadium.)
That event was to procure funds for the restoration of the ballpark’s field. Later, the ballpark’s grandstand was rebuilt.
On June 20, 2022, the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium hosted a rededication of the new grandstand, inviting city officials and Detroit player and coach Ron Teasley Sr., one of four living players from the Major Negro Leagues’ era (1920-1948).
A Detroit native, Teasley played with the New York Cubans in the Negro National League in 1948 and also played in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm system the same year. A graduate of Wayne State University, he is a member of the University’s Athletic Hall of Fame and is also a member of the African-American Sports Hall of Fame. Teasley taught for more than 30 years and coached baseball, basketball, and golf at Detroit’s Northwestern High School for many years.
The $2.6 million rehabilitation project began in August, 2021 and was completed in June, 2022. The grandstand construction project was managed by Wayne County, which also allocated federal CDBG funds to the City of Hamtramck for this project. Additional funding was provided by National Park Service African American Civil Rights grants, the Detroit Tigers Foundation, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and the Kresge Foundation.
Michael Wilson, president of the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium, said, “There have been several additions to Hamtramck Stadium within the past 12 months. The grandstands were totally refurbished last summer which included adding a new roof, new seating, [and] new railings along with masonry additions. This spring we’ve added a new outfield, [and a] black coated, chain link fencing (six feet high). It’s 315 feet down the first base and third base lines and 360 feet in centerfield. We’re also in the process of ordering a custom wireless scoreboard which will be installed in right field within the next six to eight weeks.” Masonry was repaired and new field-level ADA seating was added.
He said there are plans to add restrooms, changing facilities, and concessions sometime in 2024. “We have also met with a couple of contractors and had photo-metric studies conducted toward the possibility of adding field lighting. But it’s premature to this point until we receive the funding,” he said, then added, “in case you didn’t know, the first night game played in the state of Michigan took place at Hamtramck Stadium.”
Hamtramck Stadium is unique among ballparks where Negro League games were held.
It was built specifically for black, professional ballplayers. John P. Rosesink, who owned the Detroit Stars, built the stadium using his own funds, about $100,000. Rosesink was friends with Ty Cobb, and when the stadium opened Cobb travelled from Georgia to be at the park and throw out the game’s first ball in May, 1930.
According to Gary Gillette, founder and chair of the board of directors of the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium, “The first major-league night games in Michigan were played on June 27 and 28, 1930, when the Kansas City Monarchs brought their portable lighting system to Hamtramck to play the Detroit Stars. It’s possible that there were early experimental night games at other levels before that in the state, but I don’t know.”
Gillette said, “Last year, we had 150-plus baseball games on the field, plus a few other events. This year, it will be 200-plus, including high school, community college, travel ball, tournaments, men’s senior hardball leagues, etc.”
According to Wilson, “Last year we had about 155 games played at Hamtramck Stadium. We also had clinics with the MLB Alliance and another with local trainers. Then we had several games with Wayne State University, University of Windsor, University of Michigan at Dearborn, Henry Ford College, and Schoolcraft College. Michigan State University also held a full practice there last fall.”
“Hamtramck High School plays their home games at the Stadium. Then, we host the Detroit Public Schools Semi-Final Championships, and a State Regional playoff game as well,” he said.
“We host no less than eight United States Specialty Sports Association Travel Tournaments and five FAAST (Fun American Amateur Sports Tournaments) on weekends. We also host the Motor City Classic, which lasts five days and is the largest annual tournament in the state of Michigan,” said Wilson. (This year’s classic is scheduled from July 19-23 and more than 350 teams across the state have registered.)
Gillette said he believes the number of events at the stadium will be substantially larger this year than in 2022.
“Ideally we’d like to see kids playing here every day and then have vintage games and maybe even a league here,” said Gillette, who added the field could host concerts and other events. “We want the kids of Hamtramck to be able to play any sports they want on this field,” he said.
Gillette’s interest in Hamtramck Stadium began when he started researching Tiger Stadium, which led him to the Negro Leagues and its stadiums. His research paved the way for an historical marker to be placed at the site and having the field placed in the National Registery of Historic Places.
Dave Mesrey is a volunteer for the stadium restoration. His interest in preserving baseball fields started at another facility no longer in use.
“I started out in 2010 as a volunteer and founding member of the old Navin Field Grounds Crew … at the site of Tiger Stadium, formerly known as Navin Field. After the city demolished the stadium, we started cutting the grass, picking up garbage, and restoring the playing field as best we could. None of us were professional groundskeepers,” said Mesrey.
Later, Mesrey said the amateur groundskeepers “were invited to Hamtramck to continue our work there. The Hamtramck Stadium project is truly historic preservation, at least in our eyes.”
A driving force behind the grounds upkeep is Tom Derry, a retired post office worker who is at the stadium nearly every day, watering the grass (there is no sprinkler system, so he and three other volunteers – Kirk Jeffery, Roy Jeffery and Dan Theriault – use hoses for the infield and a solar-powered device to water the outfield.)
“The best part of this is the appreciation we get from people who remember the park the way it was when they were children,” he said. He also appreciates the history of the stadium and how it’s worth preserving.
“I’ll be working on the pitching mound, and I’ll say to myself, Satchel Paige pitched off this mound, and Josh Gibson caught behind home plate,” Derry said.
After Tiger Stadium was torn down he drove past the field and saw the grass was not being cut. “I have a driving lawn mower,” said Derry, and he and a few other people began taking care of the field on a volunteer basis. With the field being taken care of, people began playing games on it. “It became a tourist attraction,” he said.
Seven years ago, he got involved with Hamtramck Stadium.
In 1997, Cleveland hosted MLB’s All-Star game, giving the city a chance to show off its new (i.e. 1994) ballpark, Jacobs Field.
Robert Zimmer, a local businessman, had an idea to tie in with the mid-summer classic. He saw the game as a way to bring in new clients to his father’s jewelry business. He said interest in the Negro Leagues wasn’t as strong as it is now, and Zimmer “saw this as an opportunity to reach out to Wilmer Fields, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Players’ Association. “I asked him if he would come into the jewelry store and do a one-day autograph-fireside chat session about his experience in both integration and segregation in baseball. He agreed to do that; then MLB ended up doing a big exhibition of the Negro Leagues,” said Zimmer.
The clientele of the family’s jewelry store was mostly African-American, “So I thought it was a way to give back to the (people) who were supporting our business and also drawing new people. That’s how the museum started,” said Zimmer, who now works in real estate (his father’s jewelry store has since closed).
The Baseball Heritage Museum at League Park, a non-profit organization, was originally located in Cleveland’s historic district, but is now at League Park, which was host to both the Major League and Negro League Cleveland teams.
The remnants of the stadium and field were saved by Cleveland City Council member Fannie Lewis, said Zimmer, and piece by piece League Park was reconstructed. The stadium is used by the City of Cleveland schools, colleges and vintages games, and is available for rent.
“The ticket house is still there and a section of the wall (that) extends from the ticket house, actually… the remnants of where the ramp was that you would walk through the ticket house, go up the ramp into the stadium, into the stands in the grandstands. And then there’s also some remains of the steps from the locker rooms, down into the tunnel that would take you to the field and would take the players to the field. That’s what remains from the original structure,” said Zimmer.
“The dimensions and the placement of the field is exactly as it was when it was originally built. Home plate [is] right where it was when the Indians won their 1920 championship. When Babe Ruth hit his 500th home run [in 1929] and when the Cleveland Buckeyes won their Negro League championship. The [location of the] bases, the outfield, the fence line is all the same,” he said.
Zimmer’s first business was an antique gallery, and he said he was always collecting stuff. “When Wilmer came I started finding baseball related artifacts, and I really focused on the Negro League baseball,” he said, adding he obtained items through auctions, estate sales, and private collectors. While the museum’s collection first focused on Negro League teams and players, he decided to expand the collection to include “multi-cultural aspects of the game: women in baseball, Jews in baseball, Major League Baseball, industrial league baseball,” which, he said, “we have a really strong exhibit on that that. A lot of donations, contributions of artifacts that were played in the industrial leagues. One local ballplayer donated his uniform from a trucking company.”
In addition to his industrial league items, Zimmer said his favorite items in the museum include the ball Babe Ruth hit for his 436th home run which is signed, and items from Negro League players and games. “It’s hard to pin down,” which are his favorite artifacts, “but the museum is really the storyteller, the heart and soul of the park.”