Historic Black Barons made Rickwood Field hallowed ground

February 22nd, 2024

When the Double-A Birmingham Barons host the Montgomery Biscuits on June 18 at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field, and when the Giants face the Cardinals there two days later, the games will be played on hallowed ground.

Rickwood Field was originally the home of two franchises. Opened in 1910, it was built for and effectively owned by the Minor Leagues' all-white Barons. But for decades, when that team was on the road, Rickwood Field was the domain of the Birmingham Black Barons.

The Black Barons were special not only for being a Negro Leagues franchise that featured numerous all-time greats, but for being a source of tremendous joy for African-American fans in one of America’s most ferociously segregated cities. When the Black Barons were in town, Birmingham came out to celebrate.

And there was plenty of cause for celebration. The Birmingham Black Barons existed in many forms over many years. Some of those clubs were so great or boasted stars so legendary as to cement the team name in baseball history. Three Black Barons teams played in the Negro World Series, and the Black Barons uniform was donned by Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, Mule Suttles, Willie Wells (all Hall of Famers), as well as Dan Bankhead, Artie Wilson, Bill Greason and many others who made an impact in MLB and beyond.

Satchel Paige (l), Piper Davis and Willie Mays are just a few of the greats who played for the Black Barons.

From the time Rickwood Field opened until well after Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, these and other Black greats entertained the Birmingham faithful en masse.

“If you wanted to get a seat at Rickwood for a doubleheader on a Sunday, you had to leave church before the minister preached,” Faye Davis, the daughter of longtime Black Barons player-manager Piper Davis, told John Shea for the Mays-coauthored book, “24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid.”

Mays went to Black Barons games at Rickwood Field as a child, and he made his pro debut with the team when he was still practically a child. But at 17 years old, he could play ball alongside any group of men. The 1948 Birmingham club Mays played on was a member of the Negro American League -- which has since been recognized as holding Major League status -- and faced the Negro National League’s famed Homestead Grays in the last Negro World Series.

His tenure with the team was short-lived, as Mays found himself in the Giants’ farm system in short order and was the National League Rookie of the Year at age 20 in 1951. But he was not the first Black player fans in Birmingham watched launch a remarkable career.

Paige was one of the earliest players to establish huge star power with the Black Barons, two decades before Mays’ time. The right-hander debuted for Birmingham in 1927. Although Paige was at the very beginning of his many, many days as a pro pitcher when he joined the Black Barons, his potential was evident.

Within a couple years of joining the club, Paige was known all over, his talent deservedly trumpeted in the Black press. He was described as “invincible” in the Chicago Defender, “a star” in the Baltimore Afro American and “the Black Wizard” by the hometown Birmingham Reporter. Local fans seemed to have a pretty good idea what they had in him, too. When Paige was on the mound, the Barons could draw north of 8,000 fans at Rickwood Field.

His time with the Black Barons also coincided with a period in which the franchise began to develop into one of the crown jewels in all of the Negro Leagues (and, indeed, in all of baseball).

The “Birmingham Barons” team name for a white squad dates back to the 1880s when the city’s industrial giants were “coal barons.” It’s likely a team of Black players began to be called by a similar name not long after -- it’s certain, in fact, that there was a team known as the Black Barons as early as 1908.

When Rube Foster ushered in a thrilling new era of professionalization of the Negro Leagues in the early 1920s, Birmingham’s Black Barons were members of the Negro Southern League, which was not on the same level as Foster’s Negro National League. But by 1924, the Barons had joined that Negro National League. Although they sporadically returned to lower-level circuits, their frequent standing as a top-flight club and the arrival of a budding star of Paige’s magnitude cemented their destiny.

That destiny -- of Negro League superstars, of world-class play in the face of segregation, of bringing nine-inning stretches of happiness to a community that badly needed it -- will be foremost among the legacies honored at Rickwood Field this June.

"It has been 75 years since I played for the Birmingham Black Barons at Rickwood Field, and to learn that my Giants and the Cardinals will play a game there and honor the legacy of the Negro Leagues and all those who came before them is really emotional for me,” Mays said when MLB announced the event. “We can’t forget what got us here and that was the Negro Leagues for so many of us."