Barons used Rickwood Field to help integrate Birmingham

June 18th, 2024

BIRMINGHAM -- By his own account, Paul Seitz had no idea what he was getting into in the 1964 season. Sure, he started his professional career pitching in Selma, Ala., in ‘60, but the experience of playing integrated baseball growing up afforded him the blissful existence of a white player who didn’t think much of playing with Black or Hispanic teammates.

As the Opening Day pitcher for the 1964 Birmingham Barons, the first integrated team in the city’s history, Seitz was going to hold a unique mantle in Birmingham’s civil rights journey, with a front-row seat to how prepared some were to maintain the status quo.

“Because I didn’t know much about segregation or integration, I played baseball at Ohio State, and everybody played together in Ohio growing up,” Seitz said. “But you started reading stuff in Birmingham. There were bomb threats, actually, at the field here. Two or three bomb threats called in. There was a strange air that was present, everybody was a bit uneasy.”

The 1964 Barons campaign was but a small, yet groundbreaking aspect of the civil rights crusade that swept through Birmingham and the rest of the South during the 1950s and '60s. For the years leading up to the '64 season, the city was a battleground as Black citizens and activist allies organized and fought against segregationist repression, emboldened by public safety commissioner Bull Connor’s reign. Even after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court in '54, Black people still faced stringent disenfranchisement and violence at the hands of their own city leaders -- even with pressure from the national government to integrate.

In response to Major League Baseball mandating the Minors be integrated, and a federal court decision declaring that Birmingham’s segregated parks and public spaces were unconstitutional, Connor and the city government shut down all public parks and facilities in 1961 -- rather than comply with the ruling. With the “Checkers Rule” still in effect in the city code -- which banned interracial play of all kinds, even board games -- integrated sports was practically illegal within Birmingham’s city limits. The ban lasted until '63, leaving both segregated Barons teams (Black and white) unable to play at Rickwood Field for the better part of two years.

“What was going on in Birmingham was very simple,” said Shelley Stewart, former radio personality and Black Barons announcer. Stewart was instrumental in disseminating information about mass movements and marches during the Civil Rights Movement. “But the children said, ‘We’re not afraid. We’re not afraid of jail. We want our freedom.’ There was no talk of segregation: We just wanted our freedom.”

It wasn’t until the ousting of Connor, fueled in large part by Black Birmingham’s efforts with the Children’s Crusade and resistance to waves of bombings and violence, that segregation ordinances and laws petered out. At which point, it allowed Barons owner Art Belcher to reform the club as a charter member of the new Southern League for the 1964 season. This time, with Birmingham’s first racially-integrated Barons squad set to become the first professional team to play at Rickwood without segregated seating. They became Alabama’s first integrated sports team, 17 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the Majors.

As the Double-A affiliate for the Kansas City Athletics that year, the Barons had a healthy mix of African American, Hispanic (Puerto Rican and Cuban) and white players on their roster -- including members of their dominant ‘70s dynasty Blue Moon Odom and Bert Campaneris. And despite the bevy of future talent on hand, and the respected mantle that baseball held in Birmingham, the team’s racial makeup faced opposition from the very outset.

The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that took the lives of four Black girls -- Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair -- had occurred just months before the Barons’ 1964 Opening Day matchup against the Asheville Tourists. And the tenor of violence and intimidation loomed around Birmingham all the way up until first pitch.

“It was a little tougher in Birmingham,” said Odom, who was from Macon, Ga. “Playing there, the Ku Klux Klansmen didn’t want us to play in that ballpark [Rickwood]. Well, they was marching down the street right by the ballpark -- before and during the game.”

For the Barons, all there was to do at that point was to play baseball. Remarkably, the Opening Day game went off without a hitch off the field; however, the Barons lost to Asheville, 4-2, never really getting out of the gate.

“I got zero people out, I pitched to three or four hitters,” Seitz said. “First pitch, guy doubled to right-center, little tiny left-handed hitter. … I don’t think I threw another strike after that. I walked two or three, and I was done.

“When I came out here in '64, I was trying to throw it through the world. I was grunting, throwing so hard. There were a couple wild pitches involved. I guess I was just too pumped up, because that’s the only time in my life that I ever started and didn’t record an out [laughs].”

Fortunately, that was the lowest point of the Barons’ 1964 campaign. Thanks to huge contributions at the plate from Campaneris (who would go on to be a six-time All-Star), Santiago Rosario and Tommy Reynolds; and solid showings on the mound from Odom, Richard Allen and Paul Lindblad; Birmingham was a force in the Southern League. They finished with a record of 80-60, losing the pennant by one game to the Lynchburg White Sox.

Despite missing out on postseason glory, that inaugural integrated team holds rosy memories of its on-field success they experienced at Rickwood.

“I love that ballpark, I hit pretty good at that ballpark,” Campaneris said. “In that ballpark, I hit three home runs. I hit one to center field, and they said only two players hit it [out there]: Harmon Killebrew and [Roy] Campanella.”

Barons players, headed by first-year manager Haywood Sullivan, leaned on each other (and the routine of baseball) to circumvent the obstacles of language, color and segregation that persisted during that season. Campaneris, who “got along with everybody,” found comfort in teammate and interpreter Woody Huyke. A catcher from Puerto Rico, Huyke navigated the color line in the South, bringing Campaneris food whenever he needed it. Seitz remembers being totally focused on baseball, but not hesitating to stand with and support his Black and brown teammates whenever the situation needed it.

The range of experiences with racism varied based on the color of their skin -- and it certainly wasn’t a perfect or seamless mesh between the players -- but there was a base level of care for each other that extended beyond their teammate duties. While being a launching pad for numerous illustrious Major League careers, that 1964 squad was integral in changing the lives of people who may have been ignorant to the realities of their Black neighbors. It brought them ever so closer to the truth that we’re all running this race together -- that each person deserves the chance to live and love with freedom, no matter who they are. That it’s hard enough to hit a curveball, or throw a ball over the plate without feeling isolated by hatred and oppression.

“We stopped at this little diner on the road [to Macon],” Odom said. “There were 22 of us at the time, and we went inside to eat. And they took everybody’s order but mine. And one of the players said, ‘Aren’t you going to take his order?’ And the lady said, ‘No, he has to go around back, and then we’ll take his order.’

“My temper was getting ready to flare up then. I got up and said, ‘I’m going to go back to the bus, but if anybody in here eats, every one of you has to kick my you know what before you get on that bus.’ And once I left out of there, the whole team followed me. And that meant a lot.”