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'Road to Rickwood' tells the story of Alabama's famed Rickwood Field

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

When you think of Major League Baseball cities, places like New York, Boston or Chicago might come to mind. Birmingham, Ala., probably is not the first place you would name, but Birmingham is home to a major piece of baseball and American history. The city's Rickwood Field is the oldest professional baseball stadium in America. Opened in 1910, Rickwood Field has hosted many baseball legends, including Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth. It was the home field of the Negro Leagues team the Black Barons, which was the first team in Alabama to integrate.

And the ballpark's role in history extends beyond baseball. It was the backdrop for major political and cultural changes in the 20th century, including desegregation, women's suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement. Earlier this month, Major League Baseball paid tribute to the ballpark's history by holding a regular season game there between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants. And in the lead up to that game, WWNO's Alana Schreiber and comedian Roy Wood Jr. created Road to Rickwood, a podcast that explores how civil rights and baseball history intersected over the years at the park. Alana is the show's executive producer, and Roy is the host. And both of them join me now. Thanks for being here.

ROY WOOD JR, BYLINE: Hey, hey.

ALANA SCHREIBER, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

DETROW: And Alana, I want to start with you. Tell me how you got interested in Rickwood and its history.

SCHREIBER: Yeah. So for me, interest in Negro League baseball goes back to fourth grade. I remember my sister and I had to do history projects, and my sister asks my dad, you know, everyone's going to do Jackie Robinson; who was the second Black player in Major League Baseball? And then he tells her all about Larry Doby and playing in Cleveland. And I'm thinking, oh, my God, my sister is going to have this amazing project. I got to do something.

And my mom actually happened to be reading Buck O'Neil's obituary, who, of course, was the first African American coach in Major League Baseball but had this tremendous career as a coach and player for the Kansas City Monarchs. So she tells me how just before he died, he had just not made it into the Hall of Fame. But apparently, he was so gracious because he was so happy that other players from the Negro Leagues had made it in. And I had never thought about what that was like where your league is somehow more important to you than your career. So I was just fascinated by the Negro Leagues, and I do my project on Buck O'Neil. No one in my class knew who I was talking about, but I loved doing it.

And then when I became a reporter, I would, you know, travel and live in different places, and I kept finding all of these connections to Negro League history. And then when I heard about Rickwood Field, just one Wikipedia search into Rickwood, and I was like, oh, my God, they had a Klan rally and a women's suffrage rally. Bull Connor got his start here. You know, there was - Negro League teams and white teams would switch off on weekends, and then white fans would have to sit on the, quote-unquote, "Negro bleachers." It just seemed like Rickwood Field wasn't just a venue of history, but really was and is a part of history.

DETROW: Roy, how much did you know about Rickwood going into this? How much were you aware of this amazing history that the field has?

WOOD: I was aware of the park. I played high school baseball there. That was our home stadium. Rickwood, when it's not being used by, like, minor league teams and stuff, it's a city facility, and some colleges use it for regular season games. The history of it, I did not know much of any of it. It's just not taught in Alabama school history. So I just looked at it as an opportunity to not only learn myself, but to, you know, I don't know, maybe educate other people on somewhere that was very, very interesting. And just baseball is kind of the lynchpin, but it's still a great, you know, little, four-episode podcast about American history. And if you like history, you'll appreciate it. I think the baseball part of it is just kind of a cherry on top for me.

DETROW: Roy, I feel like I need to apologize now. I talked about all the legends, the baseball legends who played there, like Mays and Aaron. I didn't mention you. I'm sorry about that.

WOOD: I batted 183. I'm pretty sure that's not legendary.

DETROW: (Laughter).

WOOD: But thank you (laughter).

DETROW: Curious about each of you, you know, you both obviously appreciate history and baseball going into this - Alana, let me start with you. What's one thing you learned making this podcast that just blew your mind?

SCHREIBER: Oh, my God, there's so many things to choose from (laughter). I think that something that was really meaningful was just how much the field meant to the Black community and how people would go straight from church to games. They would make sure the sermons ended early, or they would just leave early so they could go there. But I think what was also just really special was talking to so many former Negro League players and just kind of hearing what Rickwood Field meant to them because it wasn't a monolith. There were some people who love this stadium, who it means so much to them. It represents, you know, hope and meaning and opportunity in Birmingham, and other people who were kind of ready to move on and who looking back at their Negro League careers is kind of upsetting to think about all the opportunities that they didn't get. And I think that was a really important thing was that this field represents a lot, but it doesn't mean the same thing to everybody.

DETROW: What about you, Roy?

WOOD: Yeah, I think a lot of that as well - the opportunity, also, to talk with so many retired Negro Leaguers, many of whom who still live in a Birmingham area. You know, we're talking men, you know, in their 80s, some in their 90s. And the memories that they were, you know, open-book sharing with us was - you know, it was just amazing. You hear stories about how if a player was light-skinned enough to pass as white, then on the road trips they would send them into white-only restaurants to order food for the bus - and, like, where they slept sometimes on the bus or in nursing homes, and just all of these interesting facts about that life and how hard it was. But then at the end of those conversations, to hear them say, I would absolutely do it all over again; it was one of the best times in my life - and how much baseball helped, I think to keep them healed, but not only the players, but also the community to a degree.

You know, there's a reason why Rickwood was kind of the test kitchen for desegregation of sporting events and of audiences. Like, it was the first desegregated crowd as well at that same game. So, you know, it was definitely a safe place where, you know, almost like a - I won't say Switzerland, but it definitely was the closest thing to, OK, we all agree we like this, right? OK, cool. Let's see if we can get along here, and then maybe we can do it everywhere else.

DETROW: I want to talk about Willie Mays, who, of course, got his start in the Negro Leagues with the Black Barons, and, of course, unfortunately, dies just on the eve of this game. Before we talk about Mays, let's listen to a couple of moments from the podcast. First is - Roy, you're talking to a former teammate of his, Bill Greason.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BILL GREASON: He could run and throw and catch. He had a problem, in the beginning, hitting. And...

WOOD: Really?

GREASON: Yeah.

WOOD: Willie Mays couldn't hit?

GREASON: In the beginning, you know, he couldn't hit that triple A ball. But with the Barons, he learned how to hit.

DETROW: And in another moment, you talked to Mays' son, Michael, and here's what he told you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MICHAEL MAYS: Well, the greatest blessing being my father's son is all the stories I get to - I get people telling me stories with tears in their eyes, with belly laughs in their stomach. Their lives have been affected by a moment with him. That's no accident.

DETROW: I mean, this question is for both of you. Like, you spend all this time - obviously, you both, I'm sure, had deep appreciation for Willie Mays to begin with before this project. But you have conversations like this. You learn so much more about him, and then he dies just as you're at the field getting ready for this game. How did you process that moment after all of the research and time you put into thinking about Willie Mays and his career and what he meant in this setting?

SCHREIBER: Yeah. So I had been hearing stories about Willie Mays since I was a kid. My dad is a former baseball writer and huge fan. We're big Mets fans. And so when I heard the news after, you know, all this dedication to him, I was at Rickwood Field. We were at a minor league game between the Birmingham Barons and the Montgomery Biscuits. And as sad as it was, it was so meaningful to not only hear that news at Rickwood Field, but to hear it with my parents, who were the people who told me the personal Mays anecdotes that they had.

And so they announced it. I look over at my mom, who is crying, and then I look over at my dad, who starts tearing up, and then I look over at everyone else around me. They are crying. They're applauding. They're standing. They play a tribute video, and people start singing along to the "Say Hey" song. They're chanting Willie. And it felt like, although it was so upsetting to hear the news, there's no place I would have rather been than Rickwood Field because you could look out into center field and imagine him there. And you knew you were surrounded by people who also loved and appreciated him.

DETROW: Roy, what did he mean to you and what were you thinking when you got the news?

WOOD: It was about the same as Alana, just looking out in the crowd and then hearing a 90-second stand ovation for Mr. Mays. I was actually on the call with MLB Network for the minor league game. And we got the news probably, let's just say, 20 minutes before it went out over the PA to the crowd. They made the announcement. And it was very sad. But then when I saw the people clapping and applauding and celebrating, it gave me hope, and I felt like everybody was in the right place. And to be able to honor him in the place where he got his first ever professional hit at 17 years old, it just - it was full circle.

And the thing that really made me feel really good, to the Michael Mays point of it all, on Thursday at the major league game that they had, I figured Michael Mays would be somewhere at home doing funeral arrangements, you know? And when I saw him walk out on the field with Griffey and, I think, Barry Bonds at the beginning of the game to give some words to the crowd...

DETROW: Yeah.

WOOD: ...To see him there, it really cemented what all of that week was supposed to be - and it remained - which was a celebration of Willie Mays and the Negro Leagues. So, you know, the mission was still accomplished. Unfortunately, he wasn't here. He didn't - you know, he didn't hang on long enough to be able to see it all come to fruition.

DETROW: Yeah. Quick to both of you, 'cause you both clearly love baseball, what's your favorite thing about baseball? Roy, I'll start with you.

WOOD: It teaches failure.

DETROW: Yeah.

WOOD: It teaches patience, which are the two things you need in life. You need to know how to deal with when things suck and how to approach things the same way, no matter how good or bad you did it the time before.

DETROW: What about you, Alana?

SCHREIBER: For me, baseball just means family. My first memories of baseball - we were living in Queens, and my dad would come home from work. And I'd run up, you know, down the street to meet him, and I'd say, did the Mets win? And I remember not knowing what that meant but just knowing that's the question for Dad when he gets home, and if he says yes, we're happy; and if he says no, we're sad. Baseball was just always this kind of language that was spoken in my family, and I just love how much it, you know, makes me feel like me and, you know, connects me...

DETROW: Yeah.

SCHREIBER: ...To everybody else. And there's a reason our family group chat name is The Sandlot (laughter).

DETROW: That's executive producer Alana Schreiber and host Roy Wood Jr. Their podcast, Road to Rickwood, was produced by WWNO and WRKF with support from Major League Baseball. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks so much to both of you.

WOOD: Hey, thank you.

SCHREIBER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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