MLB at Rickwood Field: Baseball's latest jewel event was an opportunity to honor the past, celebrate Willie Mays where it all began

Rickwood Field was the pinnacle of the sport for a young Willie Mays, but as Reggie Jackson reminded us, not all the memories are good ones

Over the past decade, Major League Baseball has put significant effort into expanding the reach of its teams and players by staging a number of spring training and regular-season games in unique locations around the country, as well as iconic stadiums around the globe. Whether it be fictional hallowed ground like the Field of Dreams amidst the Iowa cornfields or the Little League Classic in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, MLB has gone to extraordinary lengths to construct big-league-caliber environments to allow these showcase games to take place, and the results have consistently been memorable. Beyond U.S. borders, we’ve seen regular-season games in Australia, Mexico, Japan, England and, most recently, South Korea.

One of the primary purposes of these “jewel” events is to bring big-league baseball to places that rarely get to witness the highest level of our sport or never have before. But in the case of the latest edition of such an event — the regular-season game played between the Giants and Cardinals at Rickwood Field, America’s oldest ballpark — the dynamic was practically the opposite. This was far from an introduction of the world’s best baseball to a new stage or audience; rather, it was a return to a place that has more history than nearly any other ballpark on the planet. So, while Thursday’s game was technically the first-ever regular-season MLB game played in the state of Alabama, it was hardly the first time Rickwood Field has hosted the sport’s very best. It had just been a while.

Since Rickwood Field hosted its first ballgame in 1910, more than half of the 351 elected members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame have appeared in a game on the historic grounds as a player, manager, or umpire. This includes decades of Negro Leagues games primarily featuring the iconic Birmingham Black Barons, as well as minor-league games that stretch much closer to the present and countless exhibitions and barnstorming affairs that hosted nearly every legend of yesteryear, from Babe Ruth to Roberto Clemente and numerous superstars in between. Most notably, Rickwood Field is where Willie Mays made his professional debut with the Black Barons as a 17-year-old in 1948. While Mays’ death at the age of 93 earlier this week cast a somber shadow on Thursday’s proceedings, it also motivated those involved to elevate the appreciation of Mays’ life and legendary career even further.

For a league that has demonstrated a drive to push forward toward new frontiers for its sport, the opportunity — if not responsibility — to look backward with an event such as this was particularly powerful. And with the recent news of MLB’s ongoing process of adding Negro Leagues stats to the league’s official record books, Thursday’s game in Birmingham was a beautiful setting in which to further highlight and celebrate the legendary careers of Black players of the era. Several of those players — including 99-year-old Bill Greason, the oldest living Negro Leaguer — were on hand in Birmingham for the pregame ceremonies.

While we all benefit from learning more about the lives and on-field accomplishments of players who starred in the Negro Leagues, looking back at a place and time when games were regularly taking place at Rickwood Field — the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s in the heart of the Jim Crow South — is not an entirely pleasant exercise. Returning to a place rooted in harrowing history that occurred in the not-so-distant past brings up a wealth of emotions for many of the players and people involved. For an event such as this to be executed properly and authentically, it is wholly necessary to acknowledge that.

On the pregame show Thursday, Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson shared his visceral, painful memories of the horrific racism he endured while playing with the Birmingham A’s in 1967. Then a minor leaguer in his second professional season, Jackson was subjected to routine mistreatment and prejudice at public establishments, repeated threats to his safety and vile acts of racist violence during his summer playing for Kansas City’s Double-A affiliate. While there was much to celebrate about MLB’s presence in Birmingham this week, Jackson’s brutally honest reflections and the emotions he shared provided a vital reminder that not all the memories are good ones.

But as a baseball venue, Rickwood Field has withstood the test of time. A landmark of the sport for more than 100 years, it has now been restored and refreshed to allow future generations to connect with its rich history hosting some of the greatest to ever play the game. Which brings us back to Mays.

While we all wish we could’ve seen the Say Hey Kid return to the ballpark where it all began for him, the statement Mays released through the Giants just days before his passing went a long way in communicating his reverence for Rickwood as a uniquely special venue.

“The first big thing I ever put my mind to was to play at Rickwood Field,” he said. “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.”

For a young Mays, born and raised in nearby Fairfield, Alabama, Rickwood was the pinnacle of the profession to which he aspired. And before he even turned 18, the supremely gifted outfielder achieved that matter-of-fact goal he laid out.

“Rickwood Field is where I played my first home game,” he said, “and playing there was IT; everything I wanted.”

It was all Mays wanted. Yet remarkably, it was also only the beginning. Three years later, Mays made his MLB debut with the New York Giants, a little more than four years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Mays’ iconic career spanned two coasts over two decades, with 660 home runs mixed in along the way.

Fifty years after Mays’ final season in 1973, MLB announced plans for his Giants to play a regular-season game at Rickwood Field in 2024. At the time, Mays released a statement expressing his excitement:

"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. 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."

This year, as the event drew closer, Mays again shared his enthusiasm about Rickwood’s return to the spotlight.

“I'm glad that the Giants, Cardinals and MLB are doing this, letting everyone get to see pro ball at Rickwood Field,” he said. “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?”

Those final few sentences hit especially hard in the wake of Mays’ death. But he was absolutely right. It was wonderful to see a spotlight on a place that meant so much to him, a place that hosted so many great games over the years. And it was good to remind the world of all the great ball players who have passed through Rickwood Field over the past 114 years — none of them greater than Mays himself.