Tag Archives: Rickwood Field

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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14th Annual Southern Association Conference at Rickwood Field

scan0001Yesterday, I attended the 14th annual Southern Association Conference in Birmingham, and want to take this time to encourage you to be a part of this event next year. The Rickwood Field SABR chapter put on quite a conference, led by David Brewer and Clarence Watkins; but the opportunity to visit Rickwood Field is great in itself – it is truly one of America’s historic ballparks.

To be able to hear presentations about baseball in the South, among friends in a casual setting, was great. To wax poetic: Baseball was literally “in the air”.  Attendees came from Mobile, Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Atlanta; we heard presentations about baseball in Montgomery (and pitcher Roy “Goat” Walker), Selma, the Southern Association, and vintage player A. T. Pearsall, but sidebar conversations were ongoing beyond.

An added treat was lunch with former Montgomery Rebels player and minor league manager Ted Brazell. One could literally hear and feel the passion Ted has with his love of the game of baseball. It was inspiring.

More than anything, the friendships rekindled and friendships made were more than worth the trip. The date could change, but put the first Saturday of March, 2018 on your calendar. You won’t be disappointed.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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First Tennessee Park Open to the Public Today

NSThis past weekend I had tickets to see the Colorado Rockies vs. San Francisco Giants in Denver. My youngest daughter lives there with her husband and son, and although it was raining we just knew the clouds would part and we’d be singing the National Anthem around 2 PM.

I’d never been to Coors Field; it has been on my ballpark bucket list for some time and I was anxious to see the park and watch the game. From the outside, it’s a beautiful facility.

Standing at the Will Call ticket window about two hours before the game I could tell there was plenty of bustle up and down the streets and sidewalks as fans began to gather in anticipation of the first pitch. As the nice lady behind the glass handed the ticket envelope to me, a man behind her said that the game had been called due to rain.

Bummer.

I have viewed games in many ballparks over the years including Sulphur Dell, Knoxville’s Bill Meyer Stadium, Memphis’ Blues/Tim McCarver Stadium, Birminhgam’s Hoover Stadium and Rickwood Field, Charleston’s Watt Powell Park, and Columbus Cooper Stadium. I have always been partial to minor league parks.  Not many old ones are still around.

Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, Riverfront Stadium and Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Chicago’s Wrigley Field and U. S. Cellular Field, the Astrodome, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, St. Louis’ Sportsmans Park and old Busch Stadium, and Yankee Stadium come to mind as highlights of major league visits.

There are  dozens of others on my list when I consider spring training games and more minor league parks, especially the ones I have been able to view only from the sidewalk outside the stadium, usually peering through an opening in the fence. That’s something else I have been partial to: taking in the beauty, imagining the history, remembering a story or two about a player and team.

Peering through the fence is fine, but a unique opportunity is available to us today in Nashville. Between 1 – 4 PM, our new First Tennessee Park is open to the public. There will be tours of the entire facility, including the locker rooms and batting cages that one will probably never be able to see again.

Free food and games for the kids will help to make this an opportunity to remember. Fan or not, this is a chance to see what ballparks are all about.

And I can tell you from experience: it’s the finest minor league facility in the United States, hands down.

We can pretend to imagine what great history this ballpark will give us, what great players and teams will perform there. But we have an opportunity to view our new First Tennessee Park and take in the beauty today.

And you won’t have to peer through a fence.

© 2015 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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2014 Area “Hot Stove” Baseball Events

stoveNow we can put the year 2013 behind us. As a New York Yankee fan, it’s really easy to do to! Looking forward to the 2014 season is one thing, but there are many opportunities to be a part of “Hot Stove League” baseball through the rest of the winter. Pitchers and catchers will be reporting to their team’s spring training camp in only a few weeks, but in the meantime one can partake of one or more of these opportunities:

Thursday, January 23, 2014: The Nashville Old Timers Baseball Association will hold their 76th annual banquet at the Millennium Maxwell House. Former New York Yankees second baseman and 1960 World Series MVP Bobby Richardson will be the speaker.  The doors open at 5:30 PM with the banquet starting at 6:30 PM (CT). Tickets are $50.00 each; email me if you need more information: skip@sulphurdell.com

Saturday, January 25, 2014: Fifth annual SABR Day. Our local Grantland Rice-Fred Russell (Nashville) chapter will meet at Shelby Park in east Nashville in the “Junie” McBride Old Timers board room from 11:00 AM to 12:30 PM (CT). The Old Timers Nashville Amatueur Baseball Hall of Fame is displayed there. More information to follow. Guests are always welcome at SABR chapter events.

Saturday, January 25, 2014: Fifth annual SABR Day. The East Tennessee Chapter will also be meeting at 10 AM (ET) at the Knoxville Lawson McGhee Library in Knoxville. Email Bryan Stepherson: steverson@charter.net or Mark Aubrey: mark.aubrey@gmail.com for more information. Once again, guests are welcome.

Thursday, February 6, 2014: 13th annual American Baseball Foundation Lead Off Dinner, Birmingham, Alabama. Roger Clemens, seven-time Cy Young award winner, is speaker. Tickets are $150.00 each and more information may be found here:  http://www.americanbaseballfoundation.com/lead-off-dinner/

Saturday, March 1, 2014: 11th annual Southern Association Conference will be held in Atlanta. Presentations will consist mainly of Atlanta’s long and memorable tenure in the Southern Association although other topics related to baseball in Atlanta and the South may be included. Should you wish to be considered as a presenter, send a brief synopsis to David Brewer:  david@rickwood.com.

Friday, April 4, 2014: The 19th Annual Conference on Baseball in Literature and Culture will be held at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.  The luncheon speaker is former Kansas City Royals star Willie Wilson. Additional information will be updated soon here:  http://www.mtsu.edu/english/BBConf/

Opening Day is right around the corner, too.  In 2014 there are many opportunities to enjoy the Game! Here’s a list of area minor league teams’ games to kick off the home season:

Thursday, April 3, 2014:

Bowling Green Hot Rods vs. South Bend Silver Hawks, 7:05 PM (CT)

Chattanooga Lookouts vs. Jackson Generals, time TBA (ET)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014:

Birmingham Barons vs. Jacksonville Suns, 7:05 PM (CT)

Huntsville Stars vs. Pensacola Blue Wahoos, time TBA (CT)

Jackson Generals vs. Mississippi Braves, 7:05 PM (CT)

Tennessee Smokies vs. Chattanooga Lookouts, 7:05 PM (ET)

Thursday, April 10, 2014:

Louisville Bats vs. Columbus Clippers, 6:35 (ET)

Friday, April 11, 2014:

Memphis Redbirds Opening Day vs. Iowa Cubs, 7:05 PM (CT)

Nashville Sounds Opening Day vs. Omaha Storm Chasers, 7:05 PM (CT)

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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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