(Photos by Taylor Bruce, Tanner Latham, and Robin Weekley)
I was 15 when, as a high school player from Georgia, I first visited Rickwood Field in Birmingham. Forever afterwards, no ballpark experience matched up. None. Suiting up for a game in America’s oldest ballpark is the apex. But watching the game from the scoreboard heights might be a close second.
America’s Oldest Ballpark
People, ninety-nine percent of the time, respond surprisingly to Birmingham’s claim as home to baseball’s most aged relic. Rickwood bests Wrigley, Fenway, and Yankee Stadium. It’s the model for new park design firms, who’ve tailored new downtown stadiums like Baltimore’s Camden Yards and Memphis’ Autozone Park after fields like Rickwood.
You don’t see places like Rickwood anymore, not in real life. You see movies. (Cobb, starring Tommy Lee Jones, filmed its game scenes here.) So when I walked into the timepiece yesterday, more than ten years after my time on this very field, the sacred grounds, it happened again. I had a skip in my step. I couldn’t get inside fast enough. Lay eyes on the throwback painted advertisements on the outfield wall, buy a hot dog, sit as close to the home team dugout as possible. I’d been here before, but at the same time, it was all new again. I wanted to call my old high school coach Donnie Branch. I would have given my weekend to sit with the Barons on top of the dugout. (This, I recall, was the coolest thing about playing at Rickwood – sitting with my best friends on top of the dugout, game two of a doubleheader, chewing seeds.)
Behind the Scoreboard
Somewhere mid-game, I wandered up the left field line, walking 30 yards from the Sun’s outfielder, to the back of the black-and-white scoreboard. A TV camera man finished his shots as I climbed the twenty-foot ladder to the platform. There I met Kurt Wagner and Dan Weinrib, the two guys with the best seats in the house and once-a-year jobs rivaling anyone’s- scorekeepers at Rickwood. We spoke for a few minutes about their experience.
(High school student Kurt peeking through the opening in the metal numbers that slide into each inning’s slot on the big board.)
The day at Rickwood provided a pleasantly nostalgic afternoon for me. Rickwood is that type of place. A place where the grandson of a St. Louis Brown and nephew of a Detriot Tiger can channel the past, where I can share my city with someone new in town, where the kid who breathed baseball growing up can rise back to the surface of my consciousness. It’s nice to know he’s still in there, able to be awed at something so simple, a ballpark.