At Rickwood Field, Willie Mays Is the Star of the Show, One More Time

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Earlier this week, as Major League Baseball prepared for a tribute game in his hometown Birmingham, Ala., Willie Mays said that age would keep him away but that he would be watching from afar.

“Rickwood Field is where I played my first home game, and playing there was it — everything I wanted,” he said in a statement to The San Francisco Chronicle.

Mays died the next day, at 93, and as fans walked into the ballpark on Thursday, it felt like he was there in spirit, watching from afar.

“I’m sure he’s here,” said his son, Michael Mays, who rushed to California from Alabama to pray over his father’s body and then returned in time for the game. “He figured out a way to be the center of attention like he always did. He’s the star of the show. He’s Willie Mays.”

His death added poignancy to M.L.B.’s celebration of the Negro leagues at Rickwood Field — the nation’s oldest professional ballpark, where Mays got his start as a professional — and to the game between the San Francisco Giants, Mays’s old team, and the St. Louis Cardinals.

In a pregame ceremony, a video tribute played before Michael Mays told the crowd, “Let him hear you,” and the crowd broke out chanting: “Willie! Willie!” Seated on the field were veterans of the Negro leagues, men in their 80s and 90s who had been led into the ballpark by the current ballplayers, steadying their arms or pushing their wheelchairs.

“There were things that happened in this ballpark that people need to know about,” said Mike Yastrzemski, an outfielder for the Giants. “They need to know about where Willie came from because he left a legacy in the game that is also so far beyond the game.”

In 1948, when his professional career began at Rickwood Field, Mays was not yet the Say Hey Kid, the stylish and charismatic baseball star who commanded the nation’s attention a few years after Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier, even as segregation maintained its grip on the Deep South, where he came from.

Mays was 17, and his teammates called him Buck. And he was so fast that when he made his debut as a center fielder for the Birmingham Black Barons, the manager told the corner outfielders only to worry about the space between where they were standing and the foul lines. Everything else, he said, was Willie Mays’s territory.

Yastrzemski said he had been contemplating the meaning of the timing of Mays’s death, which he learned about while his team was playing a game in Chicago.

“I’ve come to terms that I believe that it was for a reason, 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,” he said. “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.”

The idea for a major league game at Rickwood Field, which was built in 1910 — two years before Fenway Park in Boston opened — arose after M.L.B. hosted a game in 2021 in a cornfield in Dyersville, Iowa, where the movie “Fields of Dreams” was filmed. Gerald Watkins, the executive director of the Friends of Rickwood, the nonprofit organization that manages the ballpark, began lobbying M.L.B. to bring a game to Birmingham.

“This is a real field of dreams,” Watkins said. “It’s not a movie site. And I envision Willie Mays standing in the outfield with a big smile on his face, thinking, ‘Maybe I can get to the big leagues someday.’”

Not that Rickwood doesn’t have Hollywood connections of its own. In the early 1990s, the ballpark was largely vacant and falling into disrepair after the minor league team, the Birmingham Barons, had left for a more modern ballpark.

Just then, Ron Shelton, the filmmaker behind “Bull Durham,” was looking for a place to film his next baseball movie, a biopic about Ty Cobb, who was among the many famous baseball players who had come through Rickwood for exhibition games and barnstorming tours. (According to Watkins’s research, 182 of the 273 players in the Hall of Fame have played at Rickwood, including Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.)

Shelton settled on Rickwood, and the exposure and investments from the film, including a new press box, helped efforts to secure the ballpark’s future.

Commercials for Baby Ruth candy bars, and for cigars, followed, as did other movies, including “42,” about the life of Jackie Robinson.

Sometimes the community was involved in these projects. When “42” was filmed, for example, local residents were invited to pack the stands wearing the fashions of the time.

“I have had an opportunity to book a wedding,” Watkins said. “I’ve had an opportunity to turn down a horse show.”

For Yastrzemski, playing at Rickwood was also special because of his family’s connection to the ballpark. His father played there as a minor leaguer, and so did his grandfather, the Hall of Fame outfielder Carl Yastrzemski, who spent his entire career with the Boston Red Sox and was the last player to get a hit off Paige, the Negro leagues legend. Walking into Rickwood, he said, “the memories feel like they are coming to life.”

In the old clubhouse at Rickwood, which Black teams were not allowed to use in Mays’s time, a shrine to the legend took up three lockers and was stuffed with mementos from his career — old uniforms, scorecards, bats and cleats.

“He was my hero, and my grandfather is what made him my hero,” said Ken Haar, 75, who was visiting the shrine with his daughter, Renee. The timing of Mays’s death, he said, “was really poignant that it happened right now — like a miracle.”

That the ballpark has survived this long, while so many others of the era were demolished, is not only a result of the community’s love. As the coal and steel industries that propelled the local economy declined, and jobs disappeared, the area around the ballpark fell on hard times.

“The ballpark was built on a side of town that was greatly affected by white flight, and the steel mills’ demise,” Watkins said, adding: “As the neighborhood went down, the ballpark was going down with it. And there was no hue and cry to come out here and do developments. There was no need for a mall, for parking, and it was going to sit here.”

There is a famous picture that hangs at Rickwood: Birmingham Black Barons players celebrating after winning the Negro American League championship in 1948. Willie Mays’s teenage face peeks out from behind his jubilant teammates. With his death, it is believed that the only person in that picture who is still around is the Rev. William H. Greason, 99, who entered the ministry after his playing days and has been preaching in Birmingham for more than a half-century.

He was at Rickwood on Thursday and threw out the ceremonial first pitch. It was his first time watching a game at the park since, he said, “wayyyy back yonder.”

“We just wanted to play — play baseball,” he said in an interview. “And we had the talents and the gifts to play.”



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