August 2010

Preserving baseball’s treasured spaces

By Allen Barra
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Why preserve an aging ballpark? Allen Barra offers an answer in Rickwood Field, a paean to Birmingham’s 100-year-old stadium, the nation’s oldest.

Barra’s book is somewhat unconventional; it contains a lengthy oral history of Rickwood, a section on other endangered stadiums and a traditional narrative history. It is a labor of love from Birmingham native Barra, who clearly wrote the book with an agenda to save old parks, not just in Birmingham, but everywhere.

Barra’s argument is basically this: Because Rickwood has a rich past, it should be preserved. The premise is undeniable. Not only is the stadium replete with baseball lore—Cobb, Ruth and Mays, anyone?—but it also was a key setting in the history of Birmingham race relations. Segregation did not loosen its grip at the turnstiles. Black spectators were fenced off in the “Negro bleachers”—the only section of seating not shaded by the grandstand—and black players dressed in the corridors. In its glory years, Rickwood hosted both the Barons of the minor-league, all-white Southern Association and the Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. (Barra is at his best when intertwining the story of these two teams and alerting the reader to their forgotten stars.) During the darkest years of Bull Connor’s reign, local segregation laws shut down the professional game, which had already integrated. The club eventually returned, only to move to a new suburban facility after the 1987 season.

Unfortunately, Barra rarely transcends the assumption that Rickwood should be saved simply because the greats played there. The book is an exercise in nostalgia, glossing over non-baseball history, and is unlikely to convince those already disinclined to preservation. A stronger argument would place Rickwood more firmly in the context of Birmingham’s social and industrial development.

Nevertheless, Rickwood Field will appeal to two audiences. Baseball fans should read it for its knowledgeable exposition of Negro and Minor League baseball; those interested in Birmingham should read it for a slice of the city’s bygone cultural life. Those trying to save other historic parks may find it an inspiration—restoration of Rickwood has been remarkably successful—but justification for preservation must come from individual urban histories rather than baseball lore. Babe Ruth played on hundreds of fields. There is only one Birmingham. 

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