(Editor's note: According to news reports, baseball great Willie Mays died on June 18, 2024, two days before his hoped-for appearance at Rickwood Field. The story below honors the legacy of Mays and other Negro League players.)

Eight decades ago, Ron Teasley, a teenage baseball player from Detroit, experienced an athletic achievement so tremendous that today, at 97 years old, he can still recall it vividly.

“I was in high school and worried about amateur eligibility requirements, so I played in a game at DeQuindre Park under an assumed name. Wherever Satchel Paige was in town, he would show up and pitch,” says Teasley. “I think he threw three innings that day. My first time at bat, I hit a triple. I was so thrilled I didn’t know what to do.”

Though he only played a handful of games with the New York Cubans, Teasley is one of three men still alive who played in the “Golden Age” of the Negro Leagues, the period from 1920 through the final Negro League World Series in 1948.

Players in the 1936 Negro League All-Star Game, held in Chicago
Players in the 1936 Negro League All-Star Game, held in Chicago Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The final game of that series was an extra-inning affair between the Homestead Grays and the Birmingham Black Barons, played at the Alabama city’s historical Rickwood Field. Pitcher Bill Greason took the loss out of the bullpen, his third straight appearance. Greason, 99, is the second of the Negro League players still alive, Prior to baseball, Greason served in World War II as one of the first Black Marines, bearing witness to the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. Convinced he would die on the island like so many American servicemen around him, he promised God he would do whatever was asked of him if he survived. In 1971—following a baseball career in which, in 1954, he became the St. Louis Cardinals’ first Black pitcher—Greason made good on his promise and became pastor at Bethel Baptist Church, preaching the Word of God in Birmingham right up to the present day.

The third surviving player is Greason’s 1948 Birmingham teammate, who was then a teenage outfielder from Alabama, and is now a baseball legend: Willie Mays. On June 20, if all goes according to plan, Teasley, Greason and Mays, 93, will be at Rickwood Field, which is hosting an official Major League Baseball game pitting Greason’s Cardinals against Mays’ San Francisco Giants.

If you’re unfamiliar with Rickwood Field, you’re not alone. At 114, it’s the oldest professional ballpark in America—predating both Fenway Park and Wrigley Field—and yet it has stayed under the radar as a landmark even though Rickwood has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1992 and is open to the public for free, five days a week. Michael Fountain—a longtime Emmy-winning news and sports television producer—for example, was unfamiliar with Rickwood until recently, when a friend reached out and suggested looking into it as a film project.

Willie Mays (right) and Bill Greason (left) at AT&T Park in San Francisco in 2011
Willie Mays (right) and Bill Greason (left) at AT&T Park in San Francisco in 2011 Michael Macor / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

“I enjoy a playoff game in October, but am not a baseball geek by any means, so I knew nothing about the ballpark,” says Fountain, who headed up a small crew that made “Rickwood: The Soul of Birmingham,” a documentary streaming on the Hearst-backed Very Local app. “Driving up, Rickwood isn’t all that appealing on the outside, but once you go through the old turnstiles, past the original ticket booth, walk into the stadium, sit in those stands and look at the field where these giants played, you feel, sense and see American history all around you. … I’ve been working in sports for a long time and never had an experience like that before.”

Veteran sportswriter Allen Barra best captured the park’s story in his 2010 stadium biography Rickwood Field: A Century in America’s Oldest Ballpark. In it, Barra chronicles how the park witnessed decades of the sport’s history, playing host to all-white champions of the Southern League like the Birmingham Barons, touring squads of major league titans, as well as the Black Barons, whose story ties in so closely with the city’s role in the push for civil rights.

Barra, who in 1967 saw then-minor leaguer Reggie Jackson hit a home run over the deep right-field bleachers as a member of the Birmingham A’s, considers his book a continuation of successful preservation efforts that began in earnest in 1992, the year the Friends of Rickwood nonprofit was formed to rehab the aging joint after years of neglect.

“There isn’t a clear single reason as to why Rickwood Field isn’t widely known given its historical significance,” says Barra. “I’m certain more Hall of Famers played on that diamond than any other stadium in the country. The Rickwood slogan should be, ‘They Built It, So Come!’”

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Come they will on June 20, up to 8,300 strong for “MLB at Rickwood Field: A Tribute to the Negro Leagues,” an overdue centennial celebration delayed from the 2020 60-game no-fans-in-the-stands pandemic season. (If you want to join in the upcoming fun, the cheapest $30 cheap seat is now going for around $500 on resale sites.) Ahead of the televised game, the league paid for park improvements including new dugouts, foul ball netting, a padded outfield wall and a new infield.

In addition to the three nonagenarians from the Golden Age, in attendance will be a fair number of living Negro Leaguers who played in the post-integration years, from 1949 to the 1960s, when the quality of play rapidly declined in what was primarily a barnstorming era. The early 1950s saw the last of sought-after talents like Hank Aaron of the Indianapolis Clowns playing in the Negro Leagues, but that doesn’t take away the experiences of the men like former lefty hurler Ferdinand “Chico” Rutledge, who played for the Black Barons in later years.

“I grew up near Rickwood my whole life, first time Dad took us to see the Clowns play the Black Barons, we were just young folk. I pitched Little League out there and later on in years I coached Pony League kids,” says Rutledge, 85. “Rickwood was a supreme place for us. When we took the championship in ’59, it was like we won the Super Bowl. On Sundays, we’d draw 6,000 fans, there was a band playing, it was so much fun. Segregated or not, Rickwood was the place to be.”

A ballpark rises up from the coal ashes

In 1880, less than a decade after Birmingham’s incorporation, the first blast furnace, “Alice No. 1,” was fired, and an industrial city in the rural South came to life. Business and Birmingham boomed. Between 1900 and 1904, more than 90,000 people would move to the “Magic City” (named after the city’s seemingly supernatural growth and expansion), bringing the population to 130,000. Newcomers were overseen by a 56-foot statue of Vulcan, Roman god of fire and blacksmithing, the largest iron figure ever cast.

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Baseball originally incorporated in Birmingham in 1885, when the South’s first professional baseball league was formed and the Birmingham Coal Barons became members. In 1910, iron industrialist scion Rick Woodward bought the club and immediately set out to build a park modeled on Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. He went so far as to bring famed Philadelphia Athletics owner-manager Connie Mack to consult on constructing the $75,000 ballpark. The first minor league ballpark ever built of steel and concrete, it got its name from a contest in the Birmingham News, the winning entry a portmanteau of the owner’s name.

On August 18 of that year, downtown Birmingham shops closed early as an estimated 10,000 fans (including as Barra points out, many women, a sight unheard of in the North) went to Rickwood Field to watch the all-white Barons emerge victorious, 3-2, over the Montgomery Climbers.

In the early years, fans rocked Rickwood because the Barons were good. They showcased five future major league Hall of Famers, the first being pitcher Burleigh Grimes, who is the answer to the trivia question: Who was the last legal spitballer? (He was grandfathered in.) From 1912 to 1929, the Barons won four titles and drew huge crowds, almost 300,000 in 1927 alone.

Although not as uncommon in those early stadium days, by modern standards, Rickwood’s eye-popping dimensions stand out. The right-field fence was an achievable 335 feet for left-handed hitters, left field a much tougher 470 feet down the line, and center field even bested Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson. At a whopping 500 feet to straightaway center, it’s believed nobody cleared that part of the fence until it was shortened and moved in years later.

View across roof of stands at Rickwood Field, looking south toward the press box, in 1993
View across roof of stands at Rickwood Field, looking south toward the press box, in 1993 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Another physical attribute of yesteryear is the large swath of foul territory behind the plate and down the foul lines. Newer stadiums charge fan premium prices to get as close to the players as possible, a modern design change that would’ve suited Rutledge just fine.

“I was a fastball pitcher with a tailing action that would break away from right-handed batters, but I could get a little wild with it sometimes,” he recalls with a laugh. “The catcher would always tell me to keep it close to the plate because if the ball gets past him, we were dead, dead, dead. So much room back there, it was like he was running around the outfield.”

Other notable features added to Rickwood in the 1920s include roofing over the bleachers and a covered grandstand running down the right-field line and around the foul pole into the outfield. (Black fans, however, had to watch the all-white Barons games from the “Negro bleachers,” separated by a chicken-wire fence, beyond the grandstand, deep in the outfield, with no protection from the blazing summer sun.) The two final major additions came in 1928 and 1936, respectively. The first was the signature entrance to Rickwood, constructed in a Hollywood-inspired Spanish Mission style, similar to the team owner’s mansion atop his iron mining empire. The second were the massive steel-framed light towers that jut out over the diamond like an Erector Set. Rickwood became one of the first stadiums to feature regular night games, which were wildly popular given Birmingham’s heat and humidity.

Rickwood Baseball Park, Birmingham, Alabama

The real Rickwood draw, however, were the games featuring the greatest players Major League Baseball has ever known. Prior to the 1910 season, Mack brought his Athletics (World Series champs that year and the next) for an exhibition while advising Woodward on the stadium that would open six months later. The A’s were so well received in Birmingham that word spread fast. For the next 50 years, major league teams would stop in Birmingham for some baseball and Southern hospitality on the train trip up from Florida after spring training.

The list of players is basically a who’s who of Cooperstown plaques: Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Lou Gehrig, Honus Wagner, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial and, most notably, Babe Ruth. One tall tale claimed that Ruth mashed what the longest home run in baseball history in the park, with the ball clearing the right-field roof and landing in an open boxcar or coal tender, which carried it to Atlanta a few hours later. Like many a Great Bambino legend, it’s apocryphal—the train tracks were estimated to be 700 feet away—but versions of the story are still told today.

The carousel of white major league stars playing exhibition games was always exciting, but the Barons were always a minor league squad. The true hometown major league talent was found in official games with the other team calling Rickwood Field home.

Rickwood’s “Say Hey” days

Ever since there’s been the game of baseball, Black Americans have played it, going back to the game’s mid-19th-century origins. But in 1887, a “gentlemen’s agreement” among major and minor league owners to not sign new Black players made de facto segregation the total law of the diamond by 1900. One of the first big games between Black squads at Rickwood was a doubleheader on Labor Day in 1919. Barons owner Rick Woodward rented out the stadium in exchange for a cut of ticket sales. It paid off: 15,000 fans packed the park, including 1,500 white fans, according to historian Phil Dixon.

By box score, the Birmingham Black Barons were the quintessential middle-of-the-pack team. In the Golden Age, they sported a 652-649 record, eking out a .501 winning percentage. They captured three pennants but lost all three Negro League World Series to the powerful Homestead Grays. The team’s best players included Paige, newcomer Mays—known as the “Say Hey Kid”—as well as fellow Cooperstown inductee slugger Mule Suttles. But none stuck around all that long. Dixon, who has been researching Negro League stories for 45 years, believes it’s names most fans don’t know who were the backbone of the Black Barons.

“They had all kinds of memorable players beyond the famous names. Guys like Charles ‘Two Sides’ Wesley, who was married to the great blues singer Clara Smith. Or Lorenzo ‘Piper’ Davis, nicknamed after the small mining town he grew up in,” says Dixon, author of multiple baseball books. “Davis was a terrific infielder for seven seasons and later became the Black Barons’ manager who discovered, signed and tutored Mays. Davis was the Boston Red Sox’s first Black signee, but they didn’t give him a fair shake, releasing him after 15 games even though he was leading the Scranton Miners in batting average, runs batted in and home runs.”

The Birmingham Black Barons pose for a team photo in 1951
The Birmingham Black Barons pose for a team photo in 1951. Mark Rucker / Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

The Black Barons’ full seasons ranged anywhere from 60 to 100 or so games, but the ones taking place every other Sunday became a beloved tradition. They were a refuge for African Americans, dressed to the nines after Sunday services, and a place where races sat within proximity of one another, unheard of at the time.

“Rickwood Field was a place where racism could take a break for nine innings,” says comedian Roy Wood Jr., who grew up in Birmingham, played on the field in high school and hosts the new podcast series “Road to Rickwood.” “Once the Black Barons came into being, white people came out to see them play, too. In small degrees, quality baseball superseded the Jim Crow South.”

Even as Rickwood Field provided a local respite for Black Birmingham residents, it was also rented out for Ku Klux Klan rallies. Deeply ingrained personal, societal and institutional racism was omnipresent throughout the Negro Leagues’ existence. Dixon notes that at one point, “the Black Barons were drawing so many fans [that] the community started complaining because they didn’t want so many African Americans coming into their neighborhood.”

In 1954, seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors and the same year that legal racial segregation was overruled in Brown v. Board of Education, integrated baseball came to Rickwood. Over three days in early April, in defiance of local law, teams with Black players played in Birmingham. On April 1, the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals hopped off the train from spring training and went to the ballpark for an impromptu game. Cardinals first baseman Tom Alston became the first Black player at Rickwood to face a white pitcher. Alongside Alston was Sox infielder Minnie Miñoso, the first Afro-Latino player in the majors.

The following two days were even more significant. Robinson and his Dodgers All-Star teammates shared Rickwood Field with their counterparts on the Milwaukee Braves: Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn. It was the most anticipated series Rickwood had ever seen. Barra speculates the Birmingham town fathers didn’t want to ruin the risk of a future boycott if they called it off, so segregation took a back seat to the big leagues. The standing-room-only crowds down the foul lines bled into one another, and for the first time, a smattering of Rickwood Field fans were truly integrated, even taking into account white attrition from those who insisted on a refund.

Field of realities

Rickwood Field may have offered the only semblance of integration in Birmingham, but Jim Crow didn’t stop at the stadium’s entrance. Both Black and white Barons fans tuned in to hear radio broadcasts with the team’s popular play-by-play announcer, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor. Connor got behind the mic at games, where he had a special call for homers hit into the Black fans’ bleachers, “It’s going, it’s going … and it’s in the coalbin!” In 1934, Connor’s local baseball fame helped him win a seat in the Alabama state legislature, the beginning of one of the most infamous political careers in 20th-century America.

“The police commissioner who later turned the hoses on civil rights marchers loved announcing Barons games,” says Barra.

From 1937-1953 and 1957-1963, the virulently, savagely racist Connor served as Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, which gave him administrative oversight of the police, fire department, schools, public health services and libraries. In April 1963, Connor had Martin Luther King Jr. jailed for protesting segregation. In a solitary cell, King wrote “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” calling the city “probably the most thoroughly segregated … in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known.”

Members of the Congress of Racial Equality and the All Souls Church march in memory of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims on September 22, 1963.
Members of the Congress of Racial Equality and the All Souls Church march in memory of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims on September 22, 1963. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In May 1963, years after he called Barons games, Connor attempted to halt the Children’s Crusade, a demonstration of more than 1,000 Black Birmingham school kids, by unleashing snarling police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses upon the young peaceful protesters, but they kept going for eight days. The newspaper and television images of brutality against children sent a shock wave through the United States, galvanizing the wider protest movement and prompting President John F. Kennedy to express support for federal civil rights legislation.

By month’s end, the Alabama Supreme Court forced Connor to vacate his office—he would return to public office as head of the Alabama Public Service Commission in just over a year—but the worst of white supremacy in Birmingham was yet to come. On a Sunday morning in Birmingham, September 15, 1963, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, all 14, and Carol Denise McNair, 11, were murdered where they prayed. They were the young victims of the racist attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church, one of 50 dynamite attacks between 1947 and 1965 in “Bombingham.” The church was a centerpiece of African American life, and a departure spot for many of the nonviolent marches and demonstrations that took place throughout the early 1960s.

On November 22, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. In memory of his predecessor, President Lyndon B. Johnson vowed to bring Kennedy’s civil rights proposals to legislative fruition. On July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, three months after Rickwood Field officially integrated.

The mighty A’s in the Magic City

The turbulent early 1960s under Bull Connor was also a bleak time at Rickwood. The Barons had moved after 1961, and the Black Barons became a barnstorming team that quietly fell apart a year later. In April 1964, the chicken wire came down, and sections opened up in the stands. Out on the field, the Barons became the first integrated team in any sport in Alabama.

That iteration of the Barons would only survive two years, but their departure allowed for the return of glorious baseball to Rickwood. In 1967, Birmingham native and former Barons batboy Charlie Finley brought a new team to his hometown, the bright yellow-and-green clad—Rickwood was painted to match—Double-A Kansas City (later Oakland) A’s affiliate. That first year, the Birmingham A’s, who featured future Hall of Famer stalwarts such as Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers, and multiple other players who would be integral to the early ’70s major league dynasty, went 84-55 and won the Southern League chip. Pre-eminent baseball scholar Bill James ranks the team among the greatest minor league squads of all time.

Amid plummeting attendance, the A’s bolted in 1975, and the stadium sat empty until 1981 when the Barons returned as an affiliate with the Detroit Tigers. The Barons lasted at Rickwood until 1987, when the team moved to the Birmingham suburb of Hoover. By that time, fans were sparse, and the stadium’s infrastructure was crumbling. The Barons lost their final home game 5-4 to the Charlotte O’s in the second game of the Southern League championship, but they scored “one more for Rickwood” by taking the title, 3-1.

Rickwood reborn

One of the most astounding aspects about America’s oldest ballpark is that it’s still standing at all. Upkeep eroded over time, and for a few dark years the stadium’s survival hung in the balance. In 1992, a group of young professionals with childhood memories and adult nostalgia set out to save the ballpark and created the Friends of Rickwood. They went to City Hall and pled their preservation case to Richard Arrington, Birmingham’s first Black mayor, who signed a $1-a-year long-term lease with the organization. Friends of Rickwood got to work fundraising $2 million while restoring vital period details like the facade, the grandstand roof and a replica of the hand-operated scoreboard. From then through last year, the foundation held an annual fundraising game with old-timey uniforms and a memorabilia auction.

The Friends of Rickwood renovations caught the attention of Hollywood, and it has since stood in as the baseball backdrop for scenes from Soul of the Game, 42 and Cobb.

Throughout its lifespan, Rickwood Field was never inactive for long. Various local high schools continued to play there, and in 2018, it became home to Miles College, a historically Black school. “I don’t remember much about high school games because I hardly played, but I knew if we lost, I dreaded the next day,” says Wood, whose podcast told through the eyes of the stadium is produced in partnership with NPR and MLB. “We also practiced at Rickwood, and the coach would make us run from home plate to the left-field foul pole and back, and then the right-field foul pole and back.”

A photo of the 2010 Rickwood Classic baseball game
A photo of the 2010 Rickwood Classic baseball game Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Rickwood Field has long deserved a national shine, but the upcoming “Tribute to the Negro Leagues” does come at a crossroads for African Americans and Major League Baseball. At the end of May, to much goodwill, Negro League statistics from 1920 to 1948 were finally vetted and incorporated into the major league record books. The evolved statistical database is the culmination of decades of research among baseball historians into the careers of 3,400 Negro Leaguers. The headline-grabbing change is Josh Gibson (.372) leaping over Ty Cobb (.366) in career batting average, a shift that probably finds the “Georgia Peach” rolling over, spikes up, in his grave. Out on the Rickwood mound, the biggest bump came to its biggest name. Satchel Paige increased his strikeout total to 189, a career single-season high, for his year with the 1929 Black Barons.

The new record book should be part of a renewed overall MLB focus on the men who played baseball in the Negro Leagues and how important it’s been in African American history. As it stands now, the relationship between Black kids and baseball is dire. Only 6 percent of players on of Opening Day rosters in 2024 were Black, down slightly from 2023, and the smallest percentage since 1955. This year, 57 Black men were rostered, one fewer than the number of Venezuelans.

“I first talked about the decline in Black players with Commissioner Peter Ueberroth in ’88 or ’89, when I think the Minnesota Twins had two African American players in their entire minor league system,” says Dixon, who is a member of the Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee. “There’s a lot of blame to go around for the steady decline. I’d give MLB an F, but I’ve seen it on both ends. African American communities haven’t done a good job of keeping baseball alive—everywhere I travel there are weeds growing over diamonds. I think a true revival has to come from the bottom up, not the top down.”

A 2015 photo of Ron Teasley
A 2015 photo of Ron Teasley Leon Halip / Getty Images

The Rickwood Field game is a good place to start. It’s always been a stadium for baseball people, Black and white, players and fans, and an unsung American institution. Recognizing the Negro Leaguers still among us provides a valuable link to the not-so-distant segregated past, while honoring the last three ballplayers of the Golden Age is a worthy public reconciliation with the national pastime’s original sin.

“I was the eighth Black player signed by the Dodgers and I was the best player on the minor league team I was sent to, but after a few weeks they released me, saying they needed players of a ‘higher classification,’” says Ron Teasley. “It was clear the major leagues were only interested in guys like Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. … I’ve always wondered why they signed me in the first place.”

Teasley says he has lived a full life and has no regrets. But now, on behalf of baseball fans everywhere, he’s hoping to publicly say goodbye to one of the true baseball gods.

“I’ve never been to Rickwood. It sounds like a wonderful tribute, so I’m doing whatever it takes,” says Teasley. “I think I’ll make it down there, and I hope Willie Mays does, too. I never met the man and would love to just say, ‘Thank you.’”

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