On Willie's 93rd birthday, meet the Negro Leagues vet who grew up with him

Charles 'Coop' Willis -- who still lives in Fairfield, Ala. -- was 'best of friends' with living legend

May 6th, 2024

The way that our history keepers and record books mythologize the greatest sports stars and icons of our lifetime often produces a double-edged sword. We develop obsessions with the beginnings and ends of their journeys, hyper-fixating on the environments and upbringings that made them special over the subsequent results of years of hard work, dedication and support. On the flipside, our attention to the peripherals in the middle falls by the wayside -- unheralded characters and moments are left on the outskirts of history.

The urge (and need) to celebrate Willie Mays, one of the greatest players in the history of baseball, has produced countless oral histories of his most iconic onfield moments, like his four-homer game while battling food poisoning and his over-the-shoulder catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. But on the Say Hey Kid’s 93rd birthday, we can take a moment to hear from a figure who was by Mays’ side during his most formative years, a person whose own story also began on the ballfields and schoolyards of Fairfield, Ala.

That person is Charles L. Willis. But around Fairfield, the 92-year-old is known by something a little different.

“I’m better known in the city of Birmingham, the city of Fairfield, as ‘Coop,’” said Willis. “I can’t answer [why that’s my nickname]. You’d have to ask my parents that. And they’re not around.”

Willis has spent nearly his entire life in the same house in Fairfield after inheriting his childhood home from his parents, growing up a stone’s throw away from Miles College, a private liberal arts HBCU (and his eventual alma mater). It’d certainly make sense for him to be colloquially known across town -- Fairfield is a small suburb of Birmingham, a miniscule 3.5 square miles with a population of 9,690 (92.6 percent Black).

Charles Willis still lives in the Fairfield, Ala., home where he grew up.

It also helped that as a kid, he was often attached at the hip to Fairfield’s most famous resident -- Mays.

“[Mays] and I were the best of friends,” Willis said. “We went to elementary school together, we went to high school together, we participated in athletics together at Fairfield Industrial High School.

“We all knew each other, we all went to the same school. Back during that day, people didn’t have cars like they had now, they had to walk. And in this community ’round here, everybody knew everybody. It was somewhat like a [tight-knit] community.”

Like Mays, who cut his teeth in Fairfield as a multisport athlete, Willis grew up playing baseball, basketball and football. And like many of the Black residents in the greater Birmingham area, he spent much of his childhood attending Birmingham Black Barons games at Rickwood Field, looking up to the likes of Piper Davis. With the magnetic power that the Black Barons held amongst the Black community -- “On Sundays, when you go to church, the preacher had to get through early. Because if he didn’t get through with his sermon, they would get up and walk out anyway, because they’re going to the ballgame,” Willis half-joked -- it’s no wonder that baseball became his passion.

“I fell in love with the game back in 1948. Where I went to high school, we only had three sports,” Willis said. “So I fell in love with baseball. That was my choice in life, hoping one day that I would be a professional baseball player.”

At the same time, Mays was beginning his professional career, getting his start with the Black Barons. As a family friend, then-player-manager Piper Davis saw the promise in Mays, who was 17 years old and still finishing high school in 1948, and he worked to get him an opportunity on the club. Mays navigated his need to complete his studies by playing only home games with the Black Barons. It wasn’t smooth sailing, of course, as Mays hit just .233 with a .638 OPS in that 1948 season, but whispers and glimpses of his Gold Glove-caliber defense and game-breaking speed appeared throughout the club’s Negro American League championship campaign -- where the Barons would end up losing to the Homestead Grays in the Negro World Series, 4-1.

“I didn’t know that, at that time, that [Mays] had a future like he had,” Willis said. “I couldn’t see that far down the road. But I did know that he was a great athlete. No one thought that he would be a Major League baseball player, but it happened. … We thought it was a great thing for the community. After being [signed] by the Giants, he would come home every year and visit. There’s a park right down the road there named after him.

“But [Mays] was one of the greatest things to come out of Fairfield. That’s my personal belief.”

Due to the integration of the AL/NL and the Minor Leagues after 1947, with teams beginning to sign players from the Negro Leagues with more frequency -- subsequently weakening the Negro National League and the Negro American League -- 1948 was the final iteration of the World Series for Black baseball in the United States. Willis remembers the writing being on the wall, knowing that once the top players and big draws departed from the Negro Leagues, the wheels of folding were set in motion.

Yet that did not deter Willis from beginning to pursue his dreams. Starting in 10th grade, Willis began playing for the Fairfield All Stars in the Birmingham Industrial League, a local semi-professional league that fielded teams from mining and steel companies in the city. Once he graduated from Fairfield Industrial High School in 1950, Willis joined the Black Barons that summer, manning the outfield primarily as a center fielder.

“I was a better fielder than I was a hitter,” Willis said. “But as far as baseball … I could play, I could do it all.”

Former NL MVP Ryan Howard personally delivered invitations to the MLB at Rickwood Field game to former Negro Leagues players, including Charles Willis.

But the omnipresent threat of racial violence in a segregated landscape placed enormous pressure on the daily lives of a barnstorming Black baseball team. And while they were playing the sport they loved, Willis and others were not spared or protected by the veil of escapism while on the road. Willis remembers every touchstone and impact of the continual battles that the Black community in Birmingham had to face, from staunch repression by the oppressive commissioner of public safety Bull Connor, to the members of Children’s Crusade being hounded by police dogs and battered by fire hydrants for striving for a sliver of humanity.

“I remember traveling, that it wasn't so good, because if you left to go somewhere to play, because of [segregation] you had to stay on the bus at night,” Willis said. “You had to get up in the morning and wash up in the service station, and grab you a little snack and make it to your next destination."

Willis played with the Black Barons that year while being enrolled at Miles College, but his tenure with his hometown team -- the pride of his community for much of his childhood -- ended after he suffered a major knee injury while playing football at school. The sobering nature of the injury dashed any dreams of a future in the sport, but a determined vision and steady resilience allowed Willis to pivot toward his studies with a full-throated passion.

After finishing his degree, Willis dived headfirst into the education system in Birmingham, working his way up from elementary school positions to becoming a high school baseball coach (“I just enjoyed teaching them what they didn’t know,” Willis said), to eventually becoming the assistant principal at Jackson-Olin High School.

“I wore two hats, which was a pretty difficult job,” Willis said. “Because you have problems over here, then you have problems over there … they kept you running in between. But it was all good.”

Now, Willis rests, in the same house he has lived in for “80-something” years, in the house that his parents bequeathed to him, the house that he and his wife remodeled to make livable for his children and grandchildren.

Baseball is still one of his loves, and he wants a return to the halcyon days of Black baseball in America -- where Black players and teams were a beacon of pride for communities across the country, just like how the Black Barons were for him and the rest of Birmingham. And Willis -- with all his days of watching and playing baseball and being an integral part to the growth of young people -- understands that there is a lot of work to be done with access and resources to get Black kids back into baseball. There’s a tone of melancholy that sneaks in as he grows wistful about the way in which baseball has fallen from its pedestal in the community.

“We talked about that the other day,” Willis said. “Once there was a time where I could sit here, and just about name you, not just Black ballplayers in the Majors, I could name you over half of them. … The Black kid doesn’t play baseball anymore. … They need to start training these kids in the primary grades; [you need] to teach them how to play baseball.”

One has to fight fiercely for a future where this dream is realized once again, to give Willis an opportunity to look out from the porch of his house and see a group of Black kids throwing the ball around on the sandlot, allowing him to be reminded of the days when he and Mays did the same decades before, if only for a brief moment.