Mural unveiled in Birmingham honoring Mays' origins

June 20th, 2024

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- If you take stock of the thousands of AP and Getty images, the decades worth of baseball cards and posters produced and the countless highlights showcasing ' greatness as a baseball player, artist Chuck Styles could have chosen from a treasure trove of stills to create the mural that was unveiled in Birmingham’s downtown area on Wednesday afternoon. No one would have blamed Styles for going big with “The Catch” or the follow-through of one of Mays' 660 home runs -- those would have certainly done him justice.

But Styles -- who became accustomed with Black baseball legends like Mays, Henry Aaron and Jackie Robinson through Topps baseball cards and mythical tales from the older men in his life -- wanted to go a different route. One that honored Mays as Fairfield and Birmingham’s proudest son, and one that freezes the legend’s love for others and baseball in the sky for eternity.

Artist Chuck Styles and Harold Reynolds (Parker Freedman/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Styles chose the tableau that sticks in every Birmingham native’s mind: Mays wearing a Birmingham Black Barons jersey, with the “B” adorned on his hat, hands on his knees and his head turned slightly to the left, flashing a smile that stretches to the ends of his face. The smile itself is trying to wrap you in a loving embrace, as if it’s saying, “I got you. And I love you.”

“Willie Mays very much reminds me of my own grandfather,” Styles said. “Just a very warm-hearted, loving individual. Outside of baseball, who he was as a character, I wanted that represented. And I hope that you all can see exactly who Willie Mays was, and what he felt in his heart every time he stepped on the field and off the field.”

Wednesday’s mural unveiling doubled as a recognition of Mays’ life and celebration of his impact on the sport of baseball. In addition to the hundreds of Birmingham residents who showed to get a glimpse of the mural’s grandeur, on hand was Mayor Randall Woodfin, Giants president and CEO Larry Baer and Jeff Bleich, a close friend of Mays.

“President Obama once said that without Willie Mays, he likely would not have made history in the White House,” Woodfin said. “Without the change that Willie Mays brought to our world, our country would look very different. Because with one bat, he knocked down so many walls. Every Black athlete that stepped up to the plate, literally and figuratively, owes Willie Mays a debt of gratitude.”

The mural lists all of the teams that Mays played on, from the Black Barons in 1948, to his iconic years with the Giants and his stellar career-ending campaigns with the Mets. Surrounding the image are some of his accolades -- which try as they might, only capture a glimpse of his greatness on the field. But all of the speakers found themselves gushing about Willie the person, who was just as loved as the “Say Hey Kid” was when he patrolled center field.

“He was so excited about all of us coming to Birmingham, about all of this coming to Rickwood [Field],” said Baer, who visited Mays a couple of weeks ago with his wife, Pam. “And in many ways, it happened for him. This was the full-circle moment from when he played for the Black Barons. And I think it’s been said by many folks who knew Willie, maybe because he couldn’t come here physically, this is the way he chose to represent here.”

“No one on this earth met an inauthentic version of Willie Mays,” Bleich said. “Willie had friends, Willie had teammates. He stayed committed to them. He stayed true to himself, to his friends, to his teammates and all the places that nurtured him. … A lot of folks are considered great men because they were great ballplayers -- Willie Mays is a great ballplayer because he was a great man.”