the first third reimagined

By the time I turned 16, I’d been outside the South exactly twice -once at age 12 to Cedar Rapids, Iowa for a future problem solving competition, and once at age ten months to San Diego and Disneyland (arguably wasted on someone who had just learned to walk). There were occasional convention trips to Florida or Atlanta or South Carolina, and relatives in East Tennessee, and occasionally even Opryland or Six Flags, but most of my life was centered in Birmingham.

When the Birmingham Barons were brought back in 1981 as a farm team of the Detroit Tigers, they adopted the old-English-style B on the hat to match the D of the parent club. Even after the affiliation switched to the White Sox in 1986, they kept that B, and have ever since. Made famous by Michael Jordan, it’s the trademark of the most successful professional sports team in Birmingham in my lifetime, the only one to play uninterrupted from childhood to whatever this is now. But in the last couple of years, they have a new hat. It goes with a specialty jersey that says “Magic City” instead of Birmingham or Barons, and it has a plain block B. By default it’s a white B on a black cap with a red bill, and that’s not an accident – it’s a deliberate homage to the three-B logo of the Birmingham Black Barons, 1948 champions of the Negro American League and as close as the city ever had to a major league franchise.

It’s reflective of days gone by, a callback to a time when a fifteen year old Willie Mays patrolled the outfield in Rickwood or when the likes of Mule Suttles and Piper Davis and Harry “Beans” Salmon and Satchel Paige plied their trade. Or a time when the Barons of the Southern Association were broadcast by four different radio stations and were so profitable that their management magnanimously sent a $5000 check to the Boston Red Sox. And yet, it’s a logo that is natively of the present moment. Of Railroad Park and Randall Woodfin and food halls in loft apartment buildings, of electric bike share and local brewing and “Excuse The Birmingham In Me.” Of a bright blue spot in a red state, the fourth most African American city in America, a town and a vibe and a people unapologetic about reaching for modernity despite the influence of their county and their suburbs and surroundings.

I’ve gone on a bit of a hat-buying binge during lockdown, mostly in the name of supporting minor league baseball. I bought new his-and-hers San Jose hats for our family, mine a Churros logo and hers with California poppy-ish flowers. But I also bought three Barons hats, one classic BBB lid and a couple with this new 21st century retro B. Not because I’ve lived there full time since 1994, because I haven’t, but because for the first third of my life, I wanted to live in the kind of place that Birmingham is now. There’s something going on there, something that hasn’t yet been ruined or commodified or reduced to self-caricature, and in spite of everything, I still want to identify with it and feel a connection to it despite five years since so much as crossing the state line there.

And so here it sits, sandstone cotton dad hat with red brim and red B, the daily wear from a world where I bike home from the grocery store and pick up a growler at Good People before sitting on my balcony overlooking Regions Field and listen to Curt Bloom streaming roughly one batter behind the noises coming up from the ballpark, in a Birmingham I can know and love and call my own.

Wouldn’t that have been something.

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