Amid the gushing over baseball's newest ballpark on the northwestern edge of downtown Minneapolis, baseball fans ought to consider taking a breath and reading "Rickwood Field," Allen Barra's breezy biography of the national's oldest ballpark.
Rickwood Field, a covered-grandstand fossil in Birmingham, Ala., turns 100 this season. Named after iron scion Rick Woodward, the stadium -- home to the Birmingham Barons -- has outlasted Philadelphia's Shibe Park and Pittsburgh's Forbes Field and every other major and minor league ballpark that stood on Aug. 18, 1910, when Birmingham put 57 extra streetcars into service for Opening Day.
Barra deftly takes readers far beyond the who's who of baseball legends who visited Rickwood, including Connie Mack, the stadium's design consultant, and Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige, Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson. He spins the thorny racial history of Birmingham through the prism of the old ballpark.
We learn about the chicken wire that separated black fans from white fans in the outfield bleachers, and the day in 1947 when the Black Barons of the Negro League no longer had to get dressed in the bus or tunnel, but used the same clubhouse as the white Barons.
For kids such as Willie Mays, born in Birmingham in 1931, Rickwood Field's history reflected a larger story. After all, it was from the city's jail that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his 1963 letter that served as a framework for the civil rights movement. In that same year, the Barons' old radio announcer turned public safety commissioner, Bull Connor, turned fire hoses and police dogs on peaceful demonstrators.
In the Depression-wracked 1930s, as U.S. Steel shut down its Birmingham mill, the city had the nation's highest rates of venereal disease and illiteracy, along with the lowest per capita income. But that's also when 21-year-old Dizzy Dean came to town as a Houston Buffalo to play the Barons in the 1931 Dixie Series.
The Barons brought Dean a pregame bunch of carrots to help his eyesight, countering with a 43-year-old former Yankee, Ray Caldwell, who outdueled Dizzy 1-0. Telegraph operator Halsey Hall, who would later become the voice of the Twins, punched out the details.
Barra's narrative is punctuated with all kinds of asterisks and notes, which, rather than distracting the reader, actually deliver some of the more nourishing nuggets. For example, a wealthy fan offered to pick up the tab at Britling's Cafeteria if the Barons rallied to win Game 6 of that 1931 Series, which they did, 14-10. A footnote tells us that Britling's served not only fresh catfish, but trout almandine, chicken fried steak and fried okra.
Many big-league legends swung through Birmingham on their way north from spring training in Florida. But I enjoyed learning about unfamiliar players, such as "Bobo" Newsom, who had won 205 games in 15 different big-league uniforms before joining the 1950 Barons, or Walt Dropo, whose 467-foot, over-the-clock shot was Rickwood's longest home run.
The Barons moved out to a new park in 1987, but Rickwood still stands in the shadows of Birmingham. And with all the limelight glare on Target Field this summer, I enjoyed the cool of that shade.
Star Tribune reporter Curt Brown is the author of "So Terrible a Storm," a nonfiction account of the 1905 Lake Superior storm that prompted Split Rock Lighthouse's opening 100 years ago.