Tag Archives: Harmon Killebrew

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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Old Timers Always Come Through

CreedThursday night marked the 79th annual banquet held by Nashville’s Old Timers organization. Close to 600 folks poured into the Nashville Airport Marriott to hear guest speaker Hall of Famer and 1971 Cy Young Award winner Ferguson Jenkins. He did not disappoint, as his talk lasted 50 minutes and he lingered beyond the allotted time to sign baseballs, bats, jerseys, photos, and a myriad of items.

The Old Timers board of directors can pat themselves on the back for coming through once again.

Way back in 1999, former Cincinnati Reds third baseman Ray Knight was to have been speaker, but at the last minute had to cancel. The Old Timers board members hastily contacted Chattanooga’s Rick Honeycutt, minor league pitching instructor for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who accepted.

Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew was our speaker in 2009, the first year I was president of Old Timers, and I was anxious to see him come through the airport concourse. That meant we would be hearing him that night (and what a great speaker he was) and my fears of his being a “no-show”, much like Ray Knight, were alleviated.

Not so in 1955. Nashville Tennessean sports writer Raymond Johnson was the president that year (he served from 1951-1956), and with the cancellation of the invited speaker had to move the date of the banquet. Scheduled for January 24, Lefty Gomez was to be banquet guest, but found out he had scheduled two other banquets for the same evening, one in Minneapolis and one in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Johnson found out only a day or two ahead of time, and immediately went to work to find a replacement. In his “One Man’s Opinion” column the day before the banquet, he listed the names of those contacted to fill in for Gomez:

The first person he contacted was Chattanooga Lookouts owner Joe Engel, who found out his boss, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith, was coming for a visit in Winter Garden, Florida. Engel had to turn down Johnson’s offer.

Birmingham Barons general manager Eddie Glennon, who had spoken to the group two years prior, had a banquet commitment in Demopolis, Alabama for the same night and could not come.

Kerby Farrell, native Nashvillian and recently-named Minor League Manager of the Year at Indianapolis, could not speak as team owners had set up meetings for him all week in Indiana.

Shelby Peace, president of the KITTY League, felt he should stay at home with his wife who had suffered injuries in fall.

Whitlow Wyatt, manager of Southern Association champion Atlanta Crackers (he would soon be heading to the Philadelphia Phillies as a coach), declined. He was worried about the lack of rain and needed to remain at his farm near Buchanan, Georgia.

Jim Turner, a native of Antioch and pitching coach of the New York Yankees, felt he was not a good storyteller and declined Johnson’s invitation.

Larry Gilbert, beloved co-owner and general manager of the Nashville Vols, agreed to have a minor part in the festivities but hesitated due to his wife’s recent fall.

Johnson then contacted Joe Engel once again, and since Johnson was willing to change the banquet date, accepted. One of Chattanooga’s finest came through.

The banquet was held on February 3, and a crowd of 250 were there at the Maxwell House. Included in the guests were Bill McKechnie, Jr., director of the Cincinnati Reds farm system, new Nashville Vols manager Joe Schultz, current Vols players Bert Flammini and Bob Schultz, former major-leaguers Red Lucas, Johnny Beazley, Clydell Castleman, and Nashville mayor Ben West. Even Kerby Farrell was able to make the trip after all, too.

Johnson closed out his column with a sense of relief.

“And my Old Timers’ troubles ended, at least temporarily…So put your handkerchiefs back in your pockets, my friends.”

The Old Timers always come through.

Author’s note: Raymond Johnson’s “One Man’s Opinion” columns in the January 23, 1955 and February 4, 1955 of the Nashville Tennessean were the basis for this story.

©2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Supplying Mr. Banks (with caps)

A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to visit with “Mr. Cub”, Ernie Banks. Elected to Baseball’s legendary Hall of Fame in 1977 after 19 seasons with the Chicago Cubs, Banks was the keynote speaker at Lipscomb University’s 6th Annual “Evening of Excellence”, a fund-raising event that highlights the brilliant career of storied basketball coach Don Meyer.

At the VIP gathering before the event, I arrived early and the line had already begun to form to greet the hospitable and energetic Banks. Encouraged to “not ask for an autograph”, others were already asking so I unpackaged the Major League baseball I had brought along and stuck it in my pocket.

When it was my turn to shake Ernie’s hand, I noticed the cap he was wearing (something with “Ernie” emblazoned on it), introduced myself and he greeted me with, “What do you do?”

Banks1Not wanting to fail in getting his autograph on the ball, I quickly asked if he would mind signing a ball for me. He quickly took my ball and pen and now the ball he signed sits proudly among my meager collection.

“I am a sales rep for New Era Cap Company. We make the caps for the pros”, I replied.

“Could you make me a couple of caps?” he asked.

“I actually brought caps for you; may I give them to you? They’re Cubs caps”, I told him.

“Well, where are they? Sure you can give them to me. Go get them.”

I always take caps along to occasions such as this even if I don’t get an item signed. It was not my intention to commercialize the opportunity, either, but I do it as a way of saying “thanks” and am happy to be able to do so. Once I gave a Minnesota Twins cap to Harmon Killebrew at an event in Birmingham at the Barons ballpark at Hoover. The next day he wore it throwing out the first pitch at the Rickwood Classic where he was the guest of honor at the annual game played at the historic park.

After thanking Ernie (now we are on a first-name basis), I retrieved the caps, walked back over to where he was sitting, and placed the four caps in front of him where he could see. He was pretty busy, as by now the line had become much longer. After greeting a few more fans, he reached over and took the caps and tried each one on.

Larry Schmittou and Farrell Owens with Ernie Banks

Larry Schmittou and Farrell Owens with Ernie Banks

This is the one he chose. He wore it during the remainder of the meet-and-greet, and an hour later he walked out on stage with it on, too.

If one gets the opportunity to see and hear him speak, I would encourage you to be there. Ernie Banks is approachable, engaging, and tells memorable stories. I have a wonderful memory of meeting and hearing him.

But that’s not the end of the cap story.

The next day the Chicago Cubs celebrated the 100th Anniversary of Wrigley Field, the storied venue of one of Baseball’s most storied teams. Of course, all the greats were there, including Ernie Banks, in another New Era cap I had given him the day before.

USASTSI Image

USASTSI Image

© 2014 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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