How Rickwood Field was renovated for historic MLB game: 'We maintained the magic'

The year was 1992, the 82nd anniversary of the opening of Rickwood Field. But there was no birthday celebration.

It had been five years since the Birmingham Barons of the Southern League had moved out, preferring the modern amenities of a brand-new ballpark in the southern suburb of Hoover. With no tenant, local residents who’d grown up attending games – both of the Barons in the white minor leagues and the Black Barons in the Negro leagues – had a legitimate fear that Rickwood would be demolished.

“Birmingham had a great old building that was our terminal station for rail and bus travelers. It was a beautiful piece of art, but it was torn down in 1976,” recalls Gerald Watkins, the chairman of the board of the Friends of Rickwood, the non-profit tasked with preserving the ballpark. “Some of us were old enough to remember the terminal going away, and we thought we didn’t want to see this old ballpark go away the same way.”

The facility had fallen into disrepair by 1992. When an advance crew from Hollywood came on a rainy night to check out the site for possible use in a movie, there was nowhere for them to meet in the grandstands. That’s because water was pouring through the leaky roof everywhere they tried to gather.

With the aging park falling apart, Watkins feels this was the darkest point in Rickwood’s history.

But the filmmakers decided the vintage look of the park was perfect for their bio-pic of Ty Cobb. After all, Cobb was playing for the Detroit Tigers when Rickwood was built in 1910.

“The city mobilized. Big companies in town mobilized. The Friends of Rickwood were formed, and enough money was raised to get the ballpark brought to a level where the film could be done,” says Watkins. The film “Cobb,” starring Tommy Lee Jones in the title role, opened in 1994.

“That movie was the first inning of the rebirth of Rickwood,” Watkins says.

A general view of Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama.
A general view of Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

He admits that since the work done for “Cobb,” “It’s been very hard to get any big money to do the repairs that were needed.” Now the impending arrival of Major League Baseball for a game is giving this historic park another lease on life.

The San Francisco Giants will facethe St. Louis Cardinals in a regular-season game at Rickwood on June 20. Fox will handle the nationwide broadcast (7:15 ET) of the sold-out contest.

Maintaining the magic

Before MLB decided to bring a game to Rickwood, it sent their advance team in the winter of 2022 to see if it would be feasible. After all, the structure and playing field had been around for 112 years.

Murray Cook of Brightview has been MLB’s main field consultant since 1993, when he prepared ballfields in Eastern Europe for a series of games by U.S. minor leaguers. The visit to Rickwood a year-and-a-half ago marked the first time he’d seen the wooden ballpark.

“It brought back memories of some of the old stadiums I’d worked in over the years,” he recalls. “It is a really unique, cool place.”

Despite that aura, the playing surface “was basically a rec-level field. It was in really poor condition. It was some weeds, some grass, some Bermuda (grass), some more weeds. And the dugouts were like bunkers. When you were standing in one, you couldn’t see the left fielder because there was a big bump in the middle of the field.”

Perhaps the biggest anomalies were the foul lines.

“They’d been putting chalk down the foul lines for, what, 100 years,” Cook says. “This made the line literally a foot higher than the field on either side of it. We knew we were facing a challenge of building a new field that meets major league quality in an existing venue that wasn’t designed to hold a regulation field.”

So the first order of business was to excavate and remove the top two feet of the playing surface.

A system of pipes was installed that could drain away rainwater at a rate of seven to 10 inches an hour. Above it, a layer of gravel was applied, then a blend of sand and dirt for the roots of the grass to grow into.

Then bermuda-grass sod was meticulously rolled on top.

Cook’s crew was also in charge of replacing the dugouts, the backstop, foul poles and the fencing around the field.

Brightview also encountered two clashes of yesterday and today: The field needed netting all the way down the foul territory, very much unlike the screens of decades ago; and the existing light standards actually protruded from the top of the roof over the field.

“Those lights are part of the charm and history there, and we didn’t want to take them down,” Cooks says. “We left the fixtures and took out the lenses and bulbs, so if a ball did hit them, you wouldn’t have glass crashing onto a player.”

The lighting for the MLB night game will come from temporary light standards, brought in on flatbed trucks.

“The big challenge with Rickwood was to ensure we maintained the magic and history of the venue,” says Cook.

Creating the pallet

In recent years, MLB has staged events in venues where none had existed previously. Examples include the pop-up ballpark built on an abandoned golf course at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 2016 and the incredibly successful Field of Dreams games in the cornfield in Dyersville, Iowa, the past two years.

Rickwood Field presents unique challenges.

“We were handed a stadium that is very old and doesn’t meet code in many ways,” says Todd Barnes, principal at architecture firm Populous. “We had to fit Major League Baseball into a place that was never intended to have it.”

The park’s tiny locker rooms and press box didn’t come close to doing the job.

“Rickwood was never built in scale for any occupancy of this size,” says Populous associate principal Michael Kinard. “We have to provide almost all the facilities that are required for the event, from clubhouses to the operational area to media functions.”

What little parking had been adjacent to Rickwood is now occupied by a complex of temporary structures housing all of the functions needed to host a modern-day MLB contest. Fans will have to park at Legion Field a mile away and take shuttles to the ballpark.

“The goal was to take a very gentle touch to it,” says Barnes. “Obviously, we didn’t want to overhaul a historic building.”

No new structures were added. Instead, existing seats were removed to accommodate wheelchairs.

“We love these kinds of challenges and accept them with open arms. These are the best games for us overall,” says Barnes. “We’re creating the pallet for MLB to frame the right game presentation to make it just an incredible day.”

Joe Mock covers sports facilities for USA TODAY publications

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Rickwood Field was renovated for historic MLB game