Willie Mays, Negro League greats celebrated with Rickwood festivities


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — As Ajay Stone strolled around historic Rickwood Field and gazed at tributes displayed in honor of Willie Mays and other Negro Leaguers, he clutched a cherished memory under his arm.

It was a picture from 2004 of Mays holding Stone’s then-10-month-old daughter Haley, who was wearing San Francisco Giants gear. In Mays’ hand was a chunk of a chocolate chip cookie, which he was handing over for Haley to eat.

“Willie gave her that cookie. She had no teeth,” Stone remembered. “But we took the cookie and we kept it in her stroller for a year and a half. The great Willie Mays gave it to her, so it was special to us.”

Stone and his wife Christina traveled from Charlotte, North Carolina, to be in Birmingham, Alabama, on Thursday for a moment they deemed just as special.

It was hours before Rickwood Field hosted its first Major League Baseball game, as the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Giants, 6-5. The game, which MLB called “A Tribute to the Negro Leagues,” was meant to honor the legacy of Mays and other Black baseball greats who left an enduring mark on the sport.

MLB planned a week of activities around Mays and the Negro Leagues, including an unveiling ceremony on Wednesday of a Willie Mays mural in downtown Birmingham. Those tributes took on a more significant meaning Tuesday afternoon when Mays died at 93. As news of his death spread throughout Birmingham, celebrations of his life ramped up.

You could hear the celebration at Rickwood Field on Thursday even before arriving at the ballpark with the rapid thumping of a drum echoing from inside the ballpark, excited murmurs from fans skipping toward the music and frequent bursts of laughter.

Inside, there were reminders of history all around.

There were photos and artifacts of baseball Hall of Famers who played at the 114-year-old ballpark, including Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. The original clubhouse of the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, where Mays got his pro start in 1948, was open. A memorial of Mays was at the front, with bobbleheads, a signed glove and his Black Barons and San Francisco Giants jerseys on display.

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Outside, fans stood in line to hold a baseball bat used by Mays in 1959. They took photos sitting inside an original bus from 1947 that was typically used during barnstorming tours by Negro Leagues teams. They danced to live music and ate food from concession stands featuring menu boards designed to reflect the look and feel of the 1940s.

Eddie Torres and his son Junior wore matching Giants jerseys as they took pictures inside the ballpark. They’re lifelong Giants fans who came from California for the game.

“I never even got to see Willie Mays play, but as a Giants fan, you knew what he meant to the game of baseball,” Torres said. “My son, he’s only 11. Willie Mays had such an effect on the game that even he knew who Willie Mays was.”

Musical artist Jon Batiste strummed a guitar while dancing on a wooden stage near home plate just before the first pitch. Fans stood as former Negro Leaguers were helped to the field for a pregame ceremony.

Chants of “Wil-lie! Wil-lie!” broke out after a brief moment of silence.

For Michael Jackson, sitting in the stands at Rickwood Field reminded him of the past.

The 71-year-old Jackson played baseball in the 1970s and 80s with the East Thomas Eagles of the Birmingham Industrial League, which was a semi-professional league made up of iron and steel workers that was an integral form of entertainment in Birmingham in the 20th century.

Jackson’s baseball journey took him to Rickwood Field many times. After all these years, he was just excited that it’s still standing.

“It’s nice seeing them re-do all of this,” he said, “instead of tearing it down. We played in the same ballpark they named after Willie Mays out in Fairfield (Alabama). And then I had my times out here playing at this ballpark. It’s all very exciting.”

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Brendan Donovan hit a two-run homer and a double and the Cardinals defeated the Giants, 6-5, in Thursday night’s game.

Plenty of other Negro Leagues greats were honored as part of Thursday’s game, including former Black Barons player Bill Greason, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch. The game also featured the first all-Black umpire crew in AL/NL history.

Donovan, who grew up in Alabama, blasted a 1-and-1 pitch from Giants starter Keaton Winn (3-8) for his seventh home run of the season. He was 3 for 3 with a double in the third inning and an RBI single in the sixth.

“What a special night,” Donovan said. “I mean, this is something that we should celebrate. This right here is pretty amazing. And to do it in Alabama, I’ve got some friends and family in the stands, it’s like playing summer ball again.”

Alec Burleson had a pair of singles and Masyn Winn reached twice for the Cardinals (37-37), who stopped a two-game losing streak.

Former UC Irvine standout Andre Pallante (3-3) pitched 5⅓ innings in the win, allowing seven hits and three runs. He walked three and struck out five.

Giants center fielder Heliot Ramos hit a tying three-run shot off Pallante in the third for his 10th home run, but the Cardinals retook the lead on Nolan Gorman’s sacrifice fly in the bottom of the inning.

“Any time you play center field for the San Francisco Giants, you think about Willie Mays,” Giants manager Bob Melvin said. “We’re down three, then all of a sudden we’re tied up with one swing of the bat. And he’s been doing that for a while now.”

Winn struggled through 2⅔ innings, allowing five hits and five runs with two strikeouts and a walk. He was replaced in the third by Randy Rodríguez, who gave up a run on a wild pitch against his first batter.

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Patrick Bailey had three hits for the Giants, who closed a three-run hole with a two-run sixth. Matt Chapman led off the inning with a double, then came around to score on Wilmer Flores’ line drive to center. Jorge Soler then scored on Nick Ahmed’s sacrifice fly.

Ryan Helsley got three outs for his 24th save.

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“It was fun,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “The pregame ceremony was incredible. I got emotional. Just knowing where you’re standing. Just the overall feel of the tribute to Willie Mays. The impact he had on people that he met, but also people he never met.

“That’s when you know you’ve done it right.”

Both teams wore throwback uniforms with Mays’ No. 24 on them. Over 23 major league seasons, mostly with the New York/San Francisco Giants but including one in the Negro Leagues, Mays batted .301, hit 660 home runs, totaled 3,293 hits and scored more than 2,000 runs. He was Rookie of the Year in 1951 and a two-time MVP.

“One-of-a-kind type of place to play,” Melvin said of Rickwood. “You look around and kind of can feel what transpired here a long time ago and the players that played on the field. It’d be nice to win the game, but pretty cool experience.”

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