Rickwood Field game takes on new meaning: Mays will 'be watching over'

June 19th, 2024

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The center of the baseball universe this week is Birmingham, Ala., where Major League Baseball is paying tribute to the Negro Leagues with a series of games at Rickwood Field, the oldest ballpark in the United States and the site of the final Negro League World Series in October 1948. It is the place where Willie Mays is from, and the ballpark where he began his storied career in professional baseball as a 17-year-old with the Birmingham Black Barons that same year.

As the Double-A Birmingham Barons (dressed as the Black Barons) took on the Montgomery Biscuits (dressed as the Gray Sox) during Tuesday night’s MiLB at Rickwood Field game, the baseball world was brought to a standstill by the news that Mays, one of the most decorated players to ever pick up a bat and ball, had passed away peacefully at the age of 93.

Before the teams took the field for the start of the eighth inning, Rickwood’s public address announcer asked for everyone’s attention to share the news, eliciting scores of stunned reactions from the 7,866 fans in attendance, their eyes fixed upon the portrait of the Hall of Famer that took over the right-center-field videoboard:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have some very sad news to share. A short time ago, the San Francisco Giants, Major League Baseball and the Willie Mays family announced that the ‘Say Hey Kid,’ Willie Mays, one of the greatest players in the history of our game, has passed away. He was born here in Alabama, got his start in this very ballpark, thrilled generations of baseball fans with his brilliant play. We will always cherish the memory and life of the great Willie Mays.”

As a tribute video then played, the fans provided their own, coming together to give Mays a rousing standing ovation and even starting a “Say Hey” and "Willie" chant in his honor.

It was the first of what will surely be a cavalcade of tributes to the legendary ballplayer this week, with the St. Louis Cardinals slated to square off against Mays’ San Francisco Giants in MLB at Rickwood Field: A Tribute to the Negro Leagues on FOX on Thursday night. A pregame ceremony will pay homage to his one-of-a-kind life.

In sadness, there will still be celebration -- of a life well-lived and a career that captivated the country.

“It really [stinks] that it happened two days before we’re playing at Rickwood Field. But we’re going to play in his honor,” said Giants pitcher Logan Webb. “Willie is kind of ‘the Giant,’ right? He is the guy. It’s going to be emotional. It’s going to be awesome and emotional. I’m excited to be a part of it.”

During his 23-year Major League career, Mays won pretty much every accolade the game had to offer. Rookie of the Year? Check. MVP? Check, twice. Gold Glove? Check, times 12. All-Star? Check, times 24.

Amid his rise to stardom, Mays also served in the U.S. Army from 1952-53. Right after he returned, he won his one and only World Series championship with the then-New York Giants, after making one of the most iconic plays in MLB history that is now known simply as ‘The Catch.’ That famous grab in center field at the Polo Grounds is a big reason why the World Series Most Valuable Player Award has been named in Mays’ honor since 2017.

The Birmingham Black Barons called Rickwood Field, which opened in 1910, home from 1924-1960. Four Negro Leagues veterans (Joseph Marbury, Clinton “Tiny” Forge, Ferdinand Rutledge and Alphonse Holt) -- two of whom played for the Black Barons (Rutledge and Holt) -- threw out the game’s ceremonial first pitches on Tuesday night. Beforehand, they held court in both teams’ clubhouses, sharing stories about their journeys and offering wisdom earned from their long lives.

“What an honor, not only to wear the jersey but to participate in a game like today,” said Barons manager Sergio Santos. “Willie Mays, what a legacy that we’re all trying to fulfill, [to] play the game the way he played the game. It’s definitely a heavy heart when you hear news like that, losing a legend of the game.”

On Wednesday night, another game will be played at Rickwood Field. A celebrity softball contest dubbed “Barnstorm Birmingham,” between the Hammers (named after Hank Aaron) and the Say Heys, with honorary captains Derek Jeter and Giants legend Barry Bonds, who is also Mays’ godson.

It was all part of the push to recognize both Mays and his contemporaries, whose origin story for so long had gone unrecognized, and the sport he dedicated his whole life to will make every effort to ensure the love he poured into the game is returned in kind.

“Obviously, we wish he was here with us to see it, but he’ll be watching over the game,” said Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski, whose Hall of Fame grandfather -- Red Sox legend Carl -- played in the same era as Mays. “It’s definitely one of those times to reflect on the important things in life. He had such an impact on this game and on so many people. To be able to be involved in a celebration for him is an incredibly humbling experience.”