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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Willie Mays, Birmingham and Rickwood Field: Baseball honors a legend in his hometown

A visitor photographs an art installation of a towering Willie Mays baseball card in downtown Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, one day after his death. Major League Baseball was in Birmingham to honor the legacy of the Negro Leagues. With Mays’ death, the celebration at ancient Rickwood Field took on new meaning. (Brandon Holland/The New York Times)

By Tim Arango

In the late innings of a minor league game on Tuesday night at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, fans throughout the grandstand, suddenly and almost in unison, began staring at the news on their phones: The great Willie Mays had died, at 93, in California.

An inning later, a tribute video played on the scoreboard overlooking the outfield where Mays played his first professional game as a teenage phenom for the Birmingham Black Barons, and the loudspeaker blared “Say Hey (the Willie Mays Song),” recorded in 1954 by the R&B group the Treniers.

“I was shocked,” said Randy Ferguson, 70, a member of the Friends of Rickwood, the nonprofit organization that oversees the ancient ballpark. He was standing outside a small museum underneath the stands, where the next day fans would line up to see Mays’ flower-draped Hall of Fame plaque, the first time it has left the wall in Cooperstown since it was installed at his induction in 1979. “I have chill bumps. I can’t think of any place to be than here.”

At 114 years old, Rickwood Field is the nation’s oldest professional ballpark, the first place Mays played pro ball and the last ballpark still standing that he called home. To honor the legacy of the Negro Leagues, Major League Baseball scheduled a game in Mays’ hometown between the San Francisco Giants, Mays’ old team, and the St. Louis Cardinals, that was to be played on Thursday.

The Rev. William H. Greason, 99, who was the first Black pitcher for the Cardinals in the 1950s, has been a pastor in Birmingham for more than a half-century since retiring from baseball. He had been hoping to see his old friend this week, at the ballpark where they played together.

In 1948, Greason was a star pitcher for the Black Barons, baffling hitters with three types of curveballs, and Mays was a teenage star from a local high school who had dazzled on the sandlots, playing for industrial league teams fielded by the steel mills and coal mines. Greason became a mentor to the young Mays, and they won a league championship together and played in the last Negro World Series.

“We were good friends, and both of us just starting, it was easy for us to get along,” Greason said.

Major League Baseball’s tagline for the week, plastered on signs around the city, is “A Tribute to the Negro Leagues,” but it has been as much a celebration of Mays’ singular life and legacy, now amplified with his death.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute this week unveiled an art installation of a towering Willie Mays baseball card. And on Monday evening, the marquee of the Carver Theater, once one of the few places Black people could see first-run movies during the time of Jim Crow, was lit up with Mays’ name, for a screening of the 2022 documentary, “Say Hey, Willie Mays!”

After the screening, Mays’ son, Michael, told the audience that his father could not make it to Birmingham. “He wants to be here bad,” he said, adding, “I think deep down what it is, is he don’t show up halfway.”

Willie Mays issued a statement Monday evening to The San Francisco Chronicle, saying he was too unwell to travel, and reminiscing about Rickwood Field, describing it as “like a church.”

“The first big thing I ever put in my mind was to play at Rickwood Field,” he said. “It wasn’t a dream. It was something I was going to do.”

Rickwood Field, the project of A.H. “Rick” Woodward, a local iron baron who was manager of his company’s baseball team, opened in 1910 and was named for him, the winning entry chosen from a contest sponsored by The Birmingham News. At the time, it was a modern marvel, a minor league ballpark modeled on the concrete and steel major league palaces of the era, like Philadelphia’s Shibe Park and Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. One Birmingham newspaper called it the “South’s Finest Baseball Plant,” while another described it as a “model of beauty and convenience,” where “the patrons will be seated in opera chairs, large and comfortable.”

Its opening day on Aug. 18, 1910, was a citywide holiday, with offices and shops shuttered for the occasion. “Not a crowd, not a throng, not a ‘seething mass of humanity,’” The Birmingham News declared on its front page. “None of these terms will do to describe the great, waving, chattering, elbowing, laughing, striding, stumbling, and pushing bundles of sweltering folks who swarmed out into Rickwood park Thursday afternoon.”

By the end of the decade, Black teams were allowed to play at Rickwood, paving the way for Mays’ future stardom, and Black teams from Birmingham and Montgomery played a doubleheader in September 1919 in front of “the largest crowd that ever wedged itself in the enclosure at Rickwood,” The Birmingham Age-Herald reported.

“This area and this town was, despite all of the history that we know in these Black communities, it was joy, and despite the racism, the Birmingham Black Barons were the toast of the town,” Michael Mays said this week.

The week of baseball in Birmingham, he said, is an “American celebration,” and his hope is that it will bring more Black fans and more Black players to a game that has seen a steady decline in African American representation.

“It’s a full circle moment,” he said. “It’s a full circle moment for Major League Baseball. It’s a full circle moment for Birmingham. It’s a full circle moment for our families.”

Rickwood Field is often called the oldest professional ballpark in America — opening two years before Fenway Park in Boston — but it is also the oldest big league ballpark. Four years ago MLB elevated the Negro Leagues to major league status as many American institutions began reconsidering their histories after the murder of George Floyd. The league has also begun integrating Negro Leagues statistics into its official record — Willie Mays was recently credited with 10 more hits from his stint with the Black Barons — and the game this week is a further step.

The ranks of veterans of the Negro Leagues are dwindling, and while many believe Major League Baseball’s recognition should have come much earlier, Michael Mays said it was “long overdue but strangely on time.”

A few days ago, Michael Mays reflected on what Birmingham has come to mean to him, through his famous father.

“We all know about the hardship, we all know about the struggle, but the way they marched through it, like it wasn’t nothing, and the joy, just all the happiness that really went on in the community despite the struggle,” he said. “I’m really sensing that, when I can come down here I can feel the core of my dad’s character.”

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