'Let him hear you!' Stirring tribute to Mays ahead of Rickwood Field game

June 21st, 2024

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- When the baseball world suffered the loss of Willie Mays on Tuesday -- when the Fairfield-raised baseball titan and legendary human passed away at 93 years old -- MLB’s Tribute to the Negro Leagues turned into something a little different.

Thursday night’s game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants was always about honoring the lives and stories of those who played in the Negro Leagues for large swaths of the 20th century -- as it continued to be throughout the evening.

But heavy on the minds of every player, coach and MLB alumnus at Rickwood Field was also the legacy and life of Mays. Prior to his passing, Mays shared a powerful statement with the baseball world through close friends Dusty Baker and Jeff Bleich, letting everyone know how much it meant for him to see that the Majors had arrived in his backyard:

“Birmingham, I wish I could be with you all today. This is where I’m from. I had my first pro hit here at Rickwood as a Black Baron. Now this year, some 76 years later, that hit finally got counted in the record books. I guess some things take time. But I always think, better late than never. Time changes things, time heals wounds -- and that’s a good thing. I had some of the best times of my life in Birmingham."

Before the game, the outpouring of love and adoration for Mays flourished in many ways and from many different sources -- but especially from the Giants cohort. It made perfect sense for San Francisco to be one of the two clubs to bring MLB competition to Mays’ stomping grounds. Now, they’re honoring their greatest player’s life the best way that they know how.

“Since hearing the news of him passing, and trying to gauge what’s going on and kind of come to terms with that,” Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski said. “I believe that it was for a reason he could be here spiritually, he can be here with us. And he wasn’t going to be able to make it otherwise. So as much as it hurts to lose a legend like that, we gained an angel above us to be here for this [game]. It is very special, and I think everybody here feels that.”

Mays’ Hall of Fame plaque was transported from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., to Rickwood Field, and has been on display the past couple of days for fans, coaches and players to admire. Before Thursday’s game, Giants and Cardinals players migrated to the plaque’s place in the left-field foul territory, as well as former MLB players like CC Sabathia, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ryan Howard, just angling to get close to Mays’ memory.

Ahead of the first pitch, Oscar and Grammy winner Jon Batiste brought people to their feet performing his songs “Master Power” and “I Need You” as players from the Giants and Cardinals escorted the former Negro Leaguers who descended upon Birmingham onto the field, lining up in seats on the first- and third-base lines. Each player was wearing special edition jerseys with “Negro Leagues” in script on the front, a Rickwood Field patch on the sleeve and their name and numbers emblazoned on the back.

Once each former player had taken their place on the foul lines, Griffey, Michael Mays -- Willie Mays’ son -- and Barry Bonds strolled to home plate, addressing the capacity crowd at Rickwood Field in front of the massive “24” painted on the grass. After a tribute video to Willie’s accomplishments and greatness as a man played on the video board, Michael addressed the crowd, thanking everyone on hand for taking part in the celebration of his father’s life.

“Let him hear you!” Michael shouted, leading the crowd in a standing, shouting ovation that reached up to the heavens. On their own, the fans broke out in a chant of “WILLIE! WILLIE!”

Batiste then played “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and the national anthem, accompanied by country music artists Brittney Spencer and Willie Jones and blues singer C.S. Armstrong.

Reverend Bill Greason, who played with Willie Mays on the 1948 Black Barons squad that won the Negro American League pennant, threw out the first pitch, with 14-time All-Stars Derek Jeter and Reggie Jackson and Giants outfielder LaMonte Wade Jr. standing by his side.

A homecoming, a celebration of what mattered to Willie Mays most, all culminating on the baseball field that began one of the greatest careers of all time.