Kellet May looks like she just stepped off the cover of Vogue, circa-1958.
Her turquoise dress, with pink flamingoes, is accessorized by a wide-brimmed black hat and matching gloves, cat-eye sunglasses and a retro purse. Daughters Lillian and Lucia and their friend, Scarlet Macon, arrive in white blouses and poodle skirts.
The haute couture isn’t merely a nod to days gone by. For May and her young crew, it’s part of the game.
The 2018 Rickwood Classic.
As Alberto finally takes its tropical rain and winds elsewhere, blue skies and rising temperatures envelop 108-year-old Rickwood Field like a fielder’s mitt just in time for the annual throwback game between the minor-league Birmingham Barons and Chattanooga Lookouts.
Players are decked in replica uniforms of the 1950s, including the gray road uniforms the Barons wore as a farm team for the New York Yankees. Umpires call balls and strikes in bow ties. The grounds crew tidies the mound while dressed for a day at church.
And many of the fans dress to the era.
“We do this every year,” May explains, “and it started before the girls were born. Lillian’s first Rickwood Classic was the park’s centennial year. And, before me, my grandfather and mother always came out for the Classic.”
Sorry Fenway. Nothing personal, Wrigley. Birmingham’s Rickwood Field, modeled after the long-ago home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Forbes Field, is the oldest active ballpark in America. It debuted in 1910, two years before Boston’s Fenway Park and the sinking of the Titanic, six years before Wrigley Field first became a Chicago icon.
In a century-plus, as home of the minor-league Barons and Negro League Black Barons, Rickwood hosted hall of famers from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Satchel Paige and a 17-year-old whippet of a center fielder playing for his hometown team. His name? Willie Mays.
The modern-day Barons left for newer digs decades ago and now play at the acclaimed Regions Field in downtown Birmingham.
Yet once a year, everyone returns to pay homage to Rickwood’s storied past.
And every spring, for the past 15, Gerald Watkins is there. He’s a Regions banker, a Team Leader for Commercial Banking Solutions. He’s also Chairman of Friends of Rickwood, the nonprofit group that saved the stadium from oblivion.
“The field looks great today,” Watkins beams. “The rain has been good for the grass, and, once it stopped, the field was immaculate.”
Friends of Rickwood partner with the city of Birmingham to maintain the edifice. That meant a one-year sabbatical for the Classic to make sure that the concrete foundation remained viable and fans stayed safe. For the Classic, the Friends of Rickwood work hand in hand with the Double-A Barons to pull the event off.
“The Barons are gracious enough to give up a day at their park to help us raise funds and keep Rickwood alive,” Watkins explained. “That means a continuation of a legacy the Friends of Rickwood started 22 years ago to preserve the ballpark and showcase it in front of a regional and national audience.”
The 2018 Classic featured special guest Bucky Dent, the former Yankees shortstop who came through Rickwood as a minor leaguer before reaching the Bronx and breaking the hearts of Red Sox fans with his dramatic home run in a one-game playoff 40 years ago.
Fans flock to the Classic from across the region. In the past, they’ve come from across the globe, from Canada to Australia. Former Negro Leaguers sign autographs. Memorabilia from stars of the past sells in concourses. And, for fans who want to keep with the vintage feel of the day and use bills instead of plastic, there’s a Regions Mobile ATM parked outside.
Art Clarkson brought the Barons back to Birmingham in 1981 as owner of the club. Sitting in a front-row grandstand seat, he views the game with a broad smile.
“The field looks better than it did when we played here,” Clarkson says. “It’s really remarkable. And it brings up great memories, like the ’83 season. We had a bunch that didn’t include big-time prospects, yet couldn’t lose. Their 57-13 Southern League home record still stands.’
Seated next to him is Eli Gold, Clarkson’s former play-by-play announcer. Gold is better known today as the voice of Alabama Crimson Tide football.
“We broadcast games from the roof, in an enclosed booth,” Gold said. “There was no AC, no heat. You sweated in places you didn’t know you had in July.”
Two memories stand out for the duo. The Barons once went 173 games – from the 1981 season into the ’83 season – without losing a home date to a rainout.
“Finally, we had two rainouts, only because Art felt we were low on (available) pitchers,” Gold says.
Then there were the crowds. The Birmingham Black Barons were known throughout the Negro Leagues for fans showing up on weekends dressed in Sunday finery to pack the park. And the Double-A Barons were known for a willingness to sell tickets beyond the 10,800-seat capacity.
“The crowds were so good that on occasion they’d rope off the outfield and let fans stand on the warning track,” Gold reminisces. “On top of that, all 11,000 seats would be filled. As Art always said, you’re never really sold out. There’s always room for more.”
As the day progresses, dignitaries stop by to say hello. The list includes Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and U.S. Senator Doug Jones. Casual fans come by and introduce themselves, uttering one common refrain to everyone connected with the game.
Stan Logan, part of the current Barons’ family ownership group, stands at field level, just to the side of the Barons dugout.
“This day means so much to all of us,” Logan says. “There are personal reasons for me coming here and seeing the field as it looked when I was a kid, and seeing the players in the dugout, in a completely different setting, having the time of their lives.
“The players love wearing the old uniforms. The fans get into the game. It’s a true throwback day.”