Tag Archives: Friends of Rickwood

Father’s Day, 2017: Remembering Dad and Harmon Killebrew

Our father, Virgil Nipper, was inducted into the Nashville Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008 at the 69th annual Old Timers banquet at the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel. It was a prestigious honor for dad, one that includes local greats W. A. Wright, Larry Cole, Joe Casey, and Bobby Reasonover, among many others.

Dad has always been friendly and jovial, but most certainly humbled by his award. His personality was at its best when talk turned to sports and baseball, and that night was one of the best. He had a way of reeling in others with his stories, but mostly from his honesty and humility.

The following year as president of Old Timers, I was able to greet our 2009 banquet speaker, Harmon Killebrew, at the airport. He and his wife Nita were congenial folks, very cordial, and they were looking forward to an extended visit with relatives in the area along with being available to our board members and guests at the banquet.

A prolific slugger who spent 22 years in the majors, Killebrew was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984. At the time of his retirement, he was second only to Babe Ruth in American League home runs. I was humbled by his on-field accomplishments, but his graciousness soon put my awe to rest.

I explained the format of our banquet, and when the time came for him to make his address, he did not disappoint. He was a stirring guest, free with his stories, and he held the audience spellbound. To everyone’s surprise, he remained in the banquet hallafterwards and signed just about any memorabilia item brought to him. While our banquets usually end around 9:30 p.m., he stayed on for over an hour and fifteen minutes.

Before he made his way to his hotel room, I asked if he would mind meeting our board of directors for breakfast the following morning. He agreed.

I took the opportunity to seat him at the head of a table of around 14 in the hotel restaurant. Dad sat to his right (yes, I did it on purpose), and they talked and talked. Dad was in his element, and afterwards told me it what a great opportunity it was.

Almost a year and a half later, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Rickwood Classic, a Birmingham Barons ‘turn-back-the-clock’ game played once a year at Rickwood Field. Harmon was the featured guest that year, and would be throwing out the first pitch at the game, to be held on June 2. I was invited to attend an informal gathering at the Barons home park, the Hoover Met, the night before.

As a guest of the Friends of Rickwood, I arrived at the press box and watched others greet the affable Killebrew. Once everyone had said hello, I ambled up to him and reached out my hand.

“Harmon, I don’t know if you remember me or not. I’m Skip Nipper; we were proud to have you at our Old Timers banquet in Nashville last year.”

“Of course, I do. How’s your dad?”

I was literally stunned that a Hall of Famer, no matter how humble, no matter how famous, no matter how time had separated our banquet and breakfast in Nashville, would ask about dad.

But then, I knew another Hall of Famer who would have said and done the same thing.

Rest in peace, dad. And say hello to Harmon for me.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Babe Ruth, Explained

This image of me with one of my idols takes a little explaining, but I need to set the timeline in order.

The oldest existing ballpark in America, Rickwood Field, is in Birmingham, Alabama. Recently closed for repairs and scheduled to re-open in 2018, it has been in use by colleges and amateur teams for ages. The Birmingham Black Barons hosted Negro League games at Rickwood for many years.

Built in 1910, the first game hosted by the Birmingham Barons was on August 18 of that year. The Barons have called two newer ballparks as home field since leaving Rickwood after the 1987 season: Hoover Met and Regions Field. But there has been one game each season that allows players and fans another chance to visit the grandest ballpark in the South in all her glory.

Every year since 1995 the Barons have hosted a Southern League rival in a “Turn Back the Clock” game known as the Rickwood Classic.

“The Friends of Rickwood saved Rickwood Field from the wrecking ball way back in 1992[1],” states Gerald Watkins, Chairman of the organization on the group’s website. Over $2 million has been raised by the group to maintain “America’s Oldest Baseball Park”; but often, funds fall short of their intent as the ballpark has aged to a cautious degree.

Due to structural repairs at Rickwood, the 2017 Classic will be relocated to the Barons home ballpark, Regions Field in downtown Birmingham.[2] The game will be played on May 31, against the Chattanooga Lookouts.

“Rickwood Field is a significant part of the history of Birmingham and of baseball. We are thankful that we found the problem areas and can work to get them repaired and restored for the next generation of baseball fans,” says Mayor William Bell.[3]

I have attended many Classics since 2002, having made friendships with many Birmingham baseball “brothers” through the annual Southern Association conference held each March. It is a treat to visit the ballpark, rekindle our love for the beloved league and share research, photos, and documents. Having the conference and the Classic at a venue such as Rickwood is an added treat.

In 2010, I rekindled a friendship with Hall of Fame member Harmon Killebrew at that year’s Classic. I had met him in 2009 at our Old Timers Baseball Association banquet. He was a delightful guest, dynamite speaker, and even made friends with my dad, Virgil Nipper, at breakfast the next morning.

I was not surprised, in fact, when he saw me at the Classic that hot summer June day, when the first thing he said after we exchanged pleasantries was, “How’s your dad?”

Another Hall of Famer in attendance that day was Babe Ruth. Not really “The Babe”, but a near stand-in double for him. His name is Steve Folven. I had to look twice, as the similarity is quite stunning, although this Babe is several inches shorter than the Sultan of Swat, who stood 6’2”. The snapshot that was taken of us shows the difference: I am 6’0”.

Steve has a website, http://www.ImBabeRuth.com, where he can be booked for events, and where he states that his long-term goal is to be the honored guest at Yankee Stadium. Ironically, he grew up within a few blocks of Boston’s Fenway Park, and was born six weeks before Babe Ruth passed away on August 16, 1948.

One of the first events he attended was in 2005, at a Las Vegas minor league game at Cashman Field, but he also threw out the first ball at a Red Sox vs. Yankees fan charity softball game in May, 2007. He has attended card shows, dinners, and galas, and was even the honored guest at a Bar Mitzvah. He has returned to Birmingham on various occasions.

My day with Steven was a memorable one, planted in my love for the Yankees and “The Babe” himself. I cherish the photograph, the memories, and the joy that baseball has brought to me through my Birmingham “baseball buddies” and Rickwood Field. Thanks, Steven.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

[1] “The Rickwood Classic,” http://rickwoodclassic.com/, retrieved May 10, 2017.

[2] “May 31 Game Against Chattanooga To Be Played At 7:05 p.m.,” https://www.milb.com/barons/news/may-31-details/c-227071942/t-196093346, retrieved May 10, 2017

[3] “The Rickwood Classic.”

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12th Annual Southern Association Conference at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field

Rickwood Field, Birmingham’s historic ballpark, is preserved through the efforts of the Friends of Rickwood and maintains Rickwood, built in 1910 as home to the Barons and used by the Negro League Birmingham Black Barons.

Over 200 amateur games are still played there, and each year the AA Southern League’s Barons host a regular season turn-back-the-clock contest dubbed the “Rickwood Classic”; this year’s game will be played on Wednesday, May 27th, as the Barons host the Jacksonville Suns at 12:30 PM. Former New York Mets star Darryl Strawberry will be the featured guest.

2015 ProgramA visit to Rickwood should be on every baseball fan’s list of places to visit. The ballpark hails a time when Sunday doubleheaders were played in the sweltering heat and future major leaguers hoped to move up the ranks to the majors. Each time I visit I think of what it must have been like for Nashville Vols Buster Boguskie, Lance Richbourg, Tom Rogers, Phil Weintraub, Bill Rodda, Boots Poffenberger, and Babe Barna to have played there. And how proud they’d be that it is still there.

It is such an iconic picture of baseball’s past that Rickwood has been used for commercials and movies.

The movie about Jackie Robinson, “42” utilized the ballpark during filming.

Like baseball? Like history? Like the history of southern baseball? Then you’ll need to remember this for the future: the Friends of Rickwood group sponsors an annual conference dedicated to the history of the Southern League (1885-1899) and Southern Association (1901-1961). It is a gathering of historians, writers, fans, and players who are interested in sharing their research, stories, and memorabilia.

The 12th Annual Southern Association Conference was held this past Saturday on March 7 after an informal gathering the evening before.

P1011126What took place? Well, the usual shaking of hands, pats on the backs, and hugs from friendships gained over previous conferences. But that’s not all.

The 28 attendees were treated to presentations on the birth of the Southern League (1884-1885); a perspective on Atlanta’s Henry W. Grady, an integral leader in the formation of the 19th Century league; an image of the 1885 Nashville Americans; a summary of a new book on the horizon about the Negro Southern League; and images and film about the Birmingham Barons.

P1011127Of particular interest to me was film presented by Birmingham and Memphis historian Clarence “Skip” Watkins which included color footage of a game between the Memphis Chicks and Nashville Vols. In color. Wow.

During the all-day event, we were treated to viewings of memorabilia collections and discussions about the old ballparks, teams, and what the future holds for southern professional baseball.

David Brewer, director of Friends of Rickwood, and Watkins came up with the idea in 2003, and the program has been ongoing since that time. The setting has changed from time-to-time, too: Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Nashville have hosted the conference and there may be opportunity to be in New Orleans in 2016.

P1011129Which leads me back to my original questions: if you are interested, you cannot go wrong. New Orleans or Birmingham, the Rickwood Classic or just a visit to the grand old ballpark in Birmingham. If you get your chance, take it in.

You can always ride with me.

 © 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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11th Annual Southern Association Conference in Atlanta

Ten years ago I was invited to attend a new baseball conference that was being organized in Birmingham, Alabama. It became the first annual Southern Association Conference, and subsequent conferences have been attended by people from across the nation who are interested in the history of the league.

Past presentations have been presented on the Atlanta Crackers, Birminghams Barons, Mobile Bears, Shreveport Sports, Knoxville Smokies, New Orleans Pelicans, Chattanooga Lookouts, Little Rock Travelers, and Nashville Vols. Many friendships have been formed and continue to this day.

Earlier this week the announcement was released about the 2014 conference. Consider adding the date to your calendar:

SA_Conference

The Southern Association was the heart of professional baseball in the South until major league expansions in the 1960’s, and the conferences focus on the stadiums, the teams, and players, and the historical significance of the game of baseball in the South.

Most of the annual Southern Association Conferences have been held at historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham, but we have also met in Chattanooga and Nashville. This is the first year that we will visit Atlanta, the home of the Atlanta Crackers, the late Earl Mann, and Ponce De Leon Park.

We want the Eleventh Annual Conference to deal mainly with Atlanta’s long and memorable tenure in the Southern Association, but we will also consider other topics related to baseball in Atlanta and the South.

Call for Presentations

Presentations should be 20 to 30 minutes in length. We encourage PowerPoint presentations, but it is not essential. It is likely that you will be addressing a group of 50 people, so visual aids in some fashion will enhance your presentation. Please refrain from quoting large quantities of statistics, which tend to clutter and confuse.

Please send a short synopsis of your presentation to David Brewer for our consideration. david@rickwood.com. We would like to receive your proposals by January 8, 2014. We shall respond to your proposal as soon as possible, and certainly by January 22, 2014, so that you will have ample time to prepare your presentation.

We will select 6 presentations and 2 alternates. If selected you will be asked to provide a couple of images pertaining to your presentation for our conference program. We will also need a brief bio on you.

We are also seeking several vintage memorabilia collectors to display artifacts related to the Atlanta Crackers. Displays of old bats and gloves endorsed by former Cracker players, programs, scrapbooks, uniforms, and pennants greatly enhance the atmosphere of the conference.

We are looking forward to a great conference in Atlanta. Additional details about the venue, cost, and lodging for out-of-town guests will be announced soon. If you have any questions or would like additional information to assist with your proposal, please contact David Brewer directly (david@rickwood.com or 205-458-8161).

Thank you.

Clarence Watkins and David Brewer

Clarence Watkins is author of “Baseball in Birmingham” and “Baseball in Memphis” (Arcadia Publishing) and is an expert on the history of the baseball in those cities.  David Brewer is executive director of the Friends of Rickwood (www.rickwood.com) which preserves and maintains Rickwood Field, one of the oldest ballparks still in existence.

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