Joe DeLeonard & Jeb Stewart
This story was originally split into five instalments.
It would be easy to conclude that the “Friends of Rickwood” is the 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation charged with preserving the park and restoring Rickwood Field to its former glory. That much is certainly true, but just as the ballpark has an interesting history, so does our organization. We recently sat down with some of the founders and discussed the genesis of the Friends, some of the early challenges they faced, and why they felt compelled to try and save an old ballpark.
On August 18, 2020, on the 110th anniversary of the opening of Rickwood Field, we posed questions to Tom Cosby, Coke Matthews and Bill Cather about the Friends. Tom, Coke, and Bill contributed mightily in the preservation of the ballpark through their dedication, hard work, and enthusiasm,
which was only matched by their collective refusal to allow Rickwood to become a memory.
How many actually know how the Friends of Rickwood Field started, or even when it was organized? Only rough ideas and some stories have been handed down over the years. Most likely, few current board members know the exact details and dates; certainly the general public would have even less of an idea of the how the organization began. Founding member Tom Cosby provided the initial answer:
“Back in the ‘80’s, Stewart Dansby and I were working together at the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce (now – BBA – Birmingham Business Alliance) and we used to regularly give Civic Club presentations entitled ‘Birmingham Trivial Pursuit’. In this, we asked questions that we knew most people didn’t know the answers to, but we felt they would want to know and that it would engender civic pride,” Cosby explained. “For years, one of the questions was ‘Where is the second oldest baseball park in America located?’ Of course, the answer was Birmingham as [our ballpark was] second oldest to Comiskey Park.”
However, Rickwood’s status suddenly changed. According to Cosby, “then when I saw in the news that Comiskey was torn down in 1991, I went to Terry Slaughter, head of Slaughter Hanson Advertising and told him, ‘We let them tear down the Terminal Station, now are we going to stand by and let then oldest ballpark in America get torn down, too?’ Terry agreed that something had to be done, so we
decided to form a committee.”
Cosby offered the use of the Chamber of Commerce meeting space at the old Protective Life building on the corner of First Avenue North and what was then 21st Street North downtown. He agreed to staff the committee through the Chamber of Commerce. Slaughter made an excellent decision in assigning one of his partners to the committee. That person was Coke Matthews, who would eventually head the board of the Friends of Rickwood Field.
Cosby recalled, “I told Bill Cather about it and Allen Farr, Brant Beene, and several others I knew through the Chamber and soon we had a committee, started meeting monthly, set goals, took minutes, and established a funding receptacle at the Chamber.”
“It’s important to know that without the Chamber, there would have been, in my opinion, ‘no there, there’: no staffing, no place to meet, and no recognized platform other than ‘a group of guys.’ So, it was organized under the wing of the Chamber, which honestly, gave it some degree of legitimacy and allowed it to be reported on at Chamber board meetings – so CEOs at least vaguely knew about it. The legal organization came a bit later and Coke led that, as I recall,” Cosby said.
While Cosby knew almost everyone with the Friends of Rickwood in the early days, Matthews did not. His perspective of joining was different. “I had never met any of the original Friends before my first meeting,” Matthews recalled. However, he would go on to forge many lasting friendships within the group. Matthews took on the formation of the organization in a complementary but different manner than Cosby.
The Birmingham Athletics Department had formed a foundation to facilitate the donations of athletic equipment. According to Matthews, “indeed, when we first started meeting at Rick- wood, the ‘equipment room’ on the south end of the Dugout Restaurant building was filled to the brim with Mountain Brook helmets, Homewood bats, and Vestavia’s catcher’s equipment.“
Matthews remembered the ”Birmingham Schools Athletics Foundation” name was ultimately not going to further the cause of saving the ballpark, “so we filled the board with Rickwood lovers to the point of having the votes necessary to change the name to ‘The Friends of Rickwood Field’. It was a lot of work, but not legal work,” he explained.
“The committee which was formed at/by the Chamber, which became the FOR, was essential – not because we had yappers like me — what we had was key individuals with skills/assets that were able to launch the quixotic endeavor,” Matthews added that the Friends could not have succeeded without some key figures who offered unique and diverse talents to the organization. These individuals brought the group to life, making it a reality and subsequently into a going concern.
Matthews assessed each person’s important contributions and matchless abilities. “Bill Cather and AH Cather Publishing: Bill printed everything for many years for free and often observing that ‘we need another printer’ but he would have been angry if we had another one!”
Matthews continued, “Do not forget that Bill’s dad was in attendance at the most famous game in Rickwood’s history, the 1931 Dizzy Dean-Ray Caldwell [matchup in the first game of the Dixie Series], as was Piper Davis.
“Allen Farr knew Rickwood electrical systems. Lord, he was invaluable. The failing systems were one of the many reasons the City (Birmingham) gave up on Rickwood… They didn’t know Allen,” asserted Matthews.
“Terry (Slaughter) was the first president of the FOR, with reason,” he added. “It was his passion and creative vision for what Rickwood could be, that fueled much of the energy. Keep this in mind: Until the first Rickwood Classic, Terry had never attended a baseball game at Rickwood. He was so smitten with the possibilities; he recruited me out of retirement to ‘get involved with Rickwood.’”
“Truth be told, Tom [Cosby]’s energy and bull-doggedness brought the Chamber kicking and screaming to the table, but provided much needed credibility and staying power, including the capital campaign that ‘saved’ Rickwood,” in those early years. However, both Matthews and Cosby recognize that saving the park is a never-ending process. The preservation efforts will continue as long as there are people like them who care about America’s oldest ballpark.
In the next installment, the actions taken to give Rickwood some desperately needed repairs will be examined. Also, we will remember some unsung heroes, whose efforts were critical in sparing the park from the wrecking ball.
Tom Cosby and Coke Matthews both explained one of the first key tasks, which needed to be done by the embryonic organization. “I think forming the fundraising committee that was chaired by Chris Womack of Alabama Power was key and involved influential people like Miller Gorrie. I have one of the original campaign brochures somewhere,” Cosby reminisced. “It wasn’t that successful, but it made a mark in corporate Birmingham.” Mathews added a cautionary note that “the idea that somehow a then 80-year old, decaying, roofless, teamless baseball park on Birmingham’s westside was worth any trouble at all was beyond farfetched. It was stupid. That we are talking about this 30 plus years later suggests at some level that we did indeed take on and succeed in convincing ‘the public’ that Rickwood was worth saving.”
According to Cosby, Rickwood was worthy of preservation for a couple of reasons. “It was the oldest ballpark in America – and we couldn’t let another (Birmingham) Terminal Station happen ever again. I think the public concluded after the Cobb movie was filmed there and they could see — with movie sets and all — how beautiful a properly restored vintage baseball park could be and what that would mean to civic pride.”
By this time, there had been some improvements to Rickwood by the Birmingham Park and Recreation Board, but the
enhancements were sort of piecemeal and haphazard with little regard to architectural or aesthetic tastes. While the field was still being used by the city schools for baseball, as well as football, Cosby believed Rickwood’s grandstand was close to being razed. “It could have been knocked down in 1992 and I don’t think there would’ve been much of an outcry.”
Matthews was realistic about the restoration project. “For those who envisioned a multi-million-dollar renovation, with massive tourism, Ferris wheels, and a return of the Birmingham Barons, we have not succeeded. We realized early on that though our appetite was strong, we were really just a bunch of old guys, ‘ate up’ with nostalgia and baseball. And in the minority.”
He added, “I do not believe we ever thought we wouldn’t succeed, once we got our expectations matched with reality.”
Although Rickwood escaped the wrecking ball in the early 1990s, and the Rickwood Classic was a tipping point in creating a new generation of fans, both Cosby and Matthews are quick to point out that efforts to preserve the ballpark will never end. “Of course, it is never ‘saved,’ it will always continue to be a battle against deterioration and gravity,” Cosby emphasized. Matthews added, “Not saved, just not destroyed. Still useful.”
There was luck involved in preserving Rickwood. Legendary GM Branch Rickey was fond of saying “Luck is the residue of design.” The luck was the timing of Comiskey Park’s razing, which made Rickwood the oldest professional ballpark. The design was accomplished by several men who the had vision to form The Friends of Rickwood. Then, they added an additional step—action by some unsung heroes.
Certainly, the Friends had a lot of help in the early days as a fledgling organization. There was one person, who had a clear vision for what the ballpark could be. Dr. Cleveland Hammonds, Jr., former Superintendent of Birmingham Schools was instrumental in getting an appropriation to replace the roof on the ballpark. “He was a fearless friend of Rickwood before it was so fashionable to love Rickwood,” remembered Matthews. He even proposed city high school teams adopt the names of Negro League clubs and wear throwback uniforms during games.
Dr. Hammonds left Birmingham in 1994 and eventually became a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He died in September 2010. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Hammonds, who had the foresight and an understanding of the old ballpark that few others could see.
Roughly a year or so before the first Rickwood Classic, the old press box on Dr. Hammonds’ roof needed to be removed. Constructing a completely new press box proved impracticable for the Friends. However, Rickwood’s first executive director, Chris Fullerton, came up with a great solution. He advocated constructing a gazebo press box, similar to the one on Rickwood’s roof when the park opened in 1910. Today, Fullerton’s gazebo still adorns the roof of the mother church of baseball.
Fullerton was another early unsung hero of Rickwood. His name is sometimes overlooked in the history of The Friends because his time associated with the organization was relatively short. However, the quality of that time was an exemplary example of production, accomplishment, and a can-do spirit of optimism to work through all kinds of adversity.
Perhaps the best person to describe Fullerton’s importance to the early days of The Friends of Rickwood and the park is Coke Matthews. “Not too long before the first Rickwood Classic in 1996, Chris called Slaughter Hanson and offered to volunteer, to do anything, everything. He called and called. He drove over from Mississippi and begged,” Matthews recalled.
Recounting Fullerton’s unbridled enthusiasm for Rickwood and his desire to be part of the revitalization effort, Matthews continued, “he had just finished his master’s thesis on the Birmingham Black Barons. He was all-in. Of course, he had no money, no place to live, [and] no sense whatsoever, but we loved him from day one. He volunteered 24/7 for months leading up to the [first] Classic, [sometimes] sleeping in his car at Rickwood or wherever someone would take him in.”
There was no denying the incredible dedication Fullerton felt toward the restoration of the old ballpark. However, there was a tragic unforeseen event that would cut short Fullerton’s time with The Friends. Matthews explained, “After the stunning success of the Classic, we felt we had enough money to at least give him a small contract. However, he was killed in a car accident running ‘one last errand’ right before the second Rickwood Classic in 1997. It is still one of the saddest moments any of us have ever experienced.”
Fullerton’s master’s thesis, which he authored at the University of Mississippi, eventually became one of the early books on the ballpark and its importance in the Negro Leagues. Every Other Sunday: The Story of the Birmingham Black Barons was completed and published after his death.
The gazebo press box, which sits on the roof as a result of his suggestion, will always honor his memory. The Friends gathered on the roof during a driving rainstorm when the bas-relief of Fullerton was dedicated and sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The inscription on the plaque in the gazebo states, Chris Fullerton “inspired all who knew him with his passion for life, for music, baseball, and Rickwood, his own field of dreams.”
Perhaps the first notice to the public there was a group of people attempting to restore Rickwood Field was an article by Nancy Bereckis, which appeared in the Birmingham Post-Herald on January 19, 1993. There was no mention of “The Friends of Rickwood”, just the Rickwood Task Force. Terry Slaughter, Coke Matthews, and Tom Cosby were quoted in the story and a photograph of them accompanied the piece. The stated goals for 1993 were ambitious and included: a new grandstand roof, plans to have historians document the facility so any major renovations would be as accurate as possible, along with the development of a master plan.
The story revealed a few ideas to make Rickwood viable. Some of the thoughts floated in the article became reality and others never made it to fruition, such as holding a pre-Olympic exhibition baseball tournament. The idea of filming parts of a baseball movie was not mentioned, however.
By February 25, 1993, staff writer David Knox of The Birmingham News reported that Rickwood had been named to the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service. The inclusion on the National Register was an enormous step in Rickwood’s restoration and Baseball America also reported the story. Rickwood and the band of people trying to save it, now had credibility, a bit of prestige, and perhaps more importantly, much-needed national publicity. This attention attracted the eyes of Hollywood.
Rickwood’s first flirtation with Hollywood was a swing and a miss. When Penny Marshall’s assistants scouted for locations to film “A League of Their Own” they visited Rickwood and decided against filming because of the park’s dilapidated roof. However, the profile of the ballpark had been raised and it soon garnered the attention of Ron Shelton, the director of “Bull Durham”. Shelton decided to film the baseball scenes at the park for his movie “Cobb”, which starred Tommy Lee Jones as the title character with Roger Clemens and Jimmy Buffet as extras. Initially, the grandstand roof remained an impediment to filming. Coke Matthews recalled, “The new roof, louvers, and paint, were eventually part of what we promised Shelton to get the ‘Cobb’ deal done. He had flown an advance crew in on a Friday night, and with no notice and they asked to see the park. The two memories I have are: It was pouring down rain and gaping, rotted holes in the roof created a hundred waterfalls. We couldn’t find a dry place to stand, and back then, a pack of dogs still lived at Rickwood. So, when we turned on the lights there were 4 or 5 dogs asleep around the pitcher’s mound. It really scared the chewing tobacco out of all of us as we imagined the next day’s headlines. Fortunately, Shelton was an old ballplayer himself and he felt and saw the history of the place.”
Shelton’s vision for the ballpark created the right feel for the baseball scenes. The existing signs in the outfield were replaced with period signs including Ajax Tires, The American Boy Magazine, and Burma-Shave. The signs were designed by Ted Haigh, who also created signs for “A League of Their Own” and “The Natural.“
The excitement created in the local papers and the sudden national attention opened doors to businesses. This allowed the Friends to solicit financial help for needed repairs in order to make “Cobb” a reality. The grandstand roof was repaired because All South discounted roofing materials, and the Celotex Corporation generously donated general materials. Daniel Iron, Stringfellow Lumber, Brasfield & Gorrie, and Vulcan Painters bent over backwards to help bring Rickwood back to life for the movie and the community. This included the construction of a left-centerfield scoreboard.
Notably, the early baseball films at Rickwood predate the Barons’ return to the park. “Cobb” was released in 1994 two years before the first Rickwood Classic. Although many baseball fans did not “discover” Rickwood until the Classics began, the movie projects at the ballpark gave Rickwood a financial shot in the arm at a critical time in the history of the Friends’ efforts to preserve the park.
Shortly after the release of “Cobb,” a commercial shoot for Baby Ruth candy bars was filmed at Rickwood. Things were certainly on the upswing for the Friends, which was remarkable after only two years as a fledgling organization. The publicity and hard work by the members culminated in successful fundraising efforts.
“Soul of the Game” was a 1996 film produced by HBO and directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan. The film explored the story of the Negro Leagues shortly before the major leagues integrated in 1947. The movie featured Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Jackie Robinson as rumors swirled as to who would be the first black major leaguer. Many of the baseball scenes in the movie were filmed at Rickwood in 1995.
According to Matthews, his interactions with the producers of this movie were different. “They kept wanting to change Rickwood to make it look ‘authentic’. We had a hell of a time convincing them that when Mays, Paige, Gibson, et. al.,
played at Rickwood in the 40’s – this is what it looked like! No need for set decorations!” Once convinced, production ran smoothly.
However, the Friends allowed one significant change to Rickwood during the filming of “Soul of the Game,” which still exists. During Rickwood’s heyday, the press box was on the roof of the park. In an effort to replicate Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., the producers added a press box directly under the roof. Tom Cosby recalled, “It would have never occurred to us to change the placement of the press box from the roof to underneath the roof — it had never been there before. But we instantly liked the aesthetics. When we realized that being protected by the roof would add to its longevity and would reduce the risk of the press box one day crashing through the roof, we ‘permanentized’ the movie set version after filming.”
The new press box was much larger than the previous one, which made it more suitable for baseball. In fact, the first Rickwood Classic took place just two months after the release of “Soul of the Game.”
In May 2012, Hollywood returned to Rickwood with the filming of the Jackie Robinson- biopic “42”. This movie will be featured in a future story in Rickwood Tales. However, the subject of our next installment is the Rickwood Classic, which began 25 years ago on June 12, 1996.
For this dream to become a reality, it took a great deal of hard work behind the scenes. Coke Matthews remembered getting the Barons to agree to the game was not easy. He recalled, “[I] would give [Bill] Hardekopf (the Barons GM) the credit for finally agreeing to meet with the yahoos from Rickwood. After several years of saying how important day games were to his players (true), and how much money he made (not much), we got him to the table with a compelling offer: Tell us how much money the Barons made on day games in 1995, on average, and if the Barons would return for one glorious ‘turn back the clock’ game, we would guarantee them at least that much off the top, and then split the rest. The funny thing was, we still owed Vulcan Painters $100,000 for the paint job, and had other creditors clamoring, so our ‘guarantee’ was vapor. The good news was that the First Classic was a sellout [and] grossed probably $75,000. It was easy to convince Bill to make it an annual event.”
The day of the first Rickwood Classic was not like anything ever experienced by fans going to a minor league baseball game in Birmingham. Sure, there were huge crowds for Michael Jordan at the Hoover Met in 1994. But the Classic was different, and the feeling was electric. Two hours before the game, traffic was at a standstill over a mile away. It was incredible, and reminiscent of the long line of cars at the end of Field of Dreams, only it was real.
People who had not been to Rickwood in years came home wearing nostalgic smiles and sharing memories. Fans who attended games as children now led their elderly parents by the hand making sure they got a hot dog, a cold drink, and a place to sit. Many grandchildren were also in tow as the experience of going to the ballpark was handed down to a new generation.
There were two special honorees for the game. Walt Dropo traveled from Boston and looked as if he might play an inning or two. At 78-years old, Piper Davis was slowed by time but was proud to join Dropo on the field. Both Davis and Dropo had played key roles for two different hometown teams, which shared the ballpark in the chase for championships in 1948. The two of them, and Rick Woodward III, grandson of the park’s namesake, threw out ceremonial first pitches.
Many others who played a part in Rickwood’s history were there too. Norm Zauchin came to the game shortly after having major surgery weeks before. Former player Fred Hatfield and his wife came from Florida and Willard Nixon traveled from Georgia. Bill Greason came from a few miles away to meet old friends and gladly sign autographs.
Art Clarkson, the former owner of the Barons was there, as well as advertising executive John Forney, better known as the radio voice of Alabama football from the 1960s through the early 1980s. Also on hand was former Southern League President Jimmy Bragan. Clarkson, Forney, and Bragan were the key people who brought baseball back to Birmingham in 1981. Team owner Dave Elmore even flew in from the west coast but had trouble finding the park. There were no smartphones for directions.
10,334 fans jammed into the park to relive their memories and to make new ones. Through six innings, the Barons built a 3-0 lead. Mike Heathcott, Birmingham’s starting pitcher was brilliant, pitching into the eighth. The Chicks rallied with a run in the eighth and another in the ninth to build the drama before former Auburn standout and Barons reliever Stacy Jones closed the door for a 3- 2 Barons victory.
Afterward, everyone was thrilled by how popular the event was with the fans. Walt Dropo summed up everyone’s feelings to Wayne Martin of the Birmingham News, saying “I look out at this park and it looks just the same to me. It seems like just yesterday… I hope they do it every year.” Baron GM Bill Hardekopf was cautious in his comments. He asked attendees to provide feedback and added, “our fans will play a big part in any decision about games here at Rickwood in the future.” The fans’ overwhelming response was undeniably positive.
It is hard to believe that only four years after a group of friends got together with the improbable idea of saving an old ballpark that the stars aligned, and the Barons came home. Since the Classic began in 1996, the Barons have returned to Rickwood Field 23 times with just a few interruptions. There was no game in 2017 due to repairs to the park. COVID-19 then stopped the game in 2020 and 2021. Having the Classic at Rickwood is a privilege and is due to the diligent efforts of the Logan family, Barons’ GM Jonathan Nelson, the Chicago White Sox, and the Friends of Rickwood. We look forward to the Classic returning in 2022.
As we said in our first article in this series, saving the ballpark is a never-ending process. In our final installment, we conclude by discussing some of the challenges facing Rickwood now and in the future and what we can do to preserve her for the next generation.
The City of Birmingham has owned Rickwood Field since purchasing the ballpark from Albert Belcher in the late 1960s. Since the early 1990s, the City has entrusted the care of the park to the Friends of Rickwood, which is comprised of a board of directors along with two employees (an executive director and a groundskeeper). The Friends are responsible for the upkeep of Rickwood’s grandstand, the arcade entrance, offices, the conference room, clubhouses, the batting building, and the playing field.
The ballpark itself is concrete and steel, but the Friends are the lifeblood of Rickwood Field. Our members pay annual dues to belong to the board. Members attend monthly meetings at the ballpark, raise money towards the restoration of Rickwood, oversee numerous repair and maintenance projects, organize the baseball schedule, update our social media pages, volunteer for countless events, and publish the quarterly newsletter you are reading.
We also attend regular cleaning days on weekends in the spring. We paint handrails and fences, sweep all areas of the concourse, clean the ticket booths, eliminate weeds in the grandstand’s lower bowl, clean seats, pick up trash, and scrub the toilets in the restrooms. Sometimes it gets tiresome, but we love every minute of it because we are all Friends who love Rickwood Field.
We recently surveyed our board members with questions regarding the present and future of Rickwood.
Rick Woodward, III, grandson of the Barons’ owner who built the ballpark, became a board member in the 1990s. He learned about the Friends through a mutual friend of Coke Matthews. He cited throwing out the first pitch with Piper Davis at the first Rickwood Classic in 1996 as being one of the best experiences in his involvement with the Friends. However, Rick and his brother Bob Woodward cited the general public’s lack of awareness of the ballpark as being a nagging problem for years. Rick explained, “that is a conundrum with which the Friends have been dealing with since its founding.”
Scott Davis and Wayne Trammell are two of our newest board members, having joined in 2019. Both expressed love for history and the ballpark as reasons for getting involved with the Friends. Davis loves giving tours to visitors and added, “I enjoy seeing people in awe of what Rickwood stands for.” Trammell is a regular presence at the park on weekends and was instrumental in helping to submit a funding grant. He noted, “it’s pretty cool to the behind-the-scenes workings of what it takes to maintain America’s Oldest Ballpark.” Rick Woodward and Davis both agree on some of the main concerns going forward for the ballpark. Woodward would like to see structural repairs take place, citing “the two remaining items on the City of Birmingham Engineering Department’s recommendation list along with repairing the wooden wall along the walkway at the top of the seating area and the concrete walkway itself.” He added, “a paint job for the whole ballpark would be nice.”
Davis cited a relatively new problem for the ballpark as the latest pressing issue, “getting the lights back in working order. [There are also] big projects that will need to be done: like replacing the roof and the wooden slats on the exterior of the stadium. The bathrooms are also in need of renovation.” While the infield ground has been substantially improved and smoothed out within the last year, Davis, a veteran umpire of local amateur games, would like to see continued improvements.
Rickwood hosts around 100 baseball games per year, although some people only know about the Rickwood Classic. However, we constantly reach out to the baseball community to let them know we can host games and other activities. Davis recommends the ballpark hold a wooden bat high school tournament.
Rick Woodward suggests Rickwood put together an Alabama community college playoff and a possible state championship series. Trammell agreed, adding that an annual college baseball tournament would be a great event, He would also like to see a cookoff for a charitable foundation.
Everyone on our board is frustrated by the loss of the Rickwood Classic the last two seasons. We hope the game will return next year. The Classic is great for the Barons, Rickwood Field, the fans, and the game of baseball. The game is truly an event, which brings a lot of tourism dollars into Birmingham.
Bob Woodward has a loftier goal in mind. He believes that if we find more creative ways to promote the ballpark, Rickwood might one day get its own Major League “Field of Dreams” game. After all, Rickwood has hosted lots of major league teams, including more than 140 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame during its 111 years. When the big leagues come calling, Rickwood will be ready.