Rickwood’s festivities celebrate Negro League great Willie Mays

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – As Ajay Stone walked around historic Rickwood Field and gazed at the tributes displayed in honor of Willie Mays and other members of the Negro League, he held a cherished memory under his arm.

It was a photo from 2004 of Mays holding Stone’s 10-month-old daughter, Hailey, who was wearing San Francisco Giants gear. Mace had a piece of chocolate cake in his hand, and was handing it to Haley to eat.

“Willie gave her this cookie,” Stone recalls. “She didn’t have teeth. But we took the cookies and kept them in her stroller for a year and a half. The great Willie Mays gave them to her, so it was special to us.”

Stone and his wife, Christina, traveled from Charlotte, North Carolina, to be in Birmingham, Alabama, on Thursday for a moment they considered quite special.

It was hours before Rickwood Field hosted its first Major League Baseball game, between the Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals. The game, which MLB called a “Salute to the Negro Leagues,” was intended to honor the legacy of Mays and other black baseball greats who left a lasting mark on the sport.

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

You could hear the celebration at Rickwood Field on Thursday even before you arrived: the rapid beating of a drum echoing from inside the stadium, the excited murmurs of fans jumping to the music and frequent explosions of laughter.

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Inside, there were reminders of history everywhere.

There were photos and artifacts of Baseball Hall of Famers who played at the 114-year-old stadium, including Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. The original clubhouse of the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, where Mays made his professional debut in 1948, was inaugurated. There was a memorial to Mays on the front, with bobbleheads, an autographed glove, and Black Barons and San Francisco Giants jerseys on display.

Outside, fans stood in line to hold a baseball bat used by Mays in 1959. They took photos sitting inside an original 1947 bus that was typically used during pitching innings by Negro League teams. They danced to live music and ate from concession stands that featured menu boards designed to reflect the look and feel of the 1940s.

Eddie Torres and his son Junior wore matching Giants jerseys while taking photos inside the stadium. They are lifelong Giants fans who came from California to attend the game.

“I never got to see Willie Mays play, but as a Giants fan, you know what he means to the game of baseball,” Torres said. “My son, he’s only 11 years old. Willie Mays had such a big impact on the game that he even knew who Willie Mays was.”

Musical artist Jon Batiste played guitar while dancing on a wooden stage near home plate just before the first pitch. Fans stood as former Negro Leaguers were helped onto the field for a pregame ceremony.

Shouts of “Woe! Willie!” She broke out after a short moment of silence.

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For Michael Jackson, sitting in the stands at Rickwood Field was a reminder of the past.

Jackson, 71, played baseball in the 1970s and 1980s with the East Thomas Eagles of the Birmingham Industrial League, a semi-professional league made up of iron and steel workers that was a primary form of entertainment in Birmingham in the 20th century.

Jackson’s baseball journey took him to Rickwood Field several times. After all these years, he was excited that it was still standing.

“It’s nice to see them bringing it all back, instead of tearing it down. We played in the same stadium they named Willie Mays in Fairfield,” he said. [Alabama]. And then I spent my time here playing on this field. “It’s all very exciting.”

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