Birmingham schools get surprise visit from Wood Jr., Peavy and more

Parker, Ramsay HS students also invited to attend MLB at Rickwood Field game in June

June 3rd, 2024

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Roy Wood Jr. grew up in West End, one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city of Birmingham. Jake Peavy grew up in a house on wheels in the city of Mobile a few hours south. Harold Reynolds grew up in a single-parent household as the youngest of eight children in rural Oregon. Bob Kendrick grew up in a Georgia town with 500 residents in a house that didn’t have indoor plumbing until he was a teenager.

Yet, all four men would go on to reach the heights of their respective professions.

Wood is a stand-up comedian best known as a correspondent on “The Daily Show.” Peavy, a 15-year MLB veteran, is an NL Cy Young Award winner and two-time World Series champion. Reynolds, a two-time All-Star in his 12-year MLB career, is a three-time Sports Emmy Award-winning analyst for MLB Network. And Kendrick is the longtime president of the renowned Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

In the leadup to MLB at Rickwood Field: A Tribute to the Negro Leagues, a regular-season game between the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals that will take place on June 20, these four men gathered in Birmingham and shared their stories with students at a pair of public high schools: A.H. Parker High School and Ramsay High School. They were joined by Michael Mays, son of Hall of Famer Willie, whose professional baseball career began not with the New York Giants in the 1950s, but with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League at 17 years old in 1948.

“He grew up in this neighborhood, and it’s still very much in him,” Michael Mays said. “And for me, his story has to come full circle back to Birmingham.”

Michael Mays in conversation with Harold Reynolds at Parker High School (Parker S. Freedman/MLB Photos)

For much of the 20th century, Birmingham was primarily an industrial city, specializing in iron and steel, mining and railroading. During the civil rights movement, it was considered the most segregated city in the country, the site of one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous writings, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

In the present day, more than a quarter of Birmingham residents live below the U.S. poverty line, a figure that is more than double the national average. More than two-thirds of the city’s population is Black.

Episode 1 of “The Road to Rickwood” podcast was released on May 28. Listen below:

When it was founded in 1900, Parker was known as Negro High School; it was Alabama’s first public high school for Black students. Its first graduation was held at the 16th Street Baptist Church, the National Historic Landmark where a Ku Klux Klan bombing killed four young girls in 1963. Ramsay, Wood’s alma mater, is a magnet school and one of three International Baccalaureate schools in the Birmingham metropolitan area.

“Y’all live in a special place. You go to a very special school in this city,” Wood told the assembled students. “Whatever your dreams are -- baseball, softball, whatever y’all are trying to do in this world -- the only thing I really came up here to say is to make sure that you surround yourself with people that have goals. … If there’s something you want to do and are serious about doing, find people who are serious about a goal in life as well. And then study the people who are already doing what you’re trying to do.”

For the baseball and softball players in attendance, Peavy is one of those people. When he was trying to make the same climb, a speaker visited one of his teams and shared four C’s that have carried him throughout his life, all the way to the mountaintop: commitment, conviction, courage and character.

Peavy won the 2013 World Series with the Red Sox and the 2014 World Series with the Giants, and he brought both of those championship rings with him to the high schools, letting the students pass them around and take photos with them.

“I’m standing here as living proof that your dreams can become a reality,” Peavy said. “This man right here, world-famous comedian, from where you’re from. I got a chance to play baseball my entire life and call it, to this day, a job, right from where you guys sit in Alabama. So dream big. The world is at your fingertips.”

Rickwood Field, which is also located in the West End neighborhood, is less than a 15-minute drive from both Parker and Ramsay. One of only five Negro League stadiums still in operation, it is the oldest professional ballpark in the nation, having first opened its doors in 1910.

At the time, Rickwood was home to both the Black Barons and the all-white Barons. As Kendrick noted, the Black Barons were the bigger draw. But that didn’t prevent them from facing discrimination wherever they went, in line with the predominant experience for barnstorming clubs across the Negro Leagues. Fans may have cheered for them at Rickwood, but once they left those hallowed grounds, they would be refused accommodations and banned from restaurants due to segregation.

“You can use your circumstances as a crutch, or you can use them as a ladder. When you look at the story of the Negro Leagues, that is exactly what they did,” Kendrick said. “What you have to admire about these athletes is they never allowed that set of social circumstances to kill their love of the game. Their spirits were such that, ‘If I got to sleep on the bus and if I got to eat my peanut butter and crackers, I’m going to keep playing ball. You can’t rob me of this joy of playing baseball.’”

Bob Kendrick speaks to students at Ramsay High School (Parker S. Freedman/MLB Photos)

That joy will be on full display on June 20. And these students will have the chance to be a part of it.

Reynolds, the emcee of the visits, closed the assemblies with a special announcement: All of the students in attendance will be receiving tickets to the Giants-Cardinals game.

Rickwood is expected to have a capacity of approximately 8,300, but MLB is holding more than 25 percent of the total tickets at no cost for community- or youth-based organizations in Birmingham.

“We wanted to make sure we were reaching the kids we really want to reach,” Reynolds said. “Whether it’s the Field of Dreams game, the World Series, any of those specialty jewel events, All-Star -- there’s only a select few people who get to go. … We want to reach out and touch those young people and let them know they’re a valuable part to what we’re doing.”