Wood Jr. gives 'front-row seat' to Birmingham's rich baseball history

Comedian to host four-part podcast series "Road to Rickwood"

May 31st, 2024

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- There’s a patient kindness that sits inside Roy Wood Jr. as he moves in and out of people’s homes across Birmingham, Ala. It would be easy for him, an internationally known comedian/journalist and consistent figure on television and radio for more than two decades, to move around with the bravado and bristled nature of a haughty celebrity.

But as the host of the Road to Rickwood podcast, a four-part series examining the history of Rickwood Field, the Birmingham Black Barons and the battle for freedom and equality by the Black community in Birmingham, Wood holds no egotism. He moves with the deference of a humble guest, planting on couches and creaky chairs with the subdued excitement of someone who’s just happy to be involved.

Mostly because Wood was cherishing the opportunity to learn firsthand about the rich baseball history in the city he loves.

Roy Wood Jr. during the MLBN Rickwood Content Shoot at Birmingham Metro Area

“It was nice, because it was also an education for me,” Wood said. “I don’t know all of this. I didn’t know everything that there was to know about the history of baseball and the Negro Leagues. To me, it was the opportunity to learn more about the game myself. You’re not overly educated about baseball, you know what you know from Ken Burns’ documentaries and highlights that you’re shown on sports networks.

“So to be able to have a front-row seat and follow my own curiosities through some of this stuff …”

To say that Wood is familiar with Birmingham would be an understatement. He spent much of his childhood in the northern Alabama city -- with a stint in Memphis, Tenn., mixed in the middle -- attending Ramsay High School in the mid- to late-90s. Even as he left Birmingham to attend Florida A&M University, his ties to the city he grew up in remained strong -- getting his start in journalism as a morning news reporter at WBHJ, while sharpening his comedic chops by filling in for the legendary radio host Rickey Smiley on occasion.

Roy Wood Jr., Michael Mays, Jake Peavy, Harold Reynolds and Bob Kendrick

Once Wood graduated from FAMU in 2001, he returned to Birmingham, diving headfirst into the throes of radio and comedy. In addition to launching his own career in the town he grew up in, the return represented a full-circle moment for Wood -- whose father Roy Wood was a Black radio and journalistic pioneer who tirelessly covered the experience of African-Americans during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Combined with the fact that his mother Joyce was a higher education administrator for nearly four decades, it makes perfect sense that Wood’s ties to Birmingham run deeper than most.

“I think one thing I benefited from was that I never went to school in my zone: From third grade through high school, I didn’t go to a single school in my neighborhood,” Wood said. “But I knew everybody in my neighborhood, because I had a basketball, so folks would come over to hoop. … And then, 13 years of doing radio in the city, you learn all the people that are connecting and doing stuff. Because radio intersects with every other industry within the city: So we dealt with the politicians, we dealt with the streets, we dealt with community leaders, we dealt with the church.”

Roy Wood Jr. and Harold Reynolds

Wood, who now lives in New York, was messaged by WWNO (New Orleans’ local NPR station) radio producer Alana Schreiber in January with the pitch to be the host and narrator of Road to Rickwood, which is produced by WWNO with support from MLB. After an initial conversation and hashing out of details, he was sufficiently convinced that the podcast would not be just a surface-level, flyover view of Birmingham, but an in-depth look at the history of the city and Rickwood Field with a semblance of care and reverence both deserve.

So in February and March, Wood, Schreiber, fellow producers Ben Dickstein and Jonah Buchanan and AL.com reporter Cody Short embarked upon a massive reporting project, exploring the complicated place that Rickwood Field holds in Birmingham’s story. Its standing as a former beacon for the African-American community as the home field for the Black Barons, the pride and joy as a member of the Negro Leagues. How the field was used as a tool for oppression and segregation at the hands of the city’s commissioner of public safety, Bull Connor. The manner in which it was a proving ground for a 17-year-old Willie Mays, who would go on to become one of the best players in baseball history, and Birmingham’s greatest export.

Wood and the team interviewed historians, relatives of former owners of the Barons and members of the 1964 squad like Blue Moon Odom and Bert Campaneris (the first integrated team in the city of Birmingham). But sessions that struck Wood the most, the interviews that will stick with him for years after, were the ones with the former Negro Leaguers and their relatives, who knew Rickwood and Birmingham most intimately. People like Bill Greason -- who pitched for the 1948 Black Barons squad, was the first Black pitcher to play for the Cardinals in 1954 and has served as a pastor in the city for 50 years -- and Faye Davis, the daughter of legendary player/manager Piper Davis. Or Al Holt, who played on the Black Barons as an outfielder from 1962-63.

Sitting on Davis’ couch, hearing her gush about her father’s intellect and intensity, being invited into Holt’s home to hear his story and witnessing Greason’s steadiness and faith amid a hall of his accomplishments -- it all will stick with Wood long after the podcast airs.

“The thing I appreciated about this project was that it was going to allow the living, retired Negro Leaguers to tell their story,” Wood said. “... The worth of these [Negro League] games to the communities that they were played in, had as big a social impact as anything negative from that time. If baseball was an escape, and you’re dealing with racism all week, then you get a two-hour break to sit and watch a dude throw and hit a ball -- that’s as important to mental health and development in that time as going to therapy to me. You can look at these moments as ‘eyes in the storm’ of racism as moments of quasi-therapy. So to be able to tell the story of those therapists, well that’s meaningful.

“It was humbling. I was probably most blown away by in most of the Negro Leaguers is just how much [the game] was just a day in the life for them. … I don’t even think they really look at what they did as this thing that will forever wear as a medal. They’re proud of what they did, they were happy to play the sport, but they went on to have lives and do other things that were just as, if not more meaningful.”

Roy Wood Jr., Harold Reynolds, Birmingham’s mayor Randall Woodfin and Negro League players Joseph Marbury, Ferdinand “Chico” Rutledge and Alphonso “Al” Holt

First and foremost, Wood is a baseball lover through and through. He’s a lifelong Cubs fan and is on his way to knocking every Major League stadium off his bucket list (he’s got 11 left). As a kid, Wood became enamored with the calmness and concentration needed to play baseball, neatly fitting into his personality. And though his playing career ended once he graduated from Ramsay (a fact that he ruefully jokes about in various interviews), his passion for the sport remains, now taking a different form.

Wood’s passion for baseball now manifests in trying to grow the game in the city he grew up, hoping to see more Black kids who look like him in the sport. Motivated by his own experiences -- “I didn’t have the people to tell me that I needed to be playing baseball year round, and even if I did, as a family, we didn’t have the means logistically or fiscally,” Wood says -- he wants to make baseball more accessible, by any means necessary.

As a booster for Ramsay, Wood used connections at Meta to provide a handful of VR headsets with baseball simulation software to the high school to be used when practices get canceled or rained out. He’s also lobbied for park/field construction in Birmingham, understanding that few things can replicate the experience of playing and improving against competition -- and for that, the kids need a place to play.

Roy Wood Jr.

And while he characterizes the numerous efforts as just a “drop in the bucket,” Wood knows that every step for improvement is necessary, no matter how big or small.

“I just think something needs to be done, because I think only people from Alabama are truly going to care about Alabama,” Wood said. “Like you have to love a place to really invest in it.”

That love fuels his yearning to see baseball return to Black youths at the rates of years’ past. That love powered his work on the Road to Rickwood podcast, giving him a chance to educate himself and the rest of the world on the dizzying history of the city and field he knows. A brand of love that’s all-encompassing, and everlasting.