Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Willie Mays dies at 93: MLB legend will get fitting sendoff at Rickwood Field, where his career took shape

The recent passing of Willie Mays, an inner-circle baseball great and one of the most luminous stars the sports world has ever known, is a curiosity of timing. Mays died at the advanced age of 93, with the fullest of lives behind him, but he also died two days before he was to be honored at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field, the very venue where his big-league baseball career began. 

On Thursday evening in the bituminous coalfields of Alabama where Mays was born and raised, Mays’ own San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals will play a game at Rickwood Field. It’s to be a parallel celebration of Mays, Rickwood, and the Negro Leagues, as Major League Baseball emphasized when it announced the event almost a year ago. The announcement read in part: 

Major League Baseball today announced that Rickwood Field, the oldest professional ballpark in the United States and former home of the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, will be the site of a special Regular Season contest between the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants on June 20, 2024. This experience, scheduled around Juneteenth next year, will include a variety of activities as a tribute to the Negro Leagues and its greatest living player – Hall of Famer, Giants Legend, Birmingham native and Birmingham Black Barons player Willie Mays.  

The words of Mays himself also appeared in the league’s statement: 

“I can’t believe it. I never thought I’d see in my lifetime a Major League Baseball game being played on the very field where I played baseball as a teenager,” Mays said in the press release. “It has been 75 years since I played for the Birmingham Black Barons at Rickwood Field, and to learn that my Giants and the Cardinals will play a game there and honor the legacy of the Negro Leagues and all those who came before them is really emotional for me. We can’t forget what got us here and that was the Negro Leagues for so many of us.”

The hope, of course, was that Mays would be able to attend, and up until very recently that was the expectation. On Monday, however, Mays informed the San Francisco Chronicle that he would not be able to make it to Birmingham

“I’m not able to get to Birmingham this year but will follow the game back here in the Bay Area. My heart will be with all of you who are honoring the Negro League ballplayers, who should always be remembered, including all my teammates on the Black Barons. I wanted to thank Major League Baseball, the Giants, the Cardinals and all the fans who’ll be at Rickwood or watching the game. It’ll be a special day, and I hope the kids will enjoy it and be inspired by it.”

Emphasis ours. On Tuesday, we lost Willie Mays, which adds a veneer of mourning and solemnity to what will happen at Rickwood Field on Thursday night. Still, the evening will be rich with appreciations, memories, and tales of Mays’ unexampled brilliance on the diamond and towering importance to baseball. Most keenly felt will be the truth that right there on that swath of outfield grass just off 2nd Avenue West in Birmingham is where Mays’ journey to the very pantheon of the sport began in earnest. 

Mays was born in 1931, the thick of the Great Depression, and was reared in the working-class mill towns just outside Birmingham. A gifted multisport athlete in high school, Mays truly shined when played outfield alongside his father for a local industrial team and then a nearby semi-pro outfit. He also spent some time with the Chattanooga Choo-Choos, which functioned as a somewhat haphazard farm team for Negro-League Birmingham Black Barons. It was there that he caught the eye of Piper Davis, the Black Barons’ manager. “Nobody ever saw anybody throw a ball from the outfield like him, or get rid of it so fast,” Davis said of Mays. The Black Barons signed Mays at the age of 16. 

Mays’ father, however, insisted that his son remain sufficiently devoted to finishing high school, and that led to an unconventional arrangement with the Black Barons. Mays for the 1948 season would be permitted to play only in the Black Barons’ weekend home games at Rickwood Field until the conclusion of the school year. That reduced Mays’ first taste of high-level baseball to just that — a taste — but it was enough. 

Mays made his Black Barons debut in the second game of a doubleheader. He manned left, batted seventh, and registered a pair of hits off starting pitcher Chet Brewer. A broken leg suffered by regular center fielder Bobby Robinson soon after allowed Mays to man the up-the-middle position that would be his province in the decades to come. The expansive Rickwood Field outfield allowed Mays to demonstrate his precocious gifts as a fly-catcher and no doubt caught the eyes of scouts descending upon the Negro Leagues in those months after Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. 

In the end, Mays played just 10 games for the Black Barons, and over that span he batted .233/.313/.326 with a triple and a stolen base. The 10 hits he picked up at his hometown field of Rickwood have been added to his official MLB tally as of the league’s recent decision to incorporate Negro League statistics. The Black Barons that year were a colossus, as they went 63-28-2 in the regular season. In the Negro American League Series, they edged the Kansas City Monarchs in eight games, and that sprawling series Mays picked up seven hits and drew six walks. In the Negro League World Series, Mays and the Black Barons fell to the Homestead Grays in five games. 

Those weren’t vintage Mays numbers he put up in ’48, but he was a mere 17 years old at the time. Merely surviving against such advanced competition while playing once a week was itself a sign of future greatness. As we know, that greatness would be realized at a level that exceeded anyone’s imagination. In a material sense, Mays’ journey toward that greatness began at Rickwood Field — it’s where he earned his first 10 major-league hits. Fitting, then, that baseball will say goodbye to him at the very same place. 

“It’ll be a special day, and I hope the kids will enjoy it and be inspired by it.”

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