Rickwood Festivities Celebrate Negro League Greats Willie Mays

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – As Ajay Stone walked around historic Rickwood Field and gazed at the tributes honoring Willie Mays and other Negro Leaguers, he held a cherished memory under his arm.

It was a 2004 photo of Mays holding Stone’s then-10-month-old daughter Haley, who was wearing San Francisco Giants gear. In Mays’ hand was a piece of chocolate chip cookie, which he held out to Haley to eat.

“Willie gave him this cookie,” Stone recalled. “She had no teeth. But we took the cookie and kept it in her stroller for a year and a half. The great Willie Mays gave it to her, so it was special to us.”

Stone and his wife, Christina, traveled from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Birmingham, Alabama, on Thursday for a moment they considered just as special.

It was a few hours before Rickwood Field hosted its first Major League Baseball game, with the St. Louis Cardinals beating the Giants 6-5. The game, which MLB called “A Tribute to the Negro Leagues,” was intended to honor the legacy of Mays and other black baseball greats who left a lasting mark on the sport.

MLB has planned a week of activities surrounding Mays and the Negro Leagues, including an unveiling ceremony Wednesday of a Willie Mays mural in downtown Birmingham. Those tributes took on a more significant meaning Tuesday afternoon when Mays died at the age of 93. As news of his death spread across Birmingham, celebrations of his life intensified.

You could hear the celebration at Rickwood Field Thursday before you even arrived: the rapid beating of a drum echoing inside the ballpark, the excited murmurs of fans jumping toward the music and the frequent bursts of laughter.

Inside, there were reminders of history all around.

There were photos and artifacts of Baseball Hall of Famers who played in the 114-year-old stadium, including Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. The original clubhouse of Birmingham’s Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, where Mays made his professional debut in 1948, was open. A memorial to Mays was out front, with figurines, a signed glove and his Black Barons and San Francisco Giants jerseys on display.

Outside, fans lined up to hold a baseball bat used by Mays in 1959. They took photos while sitting inside an original 1947 bus that was typically used on barnstorming tours by the Negro Leagues teams. They danced to live music and ate food at concession stands with menus designed to reflect the look and feel of the 1940s.

Eddie Torres and his son Junior wore matching Giants jerseys as they took photos inside the ballpark. They are longtime Giants fans who came from California for the game.

“I never even saw Willie Mays play, but as a Giants fan, you knew what he meant to baseball,” Torres said. “My son, he’s only 11 years old. Willie Mays had such an effect on the game that even he knew who Willie Mays was.”

Musical artist Jon Batiste played guitar while dancing on a wooden stage near home plate just before the first pitch. Fans stood as former Negro League players were helped onto the field for a pregame ceremony.

Shouts of “Willie! Willie!” » erupted after a brief moment of silence.

For Michael Jackson, sitting in the stands at Rickwood Field reminded him of the past.

Jackson, 71, played baseball in the 1970s and 1980s with the East Thomas Eagles of the Birmingham Industrial League, a semi-professional league made up of iron and steel workers that was an integral part of entertainment in Birmingham . the 20th century.

Jackson’s baseball journey has brought him to Rickwood Field several times. After all these years, he was just excited that it was still standing.

“It’s good to see them redoing it,” he said, “instead of tearing it down. We played in the same stadium they named after Willie Mays, in Fairfield, Alabama. And then I spent some time here playing at this ballpark. It’s all very exciting.

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