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'Road to Rickwood' traces the history of the Major League's newest field

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala., is the oldest professional baseball stadium in the country. But it wasn't until last Thursday that a major league game was played there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Here's a high drive defeat to deep right field, and Brendan Donovan, an Alabama native, crushes a home run.

RASCOE: The game came just two days after legendary center fielder Willie Mays died at the age of 93. He played at Rickwood Field in the 1940s for the Black Barons, a Negro league team, just as a color barrier in baseball was being lifted. Even though Negro league players were some of the best athletes of their time, their day-to-day life was grueling. They couldn't use the team's locker room at home and couldn't do much at all when they were on the road. Here's Al Holt, who played for the Barons in the early 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AL HOLT: Well, you hit town. They had boarding houses where you could go stay at. But say you ain't have no money. You couldn't go in those folks' house. It was hard, man. It was hard. You slept on the bus. You ate on the bus, bathed on the bus. Really.

RASCOE: That tape is from a new podcast, "Road To Rickwood," about the past and present of Rickwood Field. It's put out by WWNO in New Orleans and WRKF in Louisiana, and it's hosted by comedian Roy Wood Jr., who joins me now.

ROY WOOD JR: Thank you for having me on the program.

RASCOE: I got to ask you because I know a little bit of your story. You played baseball. Even when you went to college, you said you chose it based on - you went to FAMU...

WOOD JR: Yeah. The team was trash.

RASCOE: ...That you chose it based - but you thought you would be able to get on the team.

WOOD JR: I was mistaken.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

WOOD JR: I was gravely mistaken.

RASCOE: Talk to me about what baseball meant to you growing up.

WOOD JR: It was an oasis. It was an escape from everything.

RASCOE: Yeah.

WOOD JR: Just nothing else mattered when I was on a baseball field, and there's a peace of mind that that sport has always given me. I loved it. I've always loved the game, but I didn't play year-round. I played baseball, organized for three months a year in high school every year. That's not enough if you want to go to college.

RASCOE: But the love remains. The love remains really.

WOOD JR: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.

RASCOE: And - but you did play at Rickwood, right?

WOOD JR: Yeah.

RASCOE: What was that like? 'Cause you - so you play - in high school, you played...

WOOD JR: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...At Rickwood?

WOOD JR: Our home games were all at Rickwood.

RASCOE: Wow.

WOOD JR: We practiced at Rickwood. And I don't even think you really think about it as a kid. It wasn't until I got older that I was like, wow, this really wasn't an honor to be able to stand in this sacred space every single week, you know, freezing our butts off.

RASCOE: Do you have a favorite memory of playing in Rickwood? What is it...

WOOD JR: I mean...

RASCOE: ...Like there? What - is there - are there smells? Are there sounds? Or...

WOOD JR: It's the grass. It's the breeze, the tree line past the outfield. You cannot see any of Birmingham when you walk into that stadium. And to me, that's the beauty of it, is that it's literally an escape. And then the moment you get back out in the parking lot, it's a Church's Chicken one block away. So it's definitely in the hood.

RASCOE: Black people have played such a huge role in America's pastime, right? You know, you'll hear about Jackie Robinson, but you don't necessarily hear about Rickwood Stadium. Why don't we know about Rickwood?

WOOD JR: Well, because it's just one of those things that's left on the cutting room floor. The thing that is lost in a lot of the conversations about the Negro leagues is how many of these men who did not make it. Yeah. And I think in talking with some of the retired Negro leaguers, they loved their time playing the game they love. Now, that doesn't mean that they are OK with what happened and how things went down. Al Holt told me straight up. He knew he was never getting called up to the pros from the Negro leagues when integration started 'cause he knew he didn't have the temperament for it.

RASCOE: And the temperament is that you had to be able to be like Jackie Robinson, take the abuse and not...

WOOD JR: Correct.

RASCOE: ...Lash out and not get angry...

WOOD JR: And confirm...

RASCOE: ...Publicly.

WOOD JR: And confirm what they already think about your race.

RASCOE: Yeah.

WOOD JR: Do you...

RASCOE: What...

WOOD JR: ...Have the emotional mettle to deal with being called the N word relentlessly?

RASCOE: Yeah.

WOOD JR: And the death threats - Al Holt, you know, to his credit, and a lot of other players of that era just straight up said, I'm a good player, but I know I can't deal with that. I'm going to punch one of them folks in the stands, and then I'm gonna be in jail, and then ain't nobody Black gonna be in here again for another 40 years.

And I think what I really hope that people walk away with with this podcast is that this isn't some sad racism stories. It's about a time where racism was around, but it's about how this baseball field somehow was a separate oasis for the City of Birmingham at a time when it was so divided.

RASCOE: It was never just segregation and Jim Crow, and that was it. Like, people had full lives.

WOOD JR: It's just very interesting in how the excitement around baseball really helped to drive some degree of unity. I really feel like it was a very, very beautiful time on the field during a very ugly time.

RASCOE: Well, thank you so much.

WOOD JR: Thank you. I appreciate you.

RASCOE: That's Roy Wood Jr., comedian and host of the new podcast "Road To Rickwood," from WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana. You can hear the rest of our conversation on The Sunday Story podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.