Rickwood Field’s faded green paint color is an immediate strike to the senses. It transports you back to the past, a time when someone would actually consider this green a suitable color for a ballpark. The park lies in between 11th and 12th Avenues West in Birmingham, just down the street from a convenience store with barred windows. A rusted barb-wired fence that opens up for the public every day at 8:30 a.m. and closes at 4:30 p.m. surrounds it.
There was a time when it seemed like the green paint, concrete floors and stucco roofing that constitute Rickwood, the oldest baseball park in the United States, would be torn, crushed and removed from the ground where it stands and not open to the public at any time. It would’ve become another ballpark to exist only in the minds that follow the sport so fervently, another Comiskey Park or Ebbets Field, a memorial with no physical presence. There’d be no bases to run. No grandstands to sit in. No foul balls to catch.
But the group Friends Of Rickwood (F.O.R.) made sure that Rickwood’s demolition didn’t happen, and continue to make sure that it won’t happen. The F.O.R. is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit group “in charge of the restoration and revitalization” of Rickwood, as David Brewer, their executive director, says. They have an operating budget of $125,000 and have completed $2,000,000 worth of re-investment in the park since F.O.R’s inception in 1992. That re-investment includes fixing leaks in the roof, field problems and various electrical issues. They have 30 board members who oversee the changes, and two employees, Brewer and Alvin Harris, the head groundskeeper, who institute them.
Alvin Harris starts his day by picking up trash. No matter the trash — broken bottles, plastic jugs, random wrappers or decaying wood — if it’s on Rickwood property, he picks it up. Sometimes he picks up trash on non-Rickwood property, just to keep the surrounding area nice. It’s his job to keep Rickwood clean, but it pays dividends with the public too.
“A lot of people just stop to speak, and tell me they appreciate it,” Harris says.
No one stops today, but three people – a cop, a truck driver and a local – honk and wave to show their appreciation as he makes his way down the 12th Avenue side of Rickwood picking up trash. He sticks the gray grabber of his shiny trash picker into a long puddle created from the thunderstorm last night and drags it through the water as he walks, creating ripples that splinter off in opposite directions. The ripples refrain when a white candy wrapper appears. Harris plunges the gripper deeper into the water to pick it up. His trash picker helps him avoid the mud, picking up glass by hand and overworking himself.
“I’m at an age where I don’t like to do hard work,” Harris, 54 years old with a salt and pepper beard, says, smirking. “I like to work, but I don’t want to do hard work. I try to make it easy on myself.”
So he carries on, creating ripples, trying to conserve as much energy as possible for a workday that starts at seven in the morning and ends around five in the afternoon. As he gets to the end of his Rickwood route, close to some train tracks, a man on crutches comes out of his house and starts screaming violently for his dog: “Sheila! Sheila!” It amuses Harris.
“Every morning he lets his dog out, a German Shepherd, a pretty dog,” Harris says in his slow, steady Southern accent. “And every morning he comes out to scream at her to get back inside.”
Unfazed, Harris continues to pick up trash as he heads back towards the entrance, almost done with the “easy part” of his day. While this part of his job might be less difficult, he sees it as one of the most important.
“As old as it is, you want it to look good,” he says. “You don’t want them to say ‘this old, rundown, nasty place.’”
Every day at Rickwood is an important day, but today there is a group of baseball enthusiasts coming in from in Atlanta for a tour before their flight takes off from Birmingham at noon, so the field must look nice. As Harris finishes up, Brewer, the other half of F.O.R’s on-site presence, pulls up to the park in a white Toyota Tacoma.
Dave, as Harris likes to call him, will be in charge of giving the enthusiasts a tour. His job includes events, tours, fundraising, grant writing, field requests and helping Harris.
“My job is anything that comes down the pike,” Brewer says.
The two men shake hands and discuss the reason for Brewer’s late arrival, a flat tire. Their conversation veers into the field conditions and what it looks like after the storm last night. They are hosting a company softball game tonight, and Brewer is eager to confirm that the field will be ready.
“All right Al, what do you think?” Brewer asks. “Are we going to make it today?”
Harris perks up to the question, almost offended, as if Brewer is crazy to even ask. “Oh, yeah,” he exclaims. “Rain don’t stop no game.”
Brewer uses a multitude of nicknames with Harris: “Al,” “big Al,” and sometimes just “sir,” but in the way a cool uncle would say it, not in the condescending way some executive directors might. Harris pretty much settles on “Dave” for Brewer. These are names probably used by other people that talk to them, but when Brewer and Harris talk to each other, they seem like two people who are part of an exclusive club, one whose members are the only ones allowed to take care of the oldest park dedicated to America’s Pastime.
Brewer takes off his glasses and wipes his bald head with a white-and-black handkerchief that he keeps folded in his back pocket right before the tour group arrives. It’s perfect timing. They pull up in a dark gray Chrysler Town & Country van, and hop out wearing baseball shirts, hats and visors. He walks over to them in his workman boots and blue jeans that have a Rickwood shirt tucked into them. He’s a towering man, one who always speaks clearly and with power. He shakes their hands firmly and looks them in the eyes while introducing himself.
He starts off the tour by giving them background on Rickwood and Friends Of Rickwood. It was built in 1910 by A.H. “Rick” Woodward, president of the Woodward Iron Company. Friends of Rickwood was started in 1992, five years after the Birmingham Barons left for the Hoover Met.
“The park was kind of languishing and its future was in question,” Brewer says as the tourists watch and listen attentively.
He goes into their daily operation and tells them about Harris and how until six months ago they hadn’t had a constant on-site presence. It was where the Birmingham City Schools athletic department had housed their offices and equipment. He tells them how they host between 175-200 games a year, give tours and film commercials, music videos and sometimes movies and how that helps them with the hardest part of their job: “generating revenue.”
“We think the park has sort of evolved into a model of ballpark revitalization,” Brewer says.
And the men, all dressed in shorts, shake their heads, smile and only interrupt to say “Whoa!” and “Wow!” at the stats and facts that Brewer pitches at them. The park is important. After all, it’s what they came to see. But Brewer must be liked. For these men, who go to watch games at many parks and tour other historical ones, Brewer can be the thing that distinguishes Rickwood from every other park they’ll view. He has to be to them the embodiment of Rickwood.
After the Friends Of Rickwood background, Brewer jokingly asks if they need to go to the restroom, since they just drove all the way from Atlanta. One of the visitors, a man with long blond hair tucked under an Atlanta Braves visor, shoots back, “We’re the over-50 club, so you know we have to,” and they all laugh.
They start the tour after their bathroom break in the home team clubhouse. In there, the visitors snap photos of pictures of young Willie Mays and Reggie Jackson while Brewer’s voice booms through the locker room, reciting more facts and stats.
“There are 108 members of the Hall of Fame that have played here,” he says. “That’s over one-third of the membership. … Minor league baseball historians have argued that the 1967 Birmingham A’s are perhaps the greatest minor league club ever in terms of what they went on to accomplish.” He goes on to talk about how the Black Barons were started by Woodward because he saw a revenue opportunity when the white Barons were on road trips and not occupying the stadium.
“His motivation was not a progressive, social experiment,” Brewer says of Woodward. “It was a decision driven by economics.”
While reciting facts and stats are a major part of his job, they are actually his least favorite part of it. The history of the community and the park hold that distinction.
“I like to view the park as more than just who hit the most home runs,” he says to the visitors, taking a break from the numbers and dates. “I like to talk about the park in terms of the role the ballpark plays in the community.
“Ballparks in general play a role in the community as sort of a cultural center. The ballpark plays a role in shaping community identity and it serves as a source of civic pride and it becomes part of the social fabric of the community.”
Back in 1996, before becoming an employee for Friends Of Rickwood, Brewer felt stuck in a construction-operating job that called for him to leave home too often, which only became less appealing after he got married. He stuck with his job while his wife finished graduate school, but decided to get finish his undergraduate degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham once she got hired as a teacher at Oneonta Elementary School. After getting his bachelor’s, Dave went for a master’s in history.
One of his instructors, Pamela Sterne King (one of the authors of Weld’s No More Bull! series), was the city’s historic preservation officer at the time and had dealt with Rickwood. She suggested that he interview for the executive director position. He did and got it. He’s held the job ever since.
“So I get to do history and I get to do baseball,” he says. “It’s worked out pretty well.”
For the final part of their tour, they go onto the roof where there is a green gazebo with a white flag that reads, “Rickwood,” in black letters. This leg of the tour is exclusive. While the park is open to the public, the roof became off-limits a few years ago due to it being too much of a liability. The view from the roof is phenomenal, even if some of the field is still covered in tarp due to the previous night’s storm.
The guests take pictures of the field, the lights, the roof and the view of Birmingham. But the tour wouldn’t be complete without a picture including Brewer. He agrees and takes one with them. He’s done his job. They like the park and they like him.
Brewer tells them about the merchandise they sell, shirts and caps. One visitor jokes: “Did you say caps and taps?”
Brewer quickly responds, “There’s been some cold beverages consumed in here.” They laugh as they follow their new buddy down a dark staircase back to the bleachers.
At the bottom of the stadium, Harris is waiting, having just finished cleaning the toilets — a job he does with a very long brush.
“Gives a good tour, doesn’t he?” Harris asks with a smile, waiting for agreement. “[Brewer] knows his history. If I knew half of what he knew, I’d be alright.”
The truth is that Harris does know at least half of what Brewer knows. Maybe not the numbers and dates, but Harris grew up in Rising Station, or “Rising” as he calls it, which is the neighborhood located behind Rickwood. As a kid, he could hear the cleats of Bob Veale – a native of Birmingham and a Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher – scrape the ground when he walked to Rickwood to practice.
Young Alvin’s grandfather, Doc Robinson, also served as the head groundskeeper from 1949 to 1960, and his grandmother cleaned the bleachers during the same time.
As a boy, Alvin and his friends would jump the fence to attend games and get kicked out. So they would relocate and jump the fence somewhere else. Eventually, security got used to their routine and decided to just open the fence and let them in for free. Once inside, they would post up in a tunnel located next to first base because that was where most of the fouls balls landed. They would snag the baseballs and sell them to the fans in the stands.
“We would use the money for lunch or something like that,” Harris says. “We didn’t see a need to get autographs, because we were right here with the players.”
On practice days, he and his friends would go down to the stadium and learn technique from the players. One time, a kid was shagging pop-ups in the outfield and cut his leg against a screw sticking out of the right field fence.
“There was a big gash running down his leg,” Harris says, making a hand gesture to represent the length of the cut. Chris Floethe, a Birmingham A’s pitcher at the time, picked the kid up and carried him to his house about five minutes away on Second Avenue West.
Harris’ history with the park makes him take a special sense of pride in it, which is why he gets so agitated when he talks about the way it was treated by some of the athletic department employees before F.O.R took over and hired him away from the school system’s athletic department.
“It was being neglected,” Harris says, his slow drawl speeding up a little bit. “They would house old broken down equipment here.”
It’s one of the few times Harris isn’t completely calm. Inbetween jobs, he usually sits. No texting or surfing the web on his phone. He just sits and thinks. He says the calm of Rickwood creates a good place for thoughts. Sometimes he sits and thinks in the bleachers inbetween home plate and first because he says that it has the best view. Sometimes he sits in his office – the air conditioning constantly set on 64 – with his hands crossed staring at the worn blue walls, which are adorned with sports posters and spots where sports posters were before Alvin ripped them down. The posters are among the many things left behind by the athletic department.
“You can tell they had a lot of time on their hands,” he says.
Some of those leftovers are gone; they took, for example, the “old, busted up” driver’s education cars that were kept outside of Rickwood. But other remnants remain under the historic grandstands of Rickwood. Under the right field bleachers, for instance, facing the opening of a tunnel, sits a rusty red and blue car lift with a peeling translucent label that reads, “American Lift.”
On the other side of the stadium, under the bleachers, there’s a boiler piping system that rests in a rotting wooden box covered in cobwebs. The system itself is buried under dirt, water bottles and small McDonald’s French fry containers. The equipment rests there waiting to be picked up by the city.
The folks at the school system athletic department who left that junk “weren’t all bad,” Harris says, “but there are some things they could’ve done better, took a little more pride in.”
Harris’ anger towards the athletic department’s treatment of the field can be attributed to pride, but it also stems from his background in the military. From 1982-86, Harris served in the Army. He did his basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, before reassignment to Fort Story, Virginia, and a final eight months stationed in Germany.
“I loved Germany. It was a lot different from here in the states,” Harris says, wearing a nostalgic smile. “You went to clubs and everybody got along. It seems like they celebrated all the time. There was a fest every day. They just sat out in the sun and drank beer all day.”
His time in the military taught him to do things a “certain way,” as he says. He had to wear his clothes a certain way. He had to make his bed a certain way. He had to put his boots under that bed a certain way. And now he takes care of Rickwood Field a certain way.
For every two games, Harris prepares the field once. He starts by tracing the batter’s box with a giant metal template that serves as a stencil. He’s an artist, and the field is his canvas. After that, he takes his chalk and pours the white powder into a chalk liner, a blue machine with a white line on top of it and black tires that look like miniature lunar vehicle wheels. But before he starts, he pauses and focuses on the line on top of his chalk liner to make sure it lines up with the one he stenciled. And then he says a quick prayer.
“I just ask the Lord to be with me and help me do my best,” he says.
Then he pulls a lever, which opens a slit in the bottom and lets the powder drop out in a stream like a waterfall. He goes forward over the line once and then comes backwards over the line once before pulling the lever, closing the slit and turning off the waterfall of powder. He does this for all eight lines that make up a batter’s box. After finishing the boxes, he does the third and first base lines – always third first – by laying down a string all the way from home plate to the outfield wall, 321 feet for third base and 332 for first.
Sometimes the string pops up, so Harris weighs it down with his myriad stadium keys and a brown pocketknife he always carries. The process is tedious, and he takes his time going all the way to the wall and lifting the machine against it to make sure that there is no empty space, an area that no one could see in the stadium. At this point in the process, he’s driven by pride and his code of a “certain way.”
After Harris finishes, his white shirt has turned translucent with sweat and his black Skechers white with powder. As difficult as the process is, it’s his favorite part of the job. When the movie 42 was being filmed at Rickwood, the film crew gave him the nickname “Radar” for his lines.
“The lines stand out,” Harris says. “That’s what people take notice of too. It brings the field to life.”
Now that he’s painted his canvas and brought the field to life, it’s time to put some life on the field. All of his preparation today has been for a company softball game. Graham & Company, a local commercial real estate firm, will be playing the game tonight. Brewer and Harris step aside for the company. They spend all day with the field; now it’s someone else’s turn.
“The corporate events are important for us not only because they generate revenue, but also because it strengthens our relationship with the corporate community,” Brewer says.
The company sets up a grill in the main tunnel by home plate and takes the field. There are six in the outfield, seven in the infield and one behind home plate. Some are dressed for play in jerseys or athletic wear. Some aren’t, wearing khakis and polo shirts. Some are talented, some used to be talented, and some were, apparently, never talented.
Harris and Brewer sit watching in the first row of the bleachers behind the dugout, enjoying the slight breeze that’s rolling through after a hot and humid day, talking about the things they’ve picked up watching these corporate games over the course of their employment. Brewer talks about how he finds it funny that the young women usually outplay the men, and Harris agrees.
Various members of Graham & Company sit below them in the box seats sipping brew and eating burgers, watching a game that resembles softball only if you squint your eyes and turn your head. Harris sits uncomfortably, watching people trample his canvas and wreck his art.
“I don’t like it now, seeing all the lines get messed up,” he says wearily.
He’s uncomfortable, but he understands that the straight lines are for nothing if not to be made crooked. He knows that the field must be played on to stay around, but it’s the toughest part of the job for him. To Harris, the field is a picture, an achievement of aesthetic beauty. To Brewer, the field is an achievement of history that needs to be sold so it can continue to cultivate memories and be remembered.
Hearing Harris’ unease, Brewer turns to him with a smile, and says, “Hey Al, just consider it job security. Someone’s going to have to get up and do it again tomorrow.”