The city of Birmingham looked to the future and celebrated its past Friday, when more than 200 local students came out for the latest events in the Play Ball initative. Former big leaguer Gary Redus greeted the kids, and he signed autographs and participated in an instructional clinic at Railroad Park.
The students, all of whom came from Birmingham City Schools, also got to be among the first citizens in town to tour the Birmingham Negro Southern League Museum. That museum, built to honor the city's role in the development of the game, opened to the public for the first time on Friday.
The Play Ball initiative is a collaborative effort between MLB and USA baseball with the goal of providing children with the opportunity to play baseball, as well as using baseball as a means of bringing communities together.
Birmingham, the home of the White Sox Double-A affiliate and a pair of college programs (UAB and Samford), is one of 100 cities around the country that signed on with Major League Baseball to be part of Play Ball month. Mayor William Bell said it made perfect sense for his city.
"Birmingham is proud to partner with Major League Baseball and the U.S. Conference of Mayors to host an official Play Ball event," said Bell of Friday's youth events.
"Birmingham is a baseball town -- from our history with the Negro Leagues to the recent success of Regions Park and the Birmingham Barons. We are glad our youth have an opportunity to participate in events such as this and continue the legacy of this sport in their communities and neighborhoods."
Birmingham, a city of more than 200,000 residents, is home to a local team sponsored by RBI, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, and a successful team at that. Brimingham's RBI team was crowned champions in the 2014 national tournament. But true to Bell's word, the city's love affair with the national pastime goes back a century or more.
The Negro Southern League Museum, which features 8,000 feet of exhibit space chronicling the history of the Birmingham Black Barons and local industrial leagues, is right in the middle of the city's Parkside District, and it's within close proximity to Regions Park, the home of the White Sox affiliate.
The Birmingham Black Barons won the pennant, but they lost the Negro World Series three times between 1943 and 1948. Future Hall-of-Famer Willie Mays was on the team in '48. The museum tells the story of the players on those teams and the effects the Civil Rights Movement had on the game.
Rickwood Field, the former home of the Barons and Black Barons, was built in 1910 and still remains in operation. Former big-leaguers Doyle Alexander, Britt Burns, Carlos May, Charlie Moore and Wendell Magee -- among others -- played their high school or college careers in Birmingham.
Play Ball wasn't just a history lesson, though. It gave the kids a chance to run around and learn about the game from somebody who played it at the highest level for 13 years.
Redus, who lives in nearby Decatur, Ala., participated in the event to connect with the kids. He taught them lessons about baseball and life. Redus hit .252 during his career that saw him play outfield and first base for the Reds, Phillies, White Sox, Pirates and Rangers. He gladly posed for pictures on Friday.
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.