The name of the game was Ragball, though the ball was made of socks. It was a version of baseball adapted for a the precise area of the intersection of 8th Avenue and 51st Street. We made our own balls, carefully sewing them tightly so that they’d fly when you hit them with a wooden bat – but not very far. We had wiffle balls, but they’d roll down the hill and into the gutter. The ragball was perfect. It would fly only 40 feet or so and roll a few more.
Different kids from around the neighborhood played in our league. You could have a perfectly respectable game with only two, as long as no cars came by. The pitcher played the whole defense, and you got a man out by throwing the ball at him and hitting him between bases. There wasn’t a lot of traffic, though by today’s standards, allowing a game in the street like that would be recklessly dangerous and possibly a matter for the authorities.
The organizer was a guy named Andy, who generally kept up a running commentary as if he were Red Barber calling a Yankees game. Andy lived in the house on one of the intersection’s four corners. A guy named Tim lived on the opposite corner, in a little two-bedroom that became the first house I bought when I came back from college and got married. (But that’s another story.) I lived three houses up, directly across from Crestwood Park.
Such was life for kids in Birmingham who loved baseball and had no iPads to play with. Besides, it was summer. Baseball season. And on hot summer nights there was Rickwood Field. These days, it’s a well preserved ball park where the AA Birmingham Barons return for one “classics” game a year. Other than that, it’s mostly a very good museum – the oldest ball park in the nation, immaculately maintained and a favorite for films, seen most recently in the movie “42,” about Jackie Robinson.
- Birmingham A’s Reggie Jackson at Rickwood Field, 1967 (Buddy Coker). Linked from Historic Preservation Education Foundation. Please visit their site by clicking the photo.
In those days, it was just the home of the Birmingham A’s, the Double-A affiliate of the Kansas City (later Oakland) Athletics. And 1967, for the A’s, was a special year, with a slugger named Reggie Jackson and a pitcher named Rollie Fingers.
Everybody knew both would make it to the big leagues (indeed, both are in the Hall of Fame), but they weren’t ready yet. The big-league kept trying to bring Jackson up, because the Vietnam War had depleted the ranks of players. But Jackson still hadn’t learned to lay off a slow curve, and he kept getting sent back down.
Every night our parents would allow us, Andy and I would catch the bus to Rickwood Field for a game. Birmingham had a decent bus system in those days, and in fact, my father laid out the routes for the buses, so riding the bus was comfortable and familiar to us.
When we could afford it, we’d get box seats along the first base line, over the home team dugout, and when Jackson came by, we’d marvel at his enormous arms. When he hit the ball, it seemed to fly off the bat aster than anything we’d ever seen.
One night, he came close enough where we could ask him to autograph our programs. He smiled and said, “Sure.”
He signed both of our programs, and as we were returning to our seats, we looked up a couple of rows and saw that Bear Bryant was seated behind us.
Would you mind, Coach?
That night, we both left the park with a Birmingham A’s program signed by a future Hall of Famer and the greatest football coach of all time. I have no idea what happened to them. We were too young and stupid to appreciate what we had, and they probably collected dust until they got thrown out.
I thought about that program a decade later, when I was watching Game 6 of the World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers and Jackson hit three home runs off three different pitchers.
Damn, I wish I’d kept that program!