Minor League Spotlight: Birmingham Barons

This post first appeared on BaseballDigest.com

Last week, the founders of Bus Leagues Baseball kicked off the Minor League Spotlight season by giving us some insight into the world of minor league baseball. This week we are changing gears slightly and putting the focus on one of the oldest teams in the minor leagues.

Birmingham, Alabama has a long history of being home to professional baseball and the first mention of the Birmingham Barons of the Southern League can be traced back all the way to the 1885 season. By 1888, the team was a member of the Southern Association. That league consisted of four teams, an in-season team name change of the Birmingham squad, and a manager that was fired by one team and brought on by another in-season. Needless to say, it was a few years before the league re-established itself with stability. By 1901, the South Association re-formed with 9 teams. 109 years later, the Birmingham Barons and Chattanooga Lookouts remain members of the league that has since evolved to become the present day Southern League.

Though Major League Baseball ended segregated with Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the negro leagues continued on for more than another decade. For nearly 40 years between 1920-1960, the Birmingham Barons shared their ballpark with the negro league counterpart, the Birmingham Black Barons. Rickwood Field, the oldest ballpark in America, was home to both Baron clubs and the teams played on alternating days. For the last 15 years, Rickwood Field has been home to the “Rickwood Classic”, a throwback game that celebrates the early baseball eras in Birmingham history.

Like many minor league baseball organizations, the Barons have represented the talent of several different major league teams. There are no teams that can claim all of Bo Jackson, Magglio Ordonez, Howard Johnson, Bert Campaneris, and Jimmy Piersall as their own. Such is a benefit of a minor league team such as the Barons. Since 1938, the Barons have fielded teams featuring the minor leaguers from 10 different organizations. The Chicago White Sox have had the longest relationship with the Barons, dating back to 1986. The most famous Birmingham Baron in recent memory was one of the greatest basketball players of all time trying his hand at baseball. Though he didn’t dominate baseball like he did playing basketball, Michael Jordan’s 1994 season with the Birmingham Barons helped shatter all previous attendance records by the organization, and put a national spotlight on minor league baseball.

There are many players who have played with or managed the Birmingham Barons that may not have gained as much notice as Michael Jordan. Two examples, John McNamara and Terry Francona, have a connection to another major league team in addition to their Birmingham connection. The manager that led the Boston Red Sox to the 1986 World Series and the manager that has led the team to two World Series championships since taking over as manager in 2004 both donned the Barons uniform before joining the Red Sox.

In McNamara’s case, his playing career came to an end with 8 at bats over 2 games with the Birmingham(then the A’s) in 1967. The 1967 A’s were full of future MLB talent. For example, on that same squad future major league managers Tony LaRussa, Marcel Lachemann, and Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers shared the roster with McNamara. Terry Francona’s minor league managerial career culminated with three seasons at the helm of the Barons. Michael Jordan’s season came in the middle of his tenure, and Francona has said several times throughout his career that managing the Barons had a positive impact on his future as a major league manager.

The Birmingham Barons opened the 2010 season with a loss on April 8th against the Carolina Mud Cats, and head into today searching for their first win of the season. For a team that had 92 wins in 2009, it’s likely the Barons won’t continue their losing trend for long. The team has many promotions scheduled for the season, and the most notable is ‘Belly Buster Mondays’. Pitted against fellow fans, contestants must finish an edible item before the inning ends. At the end of each inning, the contestants that have finished their food advance to the next inning. The last fan standing(or stuffed, in this case), wins!

Ask The Clubbie

There is a new addition to the Minor League Spotlight. During the season, I will share questions I’ve asked the Birmingham Barons’ Clubhouse Manager, Jeff Perro.

Baseball Digest: How was Opening Day for you, as the clubhouse manager?

Jeff Perro: Getting ready for Opening Day is a huge responsibility! The Hoover High School football team plays it’s home games at Regions Park after our season concludes, and they use our clubhouse as their locker room. As a result, we need to put our equipment in storage. This takes an entire day of moving couches, trainer’s tables, stair steppers, tables, bats, balls, and probably over 3000 lbs of free weights! This doesn’t include the four trips to Wal-Mart to stock up on the supplies a clubbie needs to run a clubhouse. This includes laundry supplies, paper plates, bread, condiments, fruit, bottled water, shampoo, and everything in between.

It was all worth it though! Opening Day was very exciting!

You can follow the Birmingham Barons on Twitter and Facebook, where the team posts news and interacts with fans. Currently the Barons are taking suggestions from fans on Facebook as they create their 25 year anniversary team.

Next Week: Wahconah Park is one of the oldest ballparks in America, and one of the last remaining parks with wooden grandstands. Home to minor league teams for many years, the 2010 season will be the inaugural season of the Pittsfield Colonials of the independent Can-Am League. MLS will preview the new home team, and take a look at the history of the team moving to Pittsfield and the teams that played there years ago.

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