Rickwood Classic showcases forgotten history

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT)- Rickwood Field has seen a lot of talent grace its basepaths in the last 104 years. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Reggie Jackson are some of the names you know; Roosevelt Jackson, Dick O’Neal, and Russell Patterson are some of the names you may not. The latter three all played in the Negro Leagues. “We were great ball players,” said Patterson, who earned the nickname “Crazy Legs” during his career with the Indianapolis Clowns. “We just didn’t have the chance during segregation.”

While Major League Baseball has press clipping and film to document its history, the Negro Leagues survive largely on oral renditions. “A guy threw me a fastball, [and] I hit it up the middle,” said Patterson. “When I slid into second, the ball hit me in the back. That’s how fast I was,” he added with a laugh. Roosevelt Jackson played for so many teams, it takes a serious time commitment for him to rattle them all off. Most of the teams were based in south Florida. At 96 years old, he still remembers some of his proudest moments on the field like they happened yesterday. Spend enough time with him, and you’ll hear him retell of the time he pitched eight innings of no-hit ball, or when he saw Josh Gibson knock a ball out-of-sight. He also remembers stories that aren’t nearly as fun. “One thing I remember that I never forgot, is that we had a good time,” he said, “Even when we had to sleep under the bus and on the bus.”

O’Neal sat quietly in the stands as countless fans passed him to talk to his fellow Negro Leaguers. He does not get mad; he doesn’t fit most people’s mental pictures. “One guy came up a little while ago and said, ‘Thanks for putting this on,’ because I’m white,” he recounted. O’Neal was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals, spending time in their farm system during the 1967-68 season. After serving in the military he tried-out and made the Biloxi Dodgers of the Gulf Coast Negro League. “It was not an issue in the black leagues,” he explained. “They had no problems with it, if you were a ball player.”

Tommie Reynolds was a ball player. He never spent time in the Negro Leagues, but he does hold a very special place in Birmingham baseball history and in the black community. He was one of three players that integrated the Birmingham Barons. “Baseball was a game everybody could play,” said Reynolds. “It didn’t matter what size you were, how fast you were; if you had some kind of tools, you could play baseball.” The Rickwood Classic celebrates the truth in Reynolds statement. Today, black fans and white fans sit side-by-side, cheering on players of all races and backgrounds. From time to time, fans wandered over to the third base side, where most of the former Negro Leaguers sat together to share their Rickwood Field memories, both sad and happy. “I love doing this,” said Patterson. “Just sitting down and talking baseball.”

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