A personal interest: Baseball in Alabama

waits

After reading the article about industrial baseball leagues in Alabama and Vulcan Park and Museum’s “From Factory to Field” exhibition in the Winter/Spring 2010 issue of Mosaic, Doug Purcell, executive director of the Historic Chattahoochee Commission, sent us this photo and message:

Attached is a photo of James Prestley (Buster) Waits, taken c. 1910 in the Grasselli area of present-day Birmingham. His father, Major Prestley Waits (1878-1938), was the manager of Grasselli Chemical Company (GCS). It is possible that GCS had a baseball team and Buster Waits was its “mascot.” Buster Waits was born in late 1904 in Grasselli and died in 1980 in Birmingham. He was the oldest son of Major Prestley Waits. “Major” was a given name–not a military rank.

AHF would like to thank Mr. Purcell for his interest in our magazine and grant-funded program “From Factory to Field,” and we encourage all members of the public to share your pictures and stories with us.

The exhibition “From Factory to Field,” opening April 1 at Vulcan Park and Museum, examines the phenomenon of America’s favorite pastime in Birmingham. The exhibit celebrates the 100th anniversary of Rickwood Field (pictured above), 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.