Alabama Sports Hall of Fame In August 1967, the Alabama Legislature responded to a growing need to celebrate and preserve Alabama’s impressive sports heritage by establishing the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame (ASHOF) in Birmingham. The ASHOF’s purpose is to honor, preserve, and promote the names and outstanding accomplishments of athletes and other sports personalities who have brought lasting fame to the state of Alabama. Significantly, out of ESPN’s list of the top 100 athletes of the century, five out of the top 15 greatest are Alabamians honored in the ASHOF: Jesse Owens, Hank Aaron, Joe Louis, Willie Mays, and Carl Lewis.
In the decades leading up to the ASHOF’s creation, Alabama produced a remarkable number of outstanding athletes who vaulted into national prominence. Many of these athletes were the product of Alabama’s backwoods hardscrabble farms, steel mills, and coal mines. They brought renown to such small communities as Oakville, Buckalew Mountain, Barlow Bend, Stevenson, and Titus.
Alabama’s sports-rich history owes much to the unusually high number of young Alabamians who made it to the major leagues of baseball in the first half of the twentieth century. During this period, Alabama’s total population was smaller than most cities with major league baseball teams. Nevertheless, Alabama produced such future Alabama Sports Hall of Famers as Hank Aaron, Bobby and Jimmy Bragan, Truett “Rip” Sewell, Frank Lary, Willie Mays, Joe Sewell, Willie McCovey, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Ozzie Smith, Don Sutton, Harry “The Hat” Walker, and Early Wynn. Incredibly, at one time in 1932, all three outfielders for the World Series Champion New York Yankees were future ASHOF members from Birmingham: Ben Chapman, Fred “Dixie” Walker, and Sam Byrd. Not to be outdone, the Mobile area provided all three outfielders for the 1969 World Series Champion New York Mets—Tommy Agee, Cleon Jones, and Amos Otis. All three were later inducted into the ASHOF.
Alabama Sports Hall of Fame During this time, college football emerged as a major component of Alabama’s rich sports history. Coaches John Heisman and Michael Donohue and All-American Jimmy Hitchcock catapulted Auburn University’s football program into prominence, and the University of Alabama was building its tradition with players such as William “Bully” Van de Graaff, the state’s first All-American, Allison “Pooley” Hubert, and future film star Johnny Mack Brown. In addition to the numerous ASHOF inductees produced by these two universities, Alabama’s sports heritage was further augmented by such stars as boxer Joe Louis; Jesse Owens, who won four track and field gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin; and Howard Hill, who won 196 straight field archery tournaments in a row.
The concept for the ASHOF originated with legendary sportswriter Harold “Zipp” Newman, who became the sports editor of the Birmingham News in 1919 at the age of 25. The exceptional athletes he wrote about for the next four decades inspired Newman to pursue the establishment of a sports hall of fame. In 1965, Newman met with Alabama football All-American Holt Rast, then a member of the Alabama state legislature, to begin the legislative process that would bring the project to fruition. Frank “Pig” House, a retired major leaguer, was selected as the ASHOF’s first chair of the board of directors, along with Allyn McKeen of Montgomery as vice-chairman, Tram Sessions of Birmingham as secretary-treasurer, and Zipp Newman as executive secretary. To assure statewide inclusion, the board consists of at least one member from each of Alabama’s congressional districts.
Under the statute creating the ASHOF, any Alabama citizen can nominate someone, living or deceased, who in their opinion has brought renown to the state of Alabama through athletic or sports achievements. A candidate must have been in retirement for at least one year or, if still active, must be at least 40 years of age. There are two categories of inductees, modern and old timers. If a nominee competed more than 40 years ago or is 70 years or older, he or she is considered an old timer.
Each year, the board of directors meets to review all nominees and prepare the ballots for induction. There are separate ballots for the modern and “old timer” categories. The board determines both the number of nominees to be included on the ballots and the number of inductees to be chosen. The executive director then submits the ballots to the respective selection committees for a vote. The two statewide selection committees are chosen by the board and are composed of a cross section of society. The ballots are returned by the selection committee members to an accounting firm for tabulation, and results are forwarded to the executive director. Despite a goal of absolute objectivity, both the board and selection committees have been accused of bias, sectionalism, and favoritism at one time or another throughout their 40-year history. All in all, however, the list of inductees reflects a fair representation of the state and is reflective of a grassroots nomination process.
Jesse Owens Exhibit In addition to recognizing Alabama’s top athletes, the ASHOF offers two special awards, Distinguished American Sportsman and Distinguished Alabama Sportsman. The Distinguished American Sportsman Award may be awarded to both residents and nonresidents of the state who have had associations with sports within the state and who have made lifetime contributions to humanity and to sports. Recipients include former President George Herbert Walker Bush, Bob Hope, Hugh Culverhouse, Charles O. Finley, Roy Kramer, Larry D. Striplin Jr., and Jim Wilson Jr. The Distinguished Alabama Sportsman Award is given to Alabama citizens who have been leaders in sports promotion and development within the state. Recipients include James Andrews, Wilford Bailey, David G. Bonner, John Croyle, Bill Ireland, William L. Legg, Larry Lemak, George Mann, Ray Scott, Hall Thompson, Jack Warner, and Tom York.
Each year’s class of inductees is recognized at an annual banquet. The first banquet was held in 1969 and was emceed by Joe Garagiola, former major leaguer and then star of NBC’s Today Show. The state’s passion for college football was reflected in the ASHOF’s first class, which included Johnny Mack Brown, Paul “Bear” Bryant, Michael Donahue, Jimmy Hitchcock, Don Hutson, Ralph “Shug” Jordan, and Frank Thomas, in addition to boxer Joe Louis. Since that time, however, all sports have come to be well represented.
ASHOF has inducted more than 300 remarkable sports legends who collectively have brought great fame and recognition to Alabama. ASHOF holdings comprise more than 5,000 sports artifacts displayed in a 33,000-square-foot building located in downtown Birmingham, adjacent to the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex. Memorabilia on display includes photographs of the first Alabama-Auburn game in 1893, two Heisman trophies won by Auburn football stars Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson, the Super Bowl XXV trophy won by the New York Giants, three World Series Championship trophies won by Charley Finley’s Oakland A’s, and Coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant’s houndstooth hat. Other exhibits feature jerseys, awards, news clippings, and photos for all the athletes inducted into the ASHOF.
In its 43-year history, the ASHOF has been the host to more than 50,000 students who have been inspired by some of Alabama’s and the nation’s greatest athletes. During field trips, students view an educational video, hear a motivational talk by an Olympic Gold medalist, and participate in an educational trivia hunt.
- York, Tom. The Story of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame: A Personal Perspective. Birmingham: n.p., 2001.