For a year, Gerald Watkins kept the secret to himself. He didn’t protect it with his life. He was merely protecting his life’s work.
But now, everyone knows. Major League Baseball is coming to Rickwood Field
If you aren’t aware, Rickwood Field is the oldest existing professional baseball stadium in America, first rising in 1910, just two years ahead of Boston’s Fenway Park (and the sinking of the Titanic a week after Fenway opened).
Next June, Major League Baseball will honor Rickwood’s past with a regular-season game featuring the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals in a tribute to Birmingham’s history in the Negro Leagues.
Watkins credits Regions bankers Leroy Abrahams, Brook Balogh and Ginger Blake with always supporting his Rickwood outreach. Regions support will continue as a sponsor of the event, along with Alabama Power, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama, ACIPCO and Encompass Health.
Abrahams serves as Head of Community Affairs in Regions headquarters city.
“We are honored to help bring this tremendous event to Birmingham,” Abrahams said.
“This is a great way to honor the city’s baseball history, especially our significant role in the Negro Leagues. We welcome the chance to share this with an international audience.”
Both of the participating big-league teams have ties to the city.
The final Negro World Series was played at Rickwood, where the Homestead Grays outlasted the Birmingham Black Barons in the best-of-7 series. The tie to the San Francisco Giants? A 17-year-old Black Barons outfielder, and Birmingham native, Willie Mays, who went on to a Hall of Fame career as a Giants star, both in New York and San Francisco. He’s arguably baseball’s greatest player ever.
The Cardinals are an obvious choice, too, for this throwback game.
“Growing up in the South, before the Braves moved to Atlanta, the St. Louis Cardinals were the team of choice,” Watkins explained. “You could listen to the games on KMOX radio.”
Watkins is a retired banker, serving as Regions’ Commercial Banking Solutions manager for the Alabama and Mississippi markets before stepping away at the end of 2020. But he has worked with the Friends of Rickwood, the nonprofit group that saved the old ballpark from demolition years ago, as a board member for 25 years and chairman the past nine.
As bankers, we were always encouraged to get involved in the community and, especially at Regions, to be active. I saw an opportunity to represent the bank and my passion for baseball here.Gerald Watkins, retired banker and Regions’ former Commercial Banking Solutions manager
“I’ve always had a love of baseball,” Watkins said. “As bankers, we were always encouraged to get involved in the community and, especially at Regions, to be active. I saw an opportunity to represent the bank and my passion for baseball here.”
He first became a baseball fan as a child, attending minor-league games of the Birmingham A’s and daydreaming of what it would be like to see a big-league game at the old ballpark. One of the A’s keys players was Reggie Jackson, who Watkins would eventually play alongside in an old-timer’s game – then host for a Rickwood reunion during the filming of a documentary on the legend known as Mr. October.
Although Watkins stepped away from banking, he spends most of the week at Rickwood, seeing to daily tasks and the influx of teams from across the country – mostly high school, college and travel teams wanting to play on the historic field. But the Birmingham Barons have also played an annual Rickwood Classic Game there and, more recently, the Savannah Bananas packed the park for a game.
But what excites Watkins the most about what’s to come is the makeover.
“The detail MLB goes into is mind boggling,” said Watkins, who first met with league execs in October 2022. “They bought people in to do mock-up designs of how to set the ballpark up, how to reconfigure the clubhouses and dugouts, where to put medical areas, how to revamp the concessions and where to build the broadcast center.
“The benefits we get are the attention and the ballpark improvements that we otherwise could never afford,” he added. “There’s also going to be a huge economic impact for the city of Birmingham. Hotels are already booked for that week, and the broadcast on the Fox Network will go to 54 countries. That will be incredible exposure for Rickwood, Birmingham and baseball.”
The city of Birmingham, which was part of the negotiations to bring this dream game to Rickwood, will provide a large share of the funding. Those renovations include a new major-league grade sub-surface and turf, irrigation system and netting down both foul lines. The field will shift slightly, as well.
I can’t thank the City of Birmingham enough. And Major League Baseball, which will consult with us every step of the way. Without sponsors like Regions Bank, this wouldn’t be possible. For me, for the Friends of Rickwood, this is a lifetime dream come true.Gerald Watkins
For the MLB at Rickwood Field game, the vintage outfield signs will be covered by padding. But the padding will be removed after the event.
“We have hope they will come back for a second game, as they did with the Field of Dreams Game (in Iowa), so we’re focused on making the first one perfect,” Watkins said. “When all the work is done, we will have as fine a baseball field as anywhere in the country.”
That’s a benefit for Miles College, located in nearby Fairfield (Willie Mays’ hometown), which plays home games at Rickwood. Ramsay and Carver high schools also claim Rickwood as their homefield.
“I can’t thank the City of Birmingham enough. And Major League Baseball, which will consult with us every step of the way. Without sponsors like Regions Bank, this wouldn’t be possible,” Watkins said. “For me, for the Friends of Rickwood, this is a lifetime dream come true.”