I could have sworn we found a little piece of baseball heaven.
The Birmingham Barons were hosting the Tennessee Smokies in the 15th annual Rickwood Classic at legendary Rickwood Field. The game helped commemorate the field’s 100th anniversary, which is the oldest surviving professional baseball park in the nation.
And, boy, was the red carpet rolled out for the 9,448 people in attendance.
As fans walked into Rickwood, a local boy scout troop unit was handing out commemorative coins and seat cushions celebrating the occasion.
While the bronze coin is a certainly a nice keepsake, the classic-looking scorecards and the 10-cent Rickwood Times newspaper are just as impressive. My older brother Brandon, mother Peggy, step-dad Larry, and I made sure we didn’t go away without a few of those in our hands.
Walking further along, we glanced at several old photos on the walls entering the stadium of many former Barons’ players – one of which was of a teenage Willie Mays before he made it to the majors.
By chance, Larry ran into Rick Woodward III, the grandson of the park’s builder and team owner, Rick Woodward. The younger Woodward is one of Larry’s friends. He’s on the Board of Directors of The Friends of Rickwood, an organization devoted to the preservation of Rickwood Field.
After meeting Mr. Woodward III, Brandon and I couldn’t help but peruse the silent auction. Many autographed and game-used items were up for bid from many of baseball’s legends and current players. Brandon’s eyes were set on a game-used glove of former Atlanta Braves outfielder Dale Murphy.
Murphy was Brandon’s childhood baseball idol, so perhaps it was only fitting he put in the winning bid of $65 for his glove.
Glancing around the stands, I saw former Birmingham Post-Herald writer Ruben Grant. Grant covered the Barons for many seasons, some of which were still played at Rickwood until the team’s move to the Hoover Met (now known as Regions Park) in 1987. It was nice to see Ruben getting the chance to enjoy himself as a fan.
As for the game itself, fans were treated to a throwback event featuring both teams wearing their classic uniforms. The Barons were adorned in their 1910 “Diamond B” white uniforms, while the Smokies were wearing their 1914 attire when the team was known as the Appalachian Smokies.
The umpires also got in on the throwback act, as they were clad in their classic white shirts complete with bow ties.
Before the game, both teams paid tribute to many former Black Barons players, who drew a rousing ovation from the crowd.
One of the game’s ceremonial first pitches was thrown out by Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew. Killebrew, who spent 22 seasons playing with the Washington Senators, Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals, signed autographs for the fans well into the game.
A Babe Ruth impersonator was walking through the stands, posing for pictures with any fan who wanted one. Several of the fans themselves also paid tribute by dressing up in old-style baseball attire. One guy was dressed like former Pittsburgh Pirate Rollie Fingers, complete with handle bar mustache. Several other men, women and children were dressed in early 1900s attire.
A jazz band centered behind home plate played between innings helped add a classical touch as well. Their final selection was a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the 7th inning stretch.
Out of the countless Minor League Baseball games we’ve attended, we had yet to catch one that went extra innings. We finally did on Wednesday.
A back-and-forth battle between the Barons and the Smokies was tied at 7 after nine innings. The game stretched on through the 11th, when Smokies third baseman Marquez Smith clubbed a solo home run over the left field fence.
The Barons attempted to rally in the bottom half of the 11th, but the home team couldn’t scratch a run across and suffered the 8-7 loss.
But this game wasn’t about which team won or lost. It was about experiencing a part of baseball history, and making some lasting memories. I’m glad I was able to be a part of such a memorable event.