Birmingham's Rickwood Field is the oldest professional ballpark in the nation. The stadium was built in 1910 by Rick Woodward, a coal baron who acquired the Birmingham Barons in 1910. Organized in 1885 as the Coal Barons, Woodward's team became one of the most successful minor league franchises in American history. The Barons played at a park known as the Slag Pile located near the Alabama Great Southern Railroad tracks. After purchasing the team, Woodward built this stadium and gave it a name that combined his first and last name. Some different minor league teams have played at this park under the name Birmingham Barons from 1910 to 1987, although there were many years when the city did not have a team given the nature of professional teams moving in and out of a city. The Barons have played at Legion Field since its completion in 1988, but given the historical value of this park, the team continues to host many events at this stadium.
In addition to serving as the home of his team, Woodward rented the field to the Birmingham Black Barons--one of the leading Southern teams in the Negro Leagues that provided a space for African American players and fans prior to the integration of baseball's major and minor leagues. Today, the Birmingham Barons are a Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox and play their games at Regions Field. Because of its historical value, Rickwood Field has been preserved, and efforts are underway to create interpretive exhibits and programs that preserve the history of Rickwood Field and its place within the larger history of baseball in the American South.
The Birmingham Black Barons were an independent and black-owned baseball team that barnstormed throughout the South from 1920 to 1960. The Barons and the Atlanta Black Crackers were the premiere Southern team of the Negro Leagues; their games drew crowds that rivaled and occasionally exceeded the teams of the major leagues.
The Barons dominated the regional competition, and the first Negro Southern League at the end of World War I. The Barons competed in the National Negro League from 1924 to 1930. The team continued to play during the Great Depression, and as the economic struggles of the 1930s eased, the team rejoined the league and resumed the league's demanding travel requirements by playing games in many distant cities from 1941 to 1955. In 1948, the Barons won the Negro American League championship thanks in part to the fine play of a 16-year old rookie named Willie Mays.
Willie Mays began his professional baseball career with the Black Barons in 1948. His strong arm, speed, and need for a stronger centerfield got Piper Davis', the Black Baron's manager, attention. Much younger than his teammates who were also much bigger and stronger, Mays wasn't confident he would prosper, let alone play, having to sit out the first game on the team; Davis insisted that he watched what was going on. He was put on the lineup for the second game, and proved himself to his doubtful teammates who weren't very supportive of this addition. After his performance at leftfield, grabbing two singles, Mays was hired being paid $250 a month. This game was only the beginning of his legacy. He didn't receive a warm welcome, often being forced by his teammates in the field to run distances to catch balls. This taunting was put to an end quickly by Davis who felt the need to protect Mays on and off the field. Despite slight controversy, Mays felt that being a part of the Black Barons prepared him for the major leagues, being equal to anything he saw while playing.
Like most of the Negro League teams, the Barons did not own their stadium, but they were able to rent Rickwood Field. Four members of the Barons have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame: Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, Bill Foster, and Mule Suttles. After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1948, most Negro League teams in the North disbanded after a few years. Integration was slower in the South, creating both an opportunity for businesses and teams that served and employed African Americans and the continued discrimination and injustice that came with segregation.
The refusal of Southern minor league teams to integrate, and the continued refusal of the only two Southern teams (Washington and Atlanta) to sign black players, encouraged black baseball fans to continue supporting the Negro Leagues through the 1950s. By the mid-1950s, however, the first Southern minor league teams began to sign black players. Recognizing the talent of these rosters, these teams immediately rose to the top of the standings, a situation that compelled Southern team owners to integrate their rosters but also spelled the end of the Barons and other southern black teams.