Tag Archives: Rickwood Classic

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Biography, History, Opinion

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.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Biography, Current, History, Research

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current, History, Negro League, Research, Vintage

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Current, History