Visiting Vintage Ballparks

Americana, Featured Article, On the Road, Seasonal, Sports, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on August 12, 2012
David Mudd

When Archie Young, 81, played baseball for the Birmingham (Ala.) Black Barons in the mid-1950s, the city’s Rickwood Field looked much as it does today. The ballpark had the same giant light towers, Mission-style entrance and roofed grandstand.

Watching the Birmingham Barons play the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Lookouts during the annual Rickwood Classic in May took Young back to the glory days of the 102-year-old ballpark, one of the nation’s oldest.

“I remember one time back in 1953 when a major league team came through after its spring training,” recalls Young, a former first baseman, catcher and pitcher. “There was an overflow crowd and they had to rope off the field to add more seats.”

Since 1910, fans at Rickwood have witnessed a home run by Babe Ruth during an exhibition game in 1925; strikeouts pitched by Leroy “Satchel” Paige for the Birmingham Black Barons in the late 1920s; and fly balls snagged by Willie Mays, of nearby Westfield, Ala., for Negro League teams during the late 1940s.

The Birmingham Barons, who moved to a newer suburban ballpark in 1988, have returned once a year since 2003 to the team’s original home for the Rickwood Classic, played on the Wednesday after Memorial Day.

“It’s cool to see generations of fans come together,” says Jonathan Nelson, 42, the Barons’ general manager. “In this day and age when professional baseball teams get new parks and they tear down the former ones for parking lots, we’re one of the few teams with the luxury to go back and play at a historic field.”

With its drop-in scoreboard and vintage-style outfield advertisements, Rickwood Field offers a slice of baseball nostalgia along with pizza, popcorn, hot dogs, beer and sodas.

Friends of Rickwood Field, the nonprofit organization that manages the city-owned stadium, claims the ballpark is the nation’s oldest, based on a 1993 certification by the National Park Service as having the oldest grandstand on the same site.

Century-old ball fields
While Rickwood Field predates Boston’s 1912 Fenway Park and Chicago’s 1914 Wrigley Field, at least three other baseball fields have been in use longer than America’s oldest major league venues.

Guinness World Records lists 1878 Fuller Field, in Clinton, Mass. (pop. 13,606), as the oldest baseball field in continuous use. “It’s the only baseball diamond in the world where you can run the original bases of the players of that era,” says A.J. Bastarache, 53, of Quincy, Mass., who wrote a book about Clinton’s history.

When Fuller Field opened, Clinton had a professional ball team. Today, the semi-professional Irish Blizzards, high school teams, local baseball leagues and vintage baseball teams continue to use the field.

Centennial Field, in Burlington, Vt. (pop. 42,417), was built in 1906. Named for the University of Vermont’s 100th graduating class, the field’s original wooden bleachers burned in 1913. The current concrete-and-steel grandstand was erected in 1922, and today foul balls often shatter its aged—and fragile—wooden seats.

“We replace as many as five a night during baseball season,” says Joe Doud, 25, general manager of the Vermont Lake Monsters, the field’s minor league team. “Pieces of the old seats become souvenirs.”

In Bisbee, Ariz. (pop. 5,575), Friends of Warren Ballpark says their field has been in continuous use since 1909. “With all due respect to our very good friends in Birmingham, and to the unnamed person or persons at the National Park Service who made the bureaucratic determination of what a ballpark is and was, Warren Ballpark existed before 1910 and has continued to exist since then—with a different grandstand since 1937,” says Mike Anderson, 58, Bisbee’s ballpark historian.

Next April, Warren Ballpark will host its fourth annual Copper City Classic Vintage Base Ball Tournament. Cranks—1860s parlance for fans—will dress in period attire, while players wear vintage uniforms and play by early baseball rules.

“We’re trying to get people back to watch the game live,” Anderson says. “It’s so much better live. The smell of the dust when players slide into home plate—you can’t get that on TV.”

Fenway, one of America’s most beloved ballparks and home to the Boston Red Sox, celebrated its 100th anniversary in April. The ballpark maintains its manual scoreboard mounted on a wall known as the Green Monster in left field.

Park preservation
Few of America’s earliest ballparks survive. Most grandstands built in the 19th century were wooden structures that burned, deteriorated or were dismantled so their materials could be recycled.

“The oldest remaining professional ballparks are Rickwood Field, then Fenway and Wrigley,” says Gary Gillette, 59, co-chairman of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Ballparks Committee.

Rickwood Field has endured because it was one of the nation’s first concrete-and-steel ballparks and has supportive fans. During the last 20 years, Friends of Rickwood has spent $2 million replacing the grandstand roof, refurbishing locker rooms and restrooms, replicating the original gazebo-style press box and painting the park numerous times.

With its vintage appearance and well-maintained grandstand, Rickwood has served as the backdrop for several baseball films, including the 1994 “Cobb” about famed player Ty Cobb, the 1996 Soul of the Game about the first black major leaguers, and 42, an upcoming movie based on the story of Jackie Robinson’s rookie season.

During the Rickwood Classic in May, more than 7,000 fans braved 90-degree temperatures to shout “Three Blind Mice” at the game’s three umpires, sing a chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and wait expectantly for the ultimate souvenir, a foul ball, to fly their way.

But Rickwood is more than a historic stadium that hosts an annual minor league ball game for nostalgia’s sake; it’s a functioning community ballpark, used by high school and college teams, youth and adult leagues.

“We play 175 to 200 ballgames here annually,” says David Brewer, 50, the director of Friends of Rickwood.