For Birmingham natives, Legion Field is Birmingham. The city’s most iconic stadium has been around forever. In all honesty, Birmingham-transplant families just don’t understand our history the way we do.
The city reeks of craft beer and overpriced burgers now, but the stench of sweaty historical football players in too-tight pants lingers on. Football still reigns at Legion Field, given that the stadium is used regularly, but there is talk of removing it and replacing it with something more modern. My great-grandfather, William Calvin (“WC” or Bill) Jones, would roll over in his grave at the mention of the brand-spanking-new technologically advanced Regions baseball field for the Birmingham Barons, and now that the city is newly populated with young businesspeople and newlyweds from just about everywhere in America but the Southeast, historic Birmingham is endangered in almost every way. 2018 Birmingham is a trendy Birmingham, and change can bring positivity, but I’ve always had a hard time letting go. Honoring the Old Gray Lady (named for its place on West Graymont Avenue) and preserving her legacy is the best way I know how to honor my quirky Southern great-grandparents, who happened to live just down the road from the stadium as young adults.
Bill Jones was born in 1904, a staggering 23 years before Legion Field and its traditions came to fruition. Even though Legion Field is still the home football stadium for the Blazers of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), it originally only held 21,000 seats before it was renovated to hold a staggering 83,000 in 1991 (Carlton). Crowds would flock to see games when it was first built, so essentially, what brought the stadium into large-scale prominence was its community-oriented focus.
Although Bill never attended college, and (as far as my father can remember) was never a sports fanatic, the opening of Legion Field would have been crucial for his career. Bill was a pressman for the Birmingham News, and these kinds of community developments impacted his work life as much as they impacted his life at home with his family. As an employee of an important newspaper, he would have been incredibly in touch with the societal happenings of Birmingham, even if those important “happenings” may have occasionally included Mrs. Fanny Walker’s second cousin’s great-granddaughter’s wedding out at the Methodist Church in Leeds. The fact is, the construction and use of Legion Field would have been incredibly important for a man like Bill in a city like Birmingham. My great-grandmother Alda, Bill’s wife and a homemaker, probably dealt with many inebriated folks crowding into her otherwise quaint neighborhood at all hours of the night. The first game played there, Howard College (now Samford University) against Birmingham-Southern, went off swimmingly, with Howard (also my mother’s alma mater) defeating Birmingham-Southern 9-0 (Ballparks). I am absolutely sure that Bill, although not yet living down the street from the stadium at the time of the first football game, would have been incredibly invested in what this match meant for his community. He would experience the wonder of it all when he moved to the area in 1931. The new field and Bill and Alda’s move to 8th Avenue West meant exposure to other people, but most importantly, they encouraged togetherness.
Southerners know that the essence of togetherness is the Iron Bowl. Not really. Even though many smaller games were played at Legion Field, the Iron Bowl was the most important of them all. Natives of the South are notorious for ending relationships over the ever-blurring distinctions between the University of Alabama and its rival, Auburn University. Despite Bill’s lack of a college education and subsequent lack of an opinion on the subject, the Iron Bowl, the game in which UA faces AU, would have been an incredibly tense time for the Birmingham News and for Bill alike. The paper would have reported the winner to the Birmingham public who could not attend the game, and they absolutely would have had two versions of the paper printed, just in case the unexpected football flew across the wrong team’s end zone. Preparation is the key to domination, even in the newspaper world, and Bill would have been ready for the challenge in any situation, especially when living so close to the center of Birmingham sports.
On the day of the Iron Bowl, Bill may have even been close by Legion Field with his colleagues, ready to print the correct paper for whatever scores would arise from the game.
During the Iron Bowl in 1948, the Auburn Tigers unfortunately shut out the Crimson Tide 55-0, and I’m sure this would have sent crowds into the streets for hours after the game (Ballparks). These collective moments are the kinds that engrave a place into one’s heart, but more importantly, they foster community within a city. Birmingham’s togetherness begins with Legion Field.
Despite all the divisiveness of the Iron Bowl and the various other teams that still play at the Old Gray Lady to this day, my great-grandfather’s lack of sports opinions makes me laugh. He was so close to the historic action, but he liked the facts.Who won, who lost. However, he was a real fanatic for Birmingham. He loved his job as a pressman, and even as a Georgia native, Birmingham remained dear to his heart and he remained close to Legion Field. I’ve heard many folks calling to tear down the field and build a new one to replace it, but I know Bill would be horrified with this petitioning. He would know that when it comes to Birmingham, vintage is the new black. A new stadium could never replace the memories made in the Old Gray Lady. Honestly, though, I wish the man had chosen a favorite football team. I’d like to believe that Bill Jones, my dear old great-grandfather, would have loved the Crimson Tide as much as he’d have loved Legion Field.
Carlton, Bob. “Legion Field Through the Years: A Timeline of Important Dates in the Stadium’s History.” AL, 2 Jan. 2015, http://www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2015/01/ legion_field_through_the_years.html/. Accessed 5 March 2018.
“Legion Field.” Ballparks, football.ballparks.com/NCAA/ConfUSA/AlabamaBirmingham/. Accessed 5 March 2018.