Sports

Karl Lindholm: Centennial and Rickwood Fields, baseball shrines

CENTENNIAL FIELD IN Burlington, home this summer to the Vermont Lake Monsters of the Futures League, is a beautiful setting for a baseball game on a recent twilight evening. Photo by James Konrad/Vermont Lake Monsters

Centennial Field in Burlington is Vermont’s baseball shrine.

Constructed from 1904 to 1906, Centennial has been the site of stirring baseball action for nearly a century and a quarter. The Catamounts of the University of Vermont played their first game there in April 1906, defeating the Black Bears of Maine, 10-4.

Centennial is one of my two favorite baseball parks — the other is Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama. Like Centennial, Rickwood is venerable: The first game there was played in August 1910. It is now widely described as and generally considered “America’s Oldest Baseball Park.”

I had a chance to visit Rickwood in 2010 as a part of the annual conference of the Negro Leagues Chapter of SABR (Society of American Baseball Research) — and I count that visit as one of the best baseball experiences in my long life. In studying the Negro Leagues, I constantly came across references to great Black players and teams who played at Rickwood. It too is a baseball shrine, one which incorporates the Black experience and history in the game.

Wait! How can that be? The first game at Centennial was in 1906 and the first game at Rickwood was 1910 (Fenway opened in 1912). How is it then that Rickwood is older? 

Chew on that for a minute and I’ll come back to it.

Let’s discuss Centennial first:

Centennial Field was conceived in 1904 to commemorate the hundred-year anniversary of the first graduating class at University of Vermont; construction was finished in 1906. UVM has a rich 120-year baseball history of remarkable teams and terrific players, 84 of those years at Centennial. Yet baseball was abandoned by UVM in 2009 for financial reasons, while the team was enjoying a many decades-long period of competitive success (read about it here: tinyurl.com/UVMbaseball).

From 1984 to just last year, Centennial was home to professional baseball — first the Vermont Reds (1984-87) and Vermont Mariners (’88), the AA farm teams of Cincinnati and Seattle; then the short-season single-A Vermont Expos (1994-2005) of the erstwhile Montreal Expos system, and most recently as the Vermont Lake Monsters (’06-’20), an A league affiliate of the Washington Nationals and then the Oakland As.

Some great players came through Burlington in those years, especially early on. The Reds won the Eastern League Championship in three of its four seasons in Vermont and sent 29 players to the major leagues, including Hall of Famer Barry Larkin and 1994 American League batting champ (.359 BA) Paul O’Neill. In the Mariners’ one season, Vermont baseball fans had a chance to see the magnificent 18-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. The next year he was in the majors.  

In the 1936-41 and 1946-50, Centennial was home to the Burlington Cardinals and some fast baseball in the semi-pro Northern League of teams from throughout Vermont and upstate New York. Some 50 former and future major leaguers played on Northern League teams, including World Series hero Johnny Podres from nearby Witherbee (Moriah), N.Y., and Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts. More on the Northern League in the next column.

This year Centennial hosts the Vermont Lake Monsters of the Futures League, a wood-bat league of outstanding college players.

Now then, how is that Rickwood (1910) is older than Centennial (1906)? 

Because of certain “conditional” language: Rickwood is the “oldest professional baseball park still containing its original structure.”

Centennial’s original wood grandstand was completely destroyed by fire in 1913. The university team continued to play its games on the field itself, but it was not until 1922 that a new concrete and steel grandstand was built as part of an athletics complex on the site.

(I don’t know, sounds kind of nit-picky to me. I might gather some Vermont baseball fanaticos to go with me to Halvorson’s in Burlington to talk this all over.)

Birmingham’s Rickwood Field was the vision of a youthful Birmingham businessman, Allen Harvey “Rick” Woodward, who purchased the Birmingham Coal Barons and announced he would build “the finest minor league ballpark ever,” patterned after Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and Shibe Park in Philadelphia.

Birmingham was one of the fastest-growing industrial cities in the country at the turn of the century and baseball flourished. In 19-tens and 20s, many of the greatest major league players of the time barnstormed at Rickwood: Ty Cobb, Christy Matthewson, Babe Ruth, and then later Dizzy Dean, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Reggie Jackson.

The city’s major Black team, the Black Barons, were also attracting large, enthusiastic crowds. In a creative arrangement, Woodward had both the Barons and the Black Barons calling Rickwood home, playing on alternate dates. Many of the greatest Black players played league games there: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Mule Suttles. Paige, born in Mobile, won more games with the Black Barons than he did with any other club in his long career.

The Vermont Mariners had Ken Griffey Jr. — the Black Barons had their own teenage phenom, 16-year-old Willie Mays, who played alongside his dad Cat (Willie was still in high school, so he only played on the weekends). The Barons were Negro American League Champions in 1948, losing to the Homestead Grays of Washington in the series.

The minor league Barons left Rickwood in 1987, but return every summer for one league game, the Rickwood Classic. Various high schools and colleges play there regularly. Described now as a “working museum,” Rickwood has been beautifully preserved, renovated, and maintained. The Friends of Rickwood have spent over $2 million on a thorough refurbishing.

When I visited Rickwood in 2010, I was blown away:

“Is this heaven?”

“No, it’s Rickwood.”

One must hope that the leadership of UVM, Burlington residents, and city and state officials are Friends of Centennial, and realize always the gem they have, and hew to the example of Rickwood. Centennial is a glorious artifact, a ballpark with games (today!) as well as a museum of memories.

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