Historic night at Rickwood Field: MLB pays tribute to Willie Mays, Negro Leagues

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Billie Holliday, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway and Aretha Franklin blared from the stadium speakers Thursday evening, with fans singing in their seats and dancing.

Former Negro League players graced the field, with their retro jerseys worn proudly by fans in the stands, in front of one of the most diverse crowds to see a Major League Baseball game in decades.

Current players from the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, recently retired legends like Albert Pujols and CC Sabathia and Hall of Famers like Reggie Jackson and Ken Griffey Jr. watched the pageantry and emotions emanating from the nation’s oldest existing professional baseball park.

Jackson talked about the pain, the hurt and the humiliation of bigotry playing in the Deep South, where he wasn’t allowed to eat with his teammates, while the 99-year-old Rev. Bill Greason spoke about refusing to permit segregation from playing the game he loved.

“We just wanted to play baseball,” he said, “and we had the talents and the gifts to play.”

There was story telling about the old Negro Leagues, there were tears about Willie Mays’ death, and there was euphoria having so much history together at 114-year-old Rickwood Field.

“It was beautiful, wasn’t it?” Sean Gibson, the great grandson of legendary Josh Gibson, told USA TODAY Sports. “It was everything you could have wanted. Everything was perfect. It was so tough losing Willie so close to the game, but the timing was perfect because we were all here to talk about it.”

There wasn’t a soul at the Rickwood Game – with the Cardinals winning 6-5 – who will forget it.

“It was unbelievable,” said Cardinals assistant coach Willie McGee, one of only four Black players and coaches on the field. “I was able to ask some of the (Negro League) players about their barnstorming and how competitive it was. They told me there are so many guys who could probably have competed at that level and never got a chance.”

The highlight for McGee was pushing Greason’s wheelchair onto the field and thanking him for opening the doors for himself and all Black players. Greason also threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Ron Teasley Jr., whose father, Ron Teasley, 97, is the only other living Negro Leagues player from 1920-1948.

“Anytime you can meet history, man, what an honor,” McGee said. “People before you did things and helped push things forward. It wasn’t just one of them, it was all of them. They opened doors on every shore for people to come and play. The game is multicultural now, and you saw all kinds of (ethnic groups) in the stands.”

The Road to Rickwood was originally designed to be a tribute to the Negro Leagues, playing where Mays started his professional career with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. When Mays died Tuesday at 93, it became a glorious celebration of his life too.

“I’ve come to terms that I believe that it was for a reason,” Giants right fielder Mike Yastrzemski said, “so that he could be here spiritually. He could be here with us, and he wasn’t going to be able to make it otherwise.

“As much as it hurts to lose a legend like that, we gained an angel and a saint above us to be here for this.”

Barry Bonds, baseball’s all-time home run leader, was in too much pain to talk about his godfather. Still, he was in attendance, believing he needed to be at Rickwood to honor Mays and the Negro Leagues.

“I knew I needed to come here,” Bonds said. “This is what he would have wanted.”

Bonds even stood for 10 minutes next to Mays’ Hall of Fame plaque, inviting nearly a dozen former players to take pictures with him. They lined up as if they were kids running up to Santa Claus at the mall. Ken Griffey Jr., Pujols, Sabathia, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Dexter Fowler, LaTroy Hawkins and more all stood next to Bonds.

“It’s pretty cool being here,” Bonds said. “I appreciate what’s going on.”

The sold-out crowd of about 8,300 arrived hours before the game to see the pageantry, with Giants and Cardinals players escorting more than 50 Negro League players to seats along the baselines, led by Greason.

The St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants play at Rickwood Field, the oldest baseball stadium in America.
The St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants play at Rickwood Field, the oldest baseball stadium in America.

“That was such a thrill, so cool just to hear all of those stories,” said 37-year-old Cardinals pitcher Lance Lynn. “You know what they went through, how it all went down, and what this night meant. It was really an honor to be here.”

The teams stood and watched a six-minute video tribute to Mays on the scoreboard. They watched Mays’ son, Michael, walk onto the field, escorted by Bonds and Griffey, and speak.

Michael Mays was already in Birmingham on Tuesday when he received the news at 5 p.m. CT that his father had died. He immediately took a flight back to San Francisco, kissed his father, prayed for his soul and returned to Birmingham.

“Birmingham, I’ve been telling ya’ll if there’s any way on earth my father could come down here, that he would,” Mays said. “Well, he found another way. He already stands at your feet. Let him hear you. He’s listening.”

The crowd stood, cheered louder and louder, and then chanted, “Will-ie! Will-ie! Will-ie!”

The game was entertaining, with Giants center fielder Heliot Ramos doing his own Willie Mays’ impression with a three-run homer, while Alabama native Brendan Donovan hit a two-run homer for the Cardinals, but the game was really an afterthought, except in the standings.

The Giants and Cardinals each wore throwback Negro League uniforms, with the Giants representing the San Francisco Sea Lions and the Cardinals the St. Louis Stars. The Giants even took it a step further by wearing Black Barons jerseys and caps on the bus to the game.

“I thought it was really cool to wear the hat and the jersey on the bus,” said Giants pitcher Jordan Hicks, one of only three Black players on the two teams’ active rosters. “It’s really cool to honor him that way.”

Giants manager Bob Melvin, who grew up in the Bay Area and idolized Mays, gathered his team before the game, wanting to share his own Mays stories and inviting others to speak.

It was the first time the team had a chance to talk about Mays together since his death. They were playing a night game against the Chicago Cubs when the Giants announced Mays’ death and played a day game the following day at Wrigley Field.

“I wanted to talk about just how special he was,” Melvin said, “not only in baseball, but just in life in general. And what he meant to me, what he meant to the team, what he meant to the Bay Area, what he meant to baseball. He’s just a true icon in the world. I wanted to share a couple of stories and how special it is to be playing on this field. Basically, this field is the Holy Grail of baseball.”

While Hall of Famers Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, Jackson and Griffey roamed the field before the game, Yastrzemski slowly took an emotional walk into left field. This is where his grandfather, Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, played an exhibition game with the Boston Red Sox against the New York Yankees in 1971, and his dad, Mike, played in the minor leagues in 1986 with the Birmingham Barons, the Class AA team for the Chicago White Sox.

“It was such an honor to have that piece of history here,” Yastrzemski said, “but I do think there’s bigger things that are going on here, and there’s a bigger message that needs to be portrayed. So there’s a little piece of my enjoying that, but there’s also the bigger piece that’s understanding the historic monument of this ballpark.”

Dusty Baker, the former managerial great who was close to Mays, was not feeling well and couldn’t stay for the game, but he still left his hotel room to walk outside of Rickwood Field, take pictures, and then quickly popped into the right field bleachers to say hello to McGee.

“A lot of memories here,” said Baker, who played on the field while in the minor leagues. “I wanted to pay my respects.”

Former longtime umpire Ed Montague, who was a guest of the Giants, grew teary-eyed just walking onto the field and looking into the stands. This is where his father sat and scouted Mays, signing him for $4,000 and a $250 monthly salary with the New York Giants in June, 1950.

“I’m trying to picture him back there right now,” Montague said. “I can imagine myDad sitting back there with the other scouts wearing a fedora, a cigar in his mouth and a stopwatch in his hand.

“I remember he came down here to look at Alonzo Perry, a first baseman, and when he saw Willie at 17, he forgot about Alonzo and went after Willie. He said he almost fell out of stands watching him play.

“My Dad went to Willie’s house, and met with his dad and his aunt Sarah, had a fried chicken dinner, and signed Willie to a contract.”

This was also the first time in Major League Baseball history a game had an all-Black umpiring crew: crew chief and first base umpire Adrian Johnson; home plate umpire Alan Porter; second base umpire C.B. Bucknor; and third base umpire Malachi Moore, with Jeremie Rehak in the replay booth.

“It’s amazing, overwhelming,” said Johnson, who had never even been to Alabama. “It’s such a historic place and being able to meet some of the Negro League players. It’s a lot to take in. It was surreal.”

There have been 11 Black umpires in MLB history, and the umpiring crew honored Emmett Ashford, the first Black umpire in 1966, wearing “EA” patches.

“To be able to field five Black umpires, it’s pretty special,” said Johnson, who has never had more than one Black umpire on his crew. “Birmingham obviously has a lot of history, good and bad. But we’re focusing on the good right now.

“I think the game of baseball is kind of a healing process for a lot of people now.”

Cardinals shortstop Masyn Winn, who hit a double off the iconic left field scoreboard and scored two runs, said that he and his stepfather had to fight back tears just traveling to Birmingham to play the game.

“When I saw him this morning,” said Winn, “he was almost brought to tears just being here and being part of this. It was pretty emotional for me, a pretty special honor, being one of the only Black players out here and representing the Black community.

“There are not a lot of brothers in baseball, so I think it’s important being an inspiration not only to kids around St. Louis, but all over the world, trying to get more color in baseball.”

Cardinals infielder Brandon Crawford, who spent the first 13 years of his career in the Giants organization, brought eight members of his family to the game and wore a mic for posterity. It was the first time Crawford played against the Giants, and his first professional game at third base, and to do it at Rickwood made it surreal.

“Playing here at Rickwood, especially with Willie passing away, made this special,” Crawford said. “I know he hasn’t been doing well for a while, but it’s always sad when that day comes. You just kind of reflect on your relationship and try to think about some of the good times.”

Crawford’s favorite story, he said, was in spring training one year, with Mays talking with Giants greats Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey and Gaylord Perry.

“Somebody asked Willie what he would do when he went into a slump, how he would work his way out of it,” Crawford said. “He was like, ‘I don’t think I ever had a slump before. I think I went oh-for-4 one time.’ That was classic Willie.”

Hunter Pence, a retired two-time World Series champion with the Giants, remembers saddling up to Mays one day, and said, “Willie, I’ve got to ask you, what’s the farthest home run you ever hit?”

Replied Mays: “What the heck you talking about. It doesn’t matter how far you hit it. Hit in the first row, and it’s still a home run. You hit it too far, and you’re not going to hit as many.”

“He always really had great insights,” Pence said, “but that was one that really impacted me.”

Giants six-time All-Star first baseman Will Clark remembers a time in the late ’80s, when Mays was nearly 60 years old, when teammate Kevin Mitchell was teasing Mays while standing behind the batting cage. Mitchell was almost taunting him, as if Mays would somehow struggle to hit in today’s game.

“Willie had enough, and he said, ‘Give me a bat!’” Clark said. “I gave him my bat, and he said, I don’t want this piece of crap. So Kevin gave him his bat, which was big, 35 ounces. And the third swing, Willie hit one out over the fence in dead center.

“I said to Kevin, ‘Will you stop pissing off the best that’s ever been. He’s doing stuff at 50-something years old that we can’t do and we’re a hell of a lot younger and we play every day.”

The stories continued throughout the day and night, and as the Giants left Rickwood to board team buses for the airport, several still wore their Birmingham Black Baron jerseys.

“I’m sure he’s here,” Michael Mays said. “He figured out a way to be the center of attention like he always did. He’s the star of the show.

“Hey, he’s Willie Mays.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB pays tribute to Willie Mays, Negro Leagues at Rickwood Field