Former players at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Birmingham museum
What perhaps intrigues me the most about the new African-American baseball museum being built in Birmingham, Ala., isn’t that it will feature artifacts and items from players from the top-shelf Birmingham Black Barons and other big-name ’Bama natives like Satchel Paige and Willie Mays.
It’s that the facility, the brainchild of Dr. Layton Revel of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research, will keep a largely regional and local focus that includes, most fascinatingly for me, the vibrant, lively industrial leagues that sprang up in the wake of the city’s rapid development of factories and foundries.
It was those intensely competitive industrial circuits that featured not only excellent semipro baseball (and helped provide factory jobs for working-class African Americans), but gave birth to dozens of talented fellows who went on to the big time, including organized baseball, after proving their mettle on Birmingham’s sandlots.
“There’s more to the history of black baseball than just the Negro Leagues,” Revel says. “A lot of the industrial teams were proving grounds for players. What we’re saying is that it’s an important part of the history. You can’t forget the grass roots, where these guys started.”
How good were some of these industrial teams? One of them, the 1942 American Cast Iron and Pipe Co. (ACIPO) team that featured future big-time greats like Piper Davis and Artie Wilson, went a mind-boggling 83-5.
The intensely local focus and inclusion of all levels of Birmingham hardball will be what separates the new facility with the longstanding, existing Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which is more national in scope.
The new building has been a labor of love for Revel, who says the museum should be ready for its grand opening ceremony in a few months. After several lengthy funding snafus and roadblocks, such challenge appear to have been surmounted, and construction is well underway and will hopefully be completed by the start of May, Revels says.
After that it will take about six weeks to install the facility’s exhibits, story boards and memorabilia, which will be the final big step toward the museum’s grand opening.
But before the doors to the new building swing open for the first time, Birmingham will play host to the sixth annual African-American baseball players reunion, which is slated for May 26-27 and will include a luncheon and other events that will give fans a chance to mingle and talk with living players from both the Negro Leagues and Birmingham’s industrial leagues. Every event on the menu for the weekend is free and open to the public, Revel notes.
Last year a total of 84 players made the trek to the Alabama city for the fifth edition of the reunion, and Revel hopes for just as many this year. However he knows that the Negro Leagues community has suffered the passing of numerous former players over the last year, which might cut into player attendance at this year’s reunion.
For example, the great trailblazer Minnie Minoso spoke with Revel recently and said he would definitely be in attendance at this year’s gathering. But since then, Minoso has died, a development that will only add to the bittersweet nature of the reunion.
“That’s why it’s so important to meet these men while they’re still alive, to interview and talk with them,” Revel says. “But we still have a lot of ballplayers alive. If you’re interested in Negro League baseball, now is the time to do this.”