A Tribute to Willie Mays and the Negro Leagues at Rickwood Field

Ajay Stone strolled around historic Rickwood Field, taking in the tributes displayed in honor of Willie Mays and other Negro League legends. Under his arm, he clutched a cherished memory: a 2004 photograph of Mays holding Stone's then-10-month-old daughter, Haley, who was wearing San Francisco Giants gear. In the photograph, Mays is handing over a chunk of a chocolate chip cookie for Haley to eat.

Stone and his wife, Christina, had traveled from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Birmingham, Alabama, for a moment they deemed just as special. Hours before Rickwood Field hosted its first Major League Baseball game between the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, the atmosphere was electric. The event, titled "A Tribute to the Negro Leagues," was meant to honor the legacies of Mays and other Black baseball greats who left an enduring mark on the sport.

Tributes and Tears: Honoring Willie Mays

MLB planned a week of activities centered around Mays and the Negro Leagues, including the unveiling of a Willie Mays mural in downtown Birmingham on Wednesday. These tributes took on an even more significant meaning when Mays died at 93 on Tuesday afternoon. As news of his death spread throughout Birmingham, celebrations of his life intensified.

The atmosphere at Rickwood Field that Thursday was electrifying even before fans arrived at the ballpark. The rapid thumping of a drum echoed from inside the stadium, while excited murmurs and frequent bursts of laughter from the fans foreshadowed the event's grandeur. Inside, history was ever-present. Photos and artifacts of baseball Hall of Famers who had played at the 114-year-old ballpark, including Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige, adorned the walls.

The original clubhouse of the Birmingham Black Barons, where Mays began his professional career in 1948, was open. A memorial for Mays at the front showcased his bobbleheads, a signed glove, and his Black Barons and San Francisco Giants jerseys. The legacy of Willie Mays had visibly come to life.

Fans Relive History

Outside the ballpark, fans stood in line to hold a baseball bat used by Mays in 1959 and took photos inside an original bus from 1947, typically used during barnstorming tours by Negro League teams. Fans danced to live music and enjoyed food from concession stands featuring menu boards designed to reflect the look and feel of the 1940s.

Eddie Torres and his son, Junior, wore matching Giants jerseys as they took pictures inside the ballpark. Lifelong Giants fans, they had traveled from California for the game. Just before the first pitch, musical artist Jon Batiste strummed a guitar while dancing on a wooden stage near home plate.

Former Negro Leaguers were helped to the field for a pregame ceremony, and shouts of "Willie! Willie!" broke out following a brief moment of silence. The crowd's enthusiasm underscored the deep emotional connection fans felt with Mays.

Echoes of the Past

Michael Jackson, sitting in the stands, was reminded of the past. Jackson had played baseball in the 1970s and '80s with the East Thomas Eagles of the Birmingham Industrial League. His baseball journey had taken him to Rickwood Field many times, and he was excited to see that it was still standing.

"It's nice seeing them redo all of this instead of tearing it down," Jackson said. "We played in the same ballpark they named after Willie Mays out in Fairfield, Alabama. I had my times out here playing at this ballpark. It's all very exciting."

Memories and Reflections

Ajay Stone reflected on his memories with Mays. "Willie gave her that cookie. She had no teeth. But we took the cookie, and we 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," he recalled.

Another fan shared, "I never even got to see Willie Mays play, but as a Giants fan, you knew what he meant to the game of baseball." Eddie Torres added, "The legacy of Willie Mays transcends generations. My son, he's only 11. Willie Mays had such an effect on the game that even he knew who Willie Mays was."

As the game commenced and the crowd cheered, Rickwood Field transformed into something more than just a ballpark. It became a living museum, a time capsule capturing the essence of a bygone era while honoring the life and legacy of one of baseball's greatest icons, Willie Mays.