A photo of Rickwood Field – the oldest professional ballpark in America – appeared in front a him, along with a column by Paul Newberry describing the structural repairs the park needs. Located in Birmingham, Ala., Rickwood is more than 500 miles from Webb’s Chapel Hill home, but it holds a personal significance for him.
“I said, ‘Gosh, I know that ballfield,’” Webb, 71, who practices law in Raleigh, said. “That’s my grandfather’s ballpark.”
Webb’s grandfather, A.H. “Rick” Woodward, was the owner of the minor-league Birmingham Barons and oversaw the park’s construction in 1910. Newspaper clippings and old photos of Rickwood Field – named after Woodward – occupy a wall in a hallway in Webb’s house, and a portrait of Woodward sits on a table in the corner of his living room.
‘A bon vivant’
Woodward was the heir to the Woodward Iron Company, but much to his father Joseph Woodward’s chagrin, he always gravitated more toward baseball. Rick Woodward played at Sewanee and MIT while pursuing an engineering degree and bought the Barons at age 33 in 1909 for $20,000.
“He was sort of a bon vivant around Birmingham,” Webb said. “My great-grandfather thought he should take the business more seriously. He thought baseball was a degrading exercise.”
Woodward’s first order of business as the owner was his dream of a new ballpark on par with the cutting-edge stadiums being constructed in major-league cities. After traveling to Philadelphia to see the Athletics’ new Shibe Park and befriending Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack, the Athletics came to Birmingham for an exhibition so Mack could help Woodward design his own park.
Most early baseball fields were built from wood, and Rickwood was only the fifth concrete and steel park ever constructed, an unprecedented project for a minor-league team.
The park cost $75,000 to build, three times its original budget, and 10,000 fans arrived for its inaugural game on August 18, 1910. Woodward strode to the mound to start the game – not for the ceremonial first pitch, but for the actual first pitch – and threw a ball before giving way for the Barons’ regular starting pitcher.
As a hands-on owner, Woodward put Mark Cuban and George Steinbrenner to shame. He dressed in uniform and watched games from the bench during Rickwood’s early years, though he was suspended from the dugout for punching umpire Bulldog Williams once after he disagreed with a call.
Woodward preferred the company of his players to the Birmingham elite, two groups that did not overlap 100 years ago.
“He hung out, smoked cigars with them, drank with them.” Webb said. “It was a pretty rowdy crowd.”
After a career that earned him a ticket to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, Woodward sold the Barons in 1938 when the Great Depression forced his company into bankruptcy, but his free spirit never waned until his death in 1950 when Webb was 5 years old. Webb’s memories of his grandfather are of Woodward lighting up cigars inside, spitting into a spittoon next to his chair and letting his dogs track dirt all over the house.
“My grandmother was a Victorian lady, very strict with her children and grandchildren,” Webb said. “He got away with murder in that house when none of the rest us could get away with anything.”
The Barons, now the double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, left Rickwood for a shiny new park in nearby Hoover, Ala., in 1987. But beginning in 1996, they started returning every year for one throwback game known as the Rickwood Classic.
Rickwood hosted the game for 21 straight years, with the Barons and their opponents wearing authentic vintage uniforms and spectators dressing in the style of the early 20th century. The Classic also serves as the primary source of revenue for Friends of Rickwood, the nonprofit organization that operates the park.
“After 20-plus years, the community has embraced the event and the overall revitalization of the ballpark,” said David Brewer, Friends of Rickwood’s executive director since 1998. “A lot of community fundraising-type events don’t last 20 years, so we think that’s significant. That speaks to how the city, the community, feels about Rickwood.”
There was no Rickwood Classic at the park this year for the first time since 1995. The city of Birmingham shut Rickwood down on April 7 for structural repairs to the grandstand, citing liability concerns. Brewer said the 107-year-old ballpark still hosts about 175 games a year, serving as the home field for Miles College and welcoming high schools and travel teams frequently. Its age is starting to take a toll.
There is no budget or timeline for repairs yet, but it will be an expensive undertaking. The city pledged $500,000 to the project, and it will be up to Friends of Rickwood to work with the city to raise whatever more is needed. The charity has set up a GoFundMe page for donations.
“What we’re in now I would describe as phase one. It’s the engineers, the architects doing a survey of the park, trying to establish the scope of the project,” Brewer said. “We’re very optimistic that the park will reopen.”
By May 2018, Brewer is hopeful that Rickwood will be ready for the Classic to return to its rightful home, and if that happens, Webb will likely be back in the stands.
Webb has returned to his birthplace in Birmingham for almost every Rickwood Classic. Some of his cousins still live in Birmingham, and two Woodwards sit on Friends of Rickwood’s Board of Directors.
“Our relationship with the Woodward family is really essential to the ongoing project,” Brewer said. “They refer to this as grandpa’s ballpark. They’re still very proud of what he accomplished.”
The field is not the only lasting reminder of Rick Woodward’s legacy – the house he built and lived in is now reserved for the president of the University of Alabama-Birmingham. But as long as it is still functional, it will remain an important piece of baseball’s history and a Birmingham landmark Webb’s family can be proud of for generations.
“It’s a family reunion for the Rickwood Classic,” Webb said. “What I want to do is take my grandchildren back.”
How to help
The Friends of Rickwood non-profit is raising money through a GoFundMe campaign for the preservation of Rickwood Field and the structural repairs needed on the grandstand.
To help, go to https://www.gofundme.com/RickwoodField.