Willie Mays' memory will live forever, starting with Rickwood Field tribute

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — There were gasps, there were tears, and then there was sheer silence.

Fans were walking around the plaza at Rickwood Field, gawking at the photos and images of Negro League legends, when the sobering news slowly sifted out Tuesday night before it was eventually announced to the crowd watching the Montgomery Gray Sox and Birmingham Black Barons minor-league game.

The crowd moaned, slowly rosed to their feet, and then kept cheering, chanting his name over and over.

The great Willie Mays, at the age of 93, passed away.

“Isn’t it ironic?’’ said Dusty Baker, the managing great and longtime friend of Mays, “that while the eyes of the entire baseball world is on Birmingham, Willie passes.’’

Baker, who just celebrated his 75th birthday on Saturday, spent Monday afternoon visiting Mays at his home in the San Francisco area. Along with former San Francisco Giants public address announcer Renel Brooks-Moon, they were two of the last people to see Mays alive.

“There’s just something that told me to go see him,’’ Baker told USA TODAY Sports. “My dad used to always tell me that if you’re thinking of someone, don’t put it off. You don’t know if you’ll see them again.

“Well, I went to see him, and thank God I did.’’

Baker paused, knowing just how much Mays meant to him, the Giants, and the baseball world, while still trying to grasp that he is gone.

“I think about Tupac,’’ Baker said. “Death is around the corner. I could kind of feel it [Monday] a little bit.’’

Willie Mays waves to the crowd while riding in a car during the 2012 World Series victory parade.
Willie Mays waves to the crowd while riding in a car during the 2012 World Series victory parade.

Major League Baseball will honor Mays and the Negro Leagues on Thursday at Rickwood Field with the first MLB game — scheduled Thursday between the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals — at the 110-year-old park where Mays debuted with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. Mays, who had been confined to his home for a year, knew all along he would not be healthy enough to attend the game, but along with close friend Jeff Bleich, penned a letter Monday to the city of Birmingham.

Baker, who arrived in Birmingham on Tuesday, was scheduled to deliver the emotional message to the city of Birmingham at the unveiling of a Mays’ mural Wednesday. Mays also wanted to have an old clock that he owned, perhaps 40 years old, presented to a young fan.

“I’m sure going to miss him, we all are,’’ says Baker. “He had this big old golf ball muscle in his hands. He and Hank Aaron both. Strong handshake.

“He was something, wasn’t he?’’

Mays was the inspiration behind the Rickwood Game, home of the Birmingham Black Barons, where Mays spent his first three years of professional baseball before joining the New York Giants and becoming one of the game’s greatest players.

Mays, who spent 21 of his 23-season Hall of Fame career playing for the Giants in New York and San Francisco, hit 660 home runs, produced 3,283 hits, made 24 All-Star appearances, won 12 Gold Glove awards.

Mays have been just one of 59 former Negro League Players honored, including only three from the golden era of 1920-1948, but he was the centerpiece of the festivities and tributes.

“On behalf of the Gibson family and the Josh Gibson Foundation, I join the entire baseball community in passing along our condolences to the many friends and family of the great Willie Mays,’’ Sean Gibson, great grandson of Hall of Famer Josh Gibson, said in a statement after attending the game. “His impact on the game of baseball was immeasurable.

“During this special week at Rickwood Field intended to celebrate Willie and the Negro Leagues, myself and all of the members of the Negro Leagues Family Alliance are resolved to continue our work to preserve the powerful legacies of Willie Mays and so many great Negro Leagues players.’’

Major League Baseball officials, along with several former stars like CC Sabathia, were stunned by the news, with many left speechless. Those who chose to talk were filled with emotion.

“I’m at a loss for words,’’ Hall of Fame center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. said. “I’m devasted. Heartbroken. Numb. I’ve been lucky enough to know Willie since I was a little kid. And my appreciation only grew over time. From the stories, the videos and then meeting him.

“He was a true giant off and on the field. A person I looked up to and respected. A friend. And someone I could call when I needed to talk who always had time for me, and my best interests in mind. I considered him an uncle, and, to me, he’ll always be the Godfather of all center fielders.”

Said President Barack Obama, who honored Mays with the Congressional Medal of Freedom: “Willie Mays wasn’t just a singular athlete, blessed with an unmatched combination of grace, skill and power. He was also a wonderfully warm and generous person - and an inspiration to an entire generation.’’

Mays, who had been the oldest living Baseball Hall of Famer, might be gone, but his memory will live forever, while his legacy will be celebrated at Rickwood Field the next two days in front of the baseball world.

“It’s sure something that it worked out this way, isn’t it?’’ Baker said. “Willie’s presence here will be stronger than ever.’’

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Willie Mays dies on eve of celebration of Negro Leagues legacy