Mays 'would like to be there,' but unable to attend Rickwood Field game

June 19th, 2024

This story was published before Willie Mays passed away on Tuesday at the age of 93.

MLB will be making history with its foray into Alabama this week, but unfortunately, one of the game’s most legendary figures will be unable to join the festivities.

On Thursday -- one day after Juneteenth -- MLB will be playing its first regular-season game in Birmingham, Ala., when the Giants and Cardinals face off at Rickwood Field.

Rickwood Field is the oldest still-existing professional ballpark in the nation, and it’s best known for being the home of the Negro Leagues’ Birmingham Black Barons in the early-mid 20th century, a franchise that produced eventual Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Mule Suttles and Willie Mays.

Mays, now 93 years old, revealed in a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle that he will not be attending Thursday’s contest.

“I wish I could come out to Rickwood Field this week to be with you all and enjoy that field with my friends. Rickwood's been part of my life for all of my life. Since I was a kid. It was just ‘around the corner there’ from Fairfield [the town where Mays went to high school], and it felt like it had been there forever. Like a church. The first big thing I ever put my mind to was to play at Rickwood Field. It wasn't a dream. It was something I was going to do. I was going to work hard to be one of the Birmingham Black Barons and play ball at Rickwood Field. That's what I did. It was my start. My first job. You never forget that. Rickwood Field is where I played my first home game, and playing there was IT -- everything I wanted. I'd like to be there, but I don't move as well as I used to. So I'm going to watch from my home. But it will be good to see that. I'm glad that the Giants, Cardinals and MLB are doing this, letting everyone get to see pro ball at Rickwood Field. Good to remind people of all the great ball that has been played there, and all the players. All these years and it is still here. So am I. How about that?”

Given that Mays played for both the Black Barons (for 13 games in 1948, while he was still in high school) and the Giants (from 1951-72), it would’ve been hard to script a much better face to be in Thursday’s crowd than the 1979 first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Mays was born in Westfield, Ala., with baseball -- and the Black Barons, specifically -- being immediate passions of his. After managing to briefly play for the Black Barons while he was juggling his high school baseball, basketball and football careers, Mays’ baseball career quickly ascended to “legend” status during his time with the Giants.

He finished his MLB career with 24 All-Star appearances, still tied for second-most all-time behind Hank Aaron’s 25, along with ranking fifth all-time in bWAR. No matter who’s judging, he’s on the extremely short list of the best players to ever step on a diamond.

And with the vast majority of his pro career coming for the Giants, it was only fitting that San Francisco would be one of the two teams involved in this week’s contest. Rickwood Field is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it has hosted some other games in recent years, such as the Birmingham Barons (the White Sox’s current Double-A affiliate) and the Savannah Bananas playing at the field on special occasions. But this week will be the first time MLB plays an official game in the entire state of Alabama, let alone Rickwood Field specifically.

Though the Giants-Cardinals showdown will be the grand finale, the week will feature a couple of other events at Rickwood Field. On Tuesday, the Birmingham Barons will host a game there, and on Wednesday, there will be a Juneteenth celebration at the stadium.