Robert Vickers lost everything he owned when a tornado wreaked havoc through parts of northern Jefferson County more than a month ago.
The force of the EF-3 storm ripped the roof off his New Castle home and carried off 80 years of worth of Vickers’ hard work and memories. He knows there’s little chance of ever getting most of it back, and he is OK with that.
But there’s one thing that would mean the world to him to have in his possession once again – a metal suitcase he received as a gift when at age 16 he left home to play for the Negro League Baseball team the Birmingham Black Barons. It contains his uniform and the first pro baseball contract he ever signed.
Here is full coverage of the Fultondale storm.
The 80-year-old Vickers is one of the last living Black Barons players and his eyes glisten when he talks about that suitcase. “It means that much to me,’’ he said
A former catcher and pitcher, Vickers was part of the league from 1956 until 1974. Negro League teams were professional baseball teams made up of African-American players excluded from the all-white major leagues during segregation.
Vickers graduated from Hooper City High School and then went on to play ball. He said the gift made him feel special. “My family didn’t even have a suitcase when I got ready to off and play and this old gentleman gave this suitcase,’’ he said. “I’ve kept it that long.”
The Negro American League was formed in 1956, but the attendance was down and most of the players signed Minor League contracts. The new league lasted only four seasons, and The Black Barons played their final season in 1960 when the Negro Leagues disbanded.
“The league ceased, and I didn’t have nowhere to go so I came back,’’ Vickers said. He went to work at Stockham Valves & Fittings where he played baseball with Birmingham Industrial League and then went on to later manage the team. “I stayed there 35 years,’’ Vickers said. “Baseball’s in my blood.”
Vickers was asleep when the tornado struck shortly after 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 25. “I was in the bed- I go to bed at 8:30 p.m., no later than 9 p.m.,’’ he said. “The tornado woke me up and they had to get me out of the house.”
Vickers, a father of three, grandfather of five and great-grandfather of five, was trapped inside his home. What furniture was left had blocked his exit. “The fire department broke in and got me,’’ he said. “I didn’t have a scratch on me.”
His home was destroyed. He’s been staying in a Gardendale hotel since then. Though he has a lot of family close by, Vickers said he chose not to stay with them. “I’m too independent for that,’’ he chuckled.
“I’m going to build back,’’ he said proudly. “Lots of memorabilia is gone and lots of pictures.”
Vickers said he’s been back out to his property in search of the suitcase but to no avail. “I’ve looked and looked,’’ he said. “That tornado, it took stuff a long way.”
But, he said, he doesn’t go too often. “There’s too much to think about,’’ he said. “Too many memories.”
The metal suitcase is about 30-inches by 18-inches and something he carried with him all over the country while he played baseball. Vickers talked of his years playing baseball and his lost suitcase when he spoke last week to the Rotary Club of North Jefferson. “There wasn’t a dry eye,’’ said Rotary tornado relief coordinator and past president Carol Rawding Stewart.
The club is now trying to help Vickers find the suitcase, spreading the word on social media and beyond. Anyone who finds the suitcase is asked to call 205-540-5288.