For the past sixteen years, the Rickwood Classic has been held in Birmingham to feature America’s oldest professional ballpark, built in 1910. Annually now, the Friends of Rickwood sponsor the game between the host Birmingham Barons and a visiting team from the Southern League. Knowing the historic significance of Rickwood, I had appealed to the Birmingham Barons, and then to the Friends of Rickwood, to allow me to sing for the contest. With the possibility that I might work things out with the organizing Friends to perform in Rickwood, the Barons graciously scheduled me for the day before the 2011 Rickwood Classic, thereby putting me in Birmingham on the date of the Classic.
Alas, after several email exchanges with the president of the Friends, I learned that the tradition for that game is to have a brass band play the anthem. That’s certainly historically appropriate on two counts: The first ballpark amplification system was not installed until more than a decade after the construction of Rickwood; and the “Star-Spangled Banner” did not officially become the national anthem until fifteen years after the ballpark opened. The brass bands that played patriotic medleys at ballparks usually featured “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as often, if not more-so, than “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
While I was unable to schedule singing for the Classic, I also almost missed singing for the Barons because of travel delays. The drive from Jackson, Tennessee to Birmingham was on the hottest day of the year, and the route took us to Huntsville, where we docked Arby, our trustee RV, for a few days on the farm of Dr. Don Ross, the brother-in-law of my good friend and frequent collaborator Don Musser. The length of the drives that day in Arby and Toad, the Saturn that we tow, was the longest for any day on which I am scheduled to sing—almost 400 miles. The long day of driving meant that we descended into Birmingham on I-65 at the height of commute traffic and less than an hour before the pre-game ceremonies would start. Encountering a stand-still south of the city’s center, I feared that we’d not make it to the ballpark in time.
Bonnie came to the rescue. Using her iPad, she accessed a Birmingham traffic map that identified gridlock for several miles until our expected exit onto I-459, which would take us to Hoover and the Barons’ ballpark. It also showed an alternate route along Shades Crest Road, which could be accessed at the next freeway exit. We got off the freeway and followed the winding route, which provided spectacular views of the valleys and mountains southwest of Birmingham. And we made it to the ballpark in the nick of time.
While many Minor League parks feature sculptures at their main gates, the Barons’ stadium in Hoover had a live exhibit to welcome fans to this game. Displaying animals from the Birmingham zoo, caretakers exhibited a large boa constrictor and a few other critters. Although I’m not fond of snakes, I was glad to enter the ballpark and make my way to check in with the Barons’ staff. For the second time—and on consecutive nights, at that!—I was given a ride onto the field in a new vehicle, this time in a Nissan sedan that was again provided by a local dealer as a promotional venture. Rather than standing near the dugouts after the ride as I had done on the previous night in Jackson, I was taken up the tunnel to the family waiting room where I could warm up.
|Babe Ruff, the Barons' mascot, leads me to the field.|
Although the Barons' current ballpark can't claim historic appearances of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, as Rickwood can, it does enjoy the distinction of having been the place where two superstars in other sports got their professional starts in baseball. Bo Jackson, the winning running back for Auburn who won the Heisman Trophy in 1985, starred for the Barons in 1991 as he resumed playing baseball. Jackson became the first athlete to be named to All-Star teams in two professional sports, having been selected as a running back in the NFL while playing for the Oakland Raiders and being chosen later as an outfielder for the Chicago White Sox. And Michael Jordan, during his hiatus from basketball, tried his skills at baseball, initially for Birmingham before briefly appearing for the Chicago White Sox and then giving up the sport.
|The Barons' current home viewed from the centerfield ride in the anthem carriage.|
Classically, the food fare at ballparks features fried foods—always French fries, frequently fried chicken tenders, and occasionally distinct items like fried pickles. While Birmingham sells its share of fried entrees and sides, it also offers “Healthy Hits,” a menu of healthier food promoted by Baptist Health Systems.