Meet the local man at the helm of efforts to keep Birmingham’s iconic Rickwood Field open and thriving.
Clarence Watkins has gone from being a perpetual right fielder to overseeing one of the most iconic baseball parks in the country.
The Pelham resident is executive director of the Friends of Rickwood Field, the non-profit group that strives to preserve the Birmingham stadium built in 1910. It is the oldest professional baseball park in America, and it is still in regular use.
“We are the home field for Miles College and two high schools, Ramsay and Carver,” said Watkins. “Birmingham-Southern is going to play some games here this year. We are going to have an American Legion tournament, and a group in Chicago has inquired about using Rickwood.”
“I get emails and phone calls every week from people wanting to come out. At least two or three times a week people just drop in and ask if they can see the park. It’s on web sites and [sports] bucket lists.”
The stadium is owned by the city of Birmingham, which provides some funding for its maintenance and upkeep. The Friends of Rickwood Field run the park with a 99-year lease, overseeing its restoration and day-to-day activities.
But about that right fielder.
A native of Memphis, Watkins was on the track team at Messick High School but only played baseball in a church league.
“Even in church league I was the right fielder,” he said, laughing about the position traditionally reserved for the least talented kid on the team.
His love affair with baseball started with radio broadcasts.
“I had a grandfather who lived with us off and on. He was a huge baseball fan, and he’d go to bed at night with the [St. Louis] Cardinals game on the radio. My brother and I could hear the games in our room,” he said.
Did he go to Memphis Chicks games as a kid?
“I have vague recollections of it, but the stadium burned when I was 10 years old. And like most kids I was more interested in getting a hot dog and whether I would get a souvenir than the game. But I had a moth-eaten Memphis Chicks uniform and there are some fuzzy pictures of me wearing it. I think it was a hand-me-down from a first cousin. I asked my mother about it, but she couldn’t tell me. I ‘d give anything to have that uniform now no matter how moth-eaten it is.
“My best buddy collected baseball cards, and he got me going. It was a gradual thing, but from about 1958 I was totally hooked. Baseball cards consumed my life until about 1965.”
Then real life took over. There was high school and college and eventually marriage and a job. There was little contact with baseball until 1972 when the Oakland A’s won the first of three straight World Series. Coincidentally, most of the stars on those teams had played with the Birmingham A’s at Rickwood.
“Then there was the Boston-Cincinnati World Series and Carlton Fisk’s home run,” he recalled. “I started buying a few baseball cards, mostly curious to see what they were doing with them.”
Then he ran across a book called The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book. The authors, Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris, had a joyous, zany approach to cards that reminded Watkins of the fun he had with them as a kid. Soon, he was collecting again.
From 1986-96 he was living in Statesboro, Georgia, about 45 minutes from Savannah, which had a minor league team. He was sales manager for Georgia and South Carolina with Durkee-French Foods. During this time someone gave him a bunch of wire service photographs of old Southern Association ball parks such as Ponce de Leon in Atlanta, Engel Stadium in Chattanooga and Rickwood Field in Birmingham. He got interested in stadiums and ball parks and was soon visiting them when he traveled.
“My job gave me an opportunity to travel all over the Southeast. I’d go to the local history department in the local library and look at their baseball files and make copies of photos and articles,” he said.
Often those files would contain a note written by some other researcher, welcoming contact from fellow baseball historians. He began a correspondence with Chuck Stewart, an Auburn resident, who shared material on Rickwood.
“This was about 1994. I had no idea I was going to move to Birmingham,” he said.
“One day we had a sales meeting in Birmingham. I asked a couple of local guys, ‘Where was Rickwood Field?’ They looked at other and said it still was located and told me where. I drove over there after the meeting They had just finished filming Cobb there and the place was pristine. When I walked in through that third base gate, I’m sure my jaw must have dropped. I was in such shock. It was beautiful. All of the other Southern Association ball parks had burned or been torn down,” he said.
In 1996 his company moved him to Birmingham. A couple of years later he got a new computer and discovered the internet and eBay and his baseball research and collecting “just exploded.” Driving home from work one day he was listening to a sports-talk radio show. They mentioned that former New York Yankee Clete Boyer was going to be the guest at a meeting of something called the Triple Play Club. There he talked with people like Lamar Smith, Gerald Watkins and Joe de Leonard, all of whom are involved in the Friends of Rickwood Field.
“I said, ‘These are my kind of people!’’’
For the next couple of decades Watkins enjoyed continuing this research and collecting, going to Birmingham Barons games, never realizing that a hobby would lead to a dream job.
In 2017 a series of events dovetailed to make that dream job happen. First, David Brewer, executive director of the FORF for 20 years, resigned. About the same time, it was discovered that the stadium had massive foundation problems requiring immediate attention. Watkins was asked if he would take the position on a part-time basis during the construction and full-time afterward.
“I was only working part-time,” he said. “About that time the company I was working for let me know that my position was being eliminated. I couldn’t have planned it any better.”
With the renovations completed and a new baseball season looming, Watkins said he is excited about upcoming events at Rickwood. In addition to the high school and college games, the Tennessee Vintage Baseball Association will return on April 20. The group presents games with rules, equipment and culture of the 1860s.
The annual Rickwood Classic, a Birmingham Barons game with a Southern League opponent, will return on May 29. Special guest for the afternoon game will be former major league player and manager Lou Piniella.
The 16th Annual Southern Association Conference will be on March 2. This year’s theme focuses on the Dixie Series playoffs between the Southern Association and the Texas League from 1920-58. A Negro Leagues conference is planned for July.