Top critical review
A legendary building
on December 26, 2015
It's not often that a writer gets to compose a love letter to his favorite place in his old home town.
That's more or less what Allen Barra has done here. Barra, the fine writer for the Wall Street Journal and Village Voice and the author of some books, Barra grew up in the Birmingham, Alabama, area, and apparently got his early education in baseball there.
The setting was Rickwood Field, which is still open for business for amateur games even if the place is no longer used for professional play. Barra uses the fact that it's been 100 years since Rickwood Field open to launch a history of Birmingham baseball called "Rickwood Field." It was opened in 1910, based on the design of Shibe Park -- the home of the Philadelphia Athletics for several years. If you saw the movie "Cobb," you might remember the scene where Roger Clemens, playing pitcher Ed Walsh, goes up against Tommy Lee Jones, playing Ty Cobb. It was filmed here.
Every town should have someone like Barra doing a history like this. The first 200 pages or so stick mostly to the actual playing of the game. Birmingham had many great players pass through, either for the home team or visitors, despite so-called minor league statue. The list includes Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, Dizzy Dean, Ty Cobb and Reggie Jackson.
The highs and the lows mirror society, naturally. Birmingham had a team in the Negro Leagues, and segregation is part of the story. Heck, the legendary "Bull Conner," a name closely association with the civil rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties, was the team's radio announcer. Some years the place is packed, in others baseball has withered to the point of disappearing for a few years.
After the history is told, Barra spends more than 100 pages on other, related areas. Appendix 1 reviews how Rickwood Field stayed alive. Appendix 2 has a good-sized bit of memory from Lorenzo "Piper" Davis, one of the great names in Negro League baseball. Appendix 3 has shorter interviews with some of the other people who have memories of baseball in Birmingham. Appendix 4 has tributes to other old ballparks around the country.
This all goes pretty quickly, thanks in part to some good pictures and a bunch of footnotes in the main section. So we know this is well done and all, but one big question still remains.
"Will I care if I'm not from Birmingham?"
That's a tough one. Most people probably will have trouble generating enthusiasm for the subject. Barra doesn't spend a great deal of time in the main story on the ballpark itself, which is a bit surprising.
"Rickwood Field" is nicely done, enough to give it an "all right" rating. If you love baseball history on a deep basis or have been to games in Rickwood Field (which sounds like it would be worth a trip if you are in the area), give it at least another star.