The Friends of Rickwood mourn the loss of Art Clarkson, who died in Birmingham on October 7, 2019, at the age of 78. Clarkson spent his professional life as a tireless promoter, owner, and general manager of sports franchises throughout the United States.
When the A’s left Birmingham following the 1975 campaign, baseball fans and Rickwood Field suffered five long summers without a professional franchise. Clarkson was working as a general manager for another minor league club when he traveled to Birmingham to evaluate the possibility of bringing professional baseball back to the Magic City. He found Rickwood’s gate locked, but scaled a fence to get in. Standing at home plate, the rich history of the ballpark left him in awe; and he made his decision.
Clarkson’s ownership group acquired the Montgomery Rebels and moved the team to Birmingham for the 1981 season. One of his first decisions was to restore “the Barons” nickname, which the club had used from 1901 to 1965. He also refurbished the ballpark, and added a new scoreboard to replace the old one, which had been removed years earlier.
Clarkson’s Barons captured Southern league crowns in 1983 and 1987 at Rickwood Field, which were the final titles won at America’s oldest ballpark. At a Rickwood Field SABR chapter meeting in 2016, Clarkson entertained attendees with stories about those years, including the time when Rickwood’s sprinklers mysteriously caused a “rainout” giving the Barons’ worn-out pitching staff a reprieve during the ‘83 playoffs.
Although he loved Rickwood, he realized the many challenges in the day-to-day operations made a move inevitable. On August 30, 1987, the Barons played their final regular season game as tenants of Rickwood Field. Thanks to Art Clarkson, every fan at the park received a certificate of attendance.
Clarkson was instrumental in getting the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium constructed. He moved the team to the suburbs in 1988. Over 30 years later, on October 22, 2019, his celebration of life was held at the Met, appropriately during the first game of the World Series.
At the Met, the Barons won a Southern League title in 1989.
Clarkson’s three championships are the second most for an owner in Barons’ history behind only A.H. “Rick” Woodward’s five titles from 1910-37.
In 1991, Clarkson sold the Barons to Suntory International. Birmingham sportswriter Wayne Martin recalled that months before the sale, a minority owner’s widow offered her share of the Barons to Clarkson for the modest price of the original investment. Putting aside his own self-interest, he suggested she hold onto her shares a while longer because “something is about to happen.” When he later sold the Barons, she made substantially more money — 25 times her asking price — thanks to Clarkson’s generosity.
At the 2006 Rickwood Classic, the Birmingham Barons announced the induction of Art Clarkson into the club’s hall of fame.
Clarkson stayed active in Birmingham sports, as he relocated an East Coast Hockey League team from Cincinnati to Birmingham in 1992 and successfully ran the team as the Bulls until 1997. He then left Birmingham and owned several arena/indoor football franchise in Huntsville, Green Bay, Wisconsin and Colorado before finally retiring.
However, he never really retired. In 1981, Clarkson had returned the Barons to Birmingham. In 2017, he did it again as he moved another hockey franchise to the area and rebranded them “the Bulls” [the original Bulls had moved after the 2000-01 season]. He was the Bulls’ managing partner until the late spring of 2019, when he stepped down for good.
On August 18, 2010, Rickwood Field celebrated its 100th birthday. Although a rainstorm soaked the field, which scuttled a scheduled exhibition game, this did not dampen the spirits of those in attendance. One of the speakers that day was Art Clarkson, who told stories and shared his memories of the park that was his baseball home for 7 memorable seasons.
His connection to Rickwood never ended as he regularly attended the Classic and appeared at the annual Southern Association Conference, which is held every March at the ballpark.
Art Clarkson was a true Friend of Rickwood, and his legacy will remain an indelible part of the history of the ballpark, which he helped save.