Former MVP personally invites Negro Leagues legends to Rickwood game

February 27th, 2024

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- never met his maternal grandfather, James Phillip Black, who died before Howard’s birth in 1979.

But Howard is well aware of his grandfather’s legacy as a hardworking man who chose to forego baseball and instead provide stability for his family, and whose athletic genes likely contributed mightily to his grandson’s sterling 13-year Major League career.

“My uncle would say, ‘You were just like Daddy -- he would hit a home run, or he would strike out,” Howard said, flashing his signature megawatt smile. “I said, ‘I’ll take it.’”

Howard, the 2005 NL Rookie of the Year, 2006 NL MVP and three-time All-Star who won the World Series with the Phillies in 2008, is now part of the Commissioner’s Ambassador Program. He was recently in Birmingham to complete an assignment that brought him right back to the place where his grandfather honed his baseball skills, where his parents were raised and where his family still has deep ties.

Ryan Howard delivers an invitation for the Rickwood Field game to former Negro League player Clinton "Tiny" Forge. (Frederick Hardy/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Birmingham is home to Rickwood Field, the country’s oldest ballpark and former home to the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. On June 20, the Giants and Cardinals will play a regular-season game there -- the first time an American League/National League contest will take place at the historic ballpark.

Major League Baseball is inviting all living Negro League players to attend -- a number that exceeds 150 -- and last week brought with it a special touch, representatives going house to house to hand-deliver invitations to players who still live in the area.

Howard led the group. He presented the players with an invitation, a letter signed by Commissioner Rob Manfred, a set of postcards and a poster commemorating the June 20 MLB at Rickwood Field event: “A Tribute to the Negro Leagues.”

Howard delivered invitations to six Negro Leagues players: Joseph Marbury, Clinton “Tiny" Forge, Earnest Harris, Alphonse (Al) Holt, Ferdinand Rutledge and Charles Willis. Three more -- William Greason, Walter Kegler and Andrew Bragg -- received their invitations on a different day.

Ryan Howard delivers an invitation for the Rickwood Field game to former Negro Leagues player Earnest Harris. (Frederick Hardy/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

The visits lasted a minimum of 30 minutes, with some sessions running longer, thanks to the storytelling that poured out of the former players, all of whom are now in their 80s and 90s.

Willis grew up with Willie Mays; they first became friends in elementary school. As kids, Mays was a shortstop and a pitcher and Willis was his catcher, and Mays’ nickname was “Buck Duck.”

Ryan Howard delivers an invitation for the Rickwood Field game to former Negro Leagues player Ferdinand Rutledge. (Frederick Hardy/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

“I know more about him than his folks,” Willis said of Mays, who played for the Black Barons in 1948. “I know him. And he could bring it.”

Marbury, who played two seasons with the Indianapolis Clowns -- “We were the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball,” he said -- recalled the bus rides without air conditioning, the road trips that lasted through the night, 5 a.m. arrivals and doubleheaders that awaited them.

“We played two doubleheaders, back to back,” Marbury remembered. “I got down on my knees to say a prayer; I woke the next morning, I was still down there.”

Ryan Howard delivers an invitation for the Rickwood Field game to former Negro Leagues player Joseph Marbury. (Frederick Hardy/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

But baseball, Marbury said, “Was the most fun time in my life. If I could live any part of my life over again, I would play baseball. It was the greatest time of my life.”

The former players were contacted ahead of time and were told they would be visited by representatives from MLB, but the invitations to the June 20 game at Rickwood -- and Howard’s presence -- were kept a secret.

Holt, an outfielder with the 1963 Birmingham Black Barons, welcomed the group into his home with a boisterous enthusiasm that filled the room.

It took him a few minutes to realize who Howard was: “Who did you play for?” he asked.

“The Phillies,” Howard answered.

Then the recognition set in, and Holt broke into delighted laughter: “You’re the big first baseman!”

After presenting the Rickwood invitation, Howard said to Holt, “If it wasn’t for men like you paving the way, going through the things that you went through, playing the game and playing the game properly, I would never have had those opportunities. I want to thank you on behalf of all the former and current Black baseball players.”

Ryan Howard delivers an invitation for the Rickwood Field game to former Negro Leagues player Al Holt. (Frederick Hardy/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Rutledge, who is about as tall as the 6-foot-4 Howard, looked at the invitation to the MLB at Rickwood game and said to Howard, “You almost started me crying.”

Then, he smiled and said, “I don’t know how many Black Barons you [invited], but I’m the best looking.”

Throughout the day, Howard kept thinking about his grandfather. James Black was talented enough to play professionally, but he declined an opportunity to play in the Negro Leagues, opting instead to enter the workforce, where a more stable paycheck awaited him.

This visit to Birmingham allowed Howard to think about the direct line connecting his grandfather to the living Negro Leagues players to his own playing career. That added an extra layer of emotion as he visited with the people who helped shape the history of the Negro Leagues.

“It’s very surreal,” Howard said. “You know about the history of it, you’ve heard about it, but to actually be able to talk to people who experienced it, that lived it … having them bring these stories back to life, it’s something that’s extremely special. It’s an absolute honor to be able to meet these gentlemen and present them with their invitations.”