The exhibition “From Factory to Field” at Vulcan Park and Museum will close in just a few weeks. Plan to visit the exhibit, which examines the phenomenon of America’s favorite pastime in Birmingham, sometime before October 1.
The exhibit celebrates the 100th anniversary of Rickwood Field, America’s oldest operational ballpark, and dispels the common myth that baseball made its way south through former Confederate prisoners of war, who learned the sport from Union captors.
“From Factory to Field” argues that Birmingham, in fact, embraced baseball for the same reasons that northern industrialized cities in the late 1800s did. Rail lines probably brought the idea of baseball to Birmingham, and the sport took hold because the game appealed to time-clock-based industrial society, which included immigrants and rural transplants who needed outdoor recreation in an urban setting as a means of assimilation and socialization. Baseball’s blend of teamwork and individualism,
two characteristics also applicable to an effective factory worker, reflect industrial work patterns. The industrial league system became a pool of talent for the town’s two professional ball teams: the Barons and the Black Barons. Baseball mirrored segregated life in Birmingham at the time. There are anecdotal reports of black and white teams playing one another and players being arrested in violation of city code.
The great Mobile-born pitcher Satchel Paige, who played for the Black Barons from 1927 to 1929, went on to play for the Cleveland Indians in 1948 at the age of 42, making him the game’s oldest rookie. Fairfield’s pride and joy, Willie Mays, went from playing for Fairfield’s industrial league team to eventually playing for the New York Giants.
“From Factory to Field” celebrates these African-American players and others and discusses how they advanced civil rights in the city. The exhibition concludes with the desegregation of baseball and the modern-day Barons. Baseball is a compelling lens through which to view the social changes in Birmingham’s history.
For another blog post recollecting Birmingham’s baseball connection, please read “Alabama rich with baseball legends,” or check out the Baseball Players of Alabama Gallery at the Encyclopedia of Alabama.