A palace for baseball royalty: A look at the legends who played at Rickwood

June 17th, 2024

On Aug. 18, 1910, every business in Birmingham, Alabama was closed. Everyone was at the ballgame.

And this ballgame was special, because it would be the first ever played at Rickwood Field, which is now the oldest active professional ballpark in America.

What many may not know about this revered venue is just how many baseball legends played there. Perhaps the most famous of them is Willie Mays, who began his professional career at Rickwood with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. But there is a lengthy list of great players and managers, including 181 Hall of Famers, who graced the diamond at Rickwood over the past 114 years.

As the Cardinals and Giants prepare to play a historic game at the venerable ballpark on Thursday, here’s a look at some of those legendary figures.

Players who spent their entire careers in the Negro Leagues:
Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston and Rube Foster

The recent incorporation of Negro Leagues statistics into the official MLB historical record underscored just how incredible Negro Leagues players were. That includes four of the greatest Negro Leagues players in history, who spent their entire careers in the Negro Leagues and played at Rickwood Field at some point: Gibson, Bell, Charleston and Foster.

Gibson, who became MLB’s all-time leader in career batting average (.373), slugging percentage (.718) and OPS (1.176) with the newly incorporated stats, played at Rickwood as a visitor with the Homestead Grays during the Negro Leagues World Series in 1943 and '44.

Bell, one of the fastest players in baseball history, also played against the Black Barons at Rickwood, primarily while with the St. Louis Stars. He led the league in steals for five consecutive years from 1925-29, and over that period, he posted an .874 OPS.

Charleston, one of the elite players in the Negro Leagues from 1921-27, played for the Indianapolis ABCs, the St. Louis Giants and the Harrisburg Giants over that span. He led his league (the Negro National League from 1921-23, and the Eastern Colored League from 1924-27) in home runs five times and won the slash line triple crown (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) three times.

Foster, a pioneer in organizing Black baseball leagues, founded the Negro National League, of which the Birmingham Black Barons were a part, in 1920. He managed the Chicago American Giants to the league’s championship in its first three years of existence and went on to manage the club for three more seasons.

Players who began in the Negro Leagues and then played in the AL and/or NL:
Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and Roy Campanella

Mays is the most famous and iconic player to suit up for the Barons, and when Negro Leagues stats were added to the MLB register, 10 hits from when he was 17 years old were added to his previous total of 3,283. Mays went 10-for-43 with a pair of doubles and a triple in 13 games for Birmingham in 1948, helping the Black Barons reach the Negro Leagues World Series that year. He played two more summers for Birmingham before being signed by the Giants. The rest, as they say (hey!), is history.

Hall of Famers Aaron and Banks each played in the Negro Leagues after baseball was integrated in 1948, so their Negro Leagues stats weren't incorporated into the MLB record. But they were nonetheless tremendous ballplayers for the Indianapolis Clowns and Kansas City Monarchs, respectively, before going on to the Major Leagues -- Aaron slugged 755 home runs over 23 seasons with the Braves and Brewers, and Banks became known as "Mr. Cub," belting 512 homers and winning two NL MVP Awards with Chicago from 1953-71.

Aaron sometimes made a stop at Rickwood Field on his way from Spring Training in Florida to Atlanta. Banks played at Rickwood against the Black Barons while with the Monarchs.

Paige, an ageless wonder who eventually pitched for Cleveland, the St. Louis Browns and the Kansas City A’s, began his professional career as a 20-year-old with the Black Barons in 1927. He pitched four seasons for Birmingham, posting a 2.93 ERA over 491 innings over that span, taking the mound at Rickwood Field for home games.

Robinson and Doby, who were the first players to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, each played at Rickwood.

Robinson, who broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, played there when the Dodgers visited in '54. And Doby, who broke it in the American League in '48, played at Rickwood when visiting with Cleveland.

Campanella, a Hall of Fame catcher whose career was cut short by a car accident in 1958 that left his legs paralyzed, played at Rickwood with Dodgers in '54 as well. He played in the Negro Leagues with the Washington/Baltimore Elite Giants from 1937-42.

Players who spent their entire careers in the AL/NL
Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Dizzy Dean, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Duke Snider, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Rollie Fingers, Blue Moon Odom, Bert Campaneris, Vida Blue

Look at that list. It’s truly incredible just how many legendary players who never played in the Negro Leagues nonetheless played at historic Rickwood Field over the years.

One of the reasons for that is that Rickwood was conveniently located near a railway hub, and Major League teams would often stop to see and play in the ballpark on their way from Spring Training in Florida back to their home city.

Every member of the first Hall of Fame class (1936) played at Rickwood -- Ruth, Cobb, Mathewson, Johnson and Wagner. In 1958, Mantle and his Yankees, as well as Musial and his Cardinals, visited Rickwood on their way from Florida to New York and St. Louis, respectively.

In the 1960s, Kansas City A’s owner Charlie O. Finley, a Birmingham native, placed his Double-A affiliate in his hometown. In 1967, long before he became “Mr. October,” Jackson spent part of the season with the Birmingham A’s before being called up to make his MLB debut. In 114 games with Birmingham, Jackson launched 17 homers (and also had a whopping 17 triples) while posting a .934 OPS.

Other A’s legends, like Fingers, Odom and Campaneris also played at Rickwood during their Minor League careers -- Fingers with the Birmingham A’s as a teammate of Jackson’s in 1967, and both Odom and Campaneris with the Birmingham Barons (then also an A’s affiliate) in ’64.