Honoring Willie Mays at Rickwood Field

Ajay Stone strolled around historic Rickwood Field, gazing at tributes displayed in honor of Willie Mays and other Negro Leaguers. Clutched under his arm was a cherished memory: a picture from 2004 of Mays holding Stone's then-10-month-old daughter Haley, who was wearing San Francisco Giants gear. In Mays' hand was a chunk of a chocolate chip cookie, which he was handing over 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 later, Rickwood Field hosted its first Major League Baseball game between the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, an event MLB called "A Tribute to the Negro Leagues." The game 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 around Mays and the Negro Leagues, including an unveiling ceremony on Wednesday of a Willie Mays mural in downtown Birmingham. These tributes took on more significant meaning Tuesday afternoon when Mays died at 93. As news of his death spread throughout Birmingham, celebrations of his life ramped up.

The atmosphere at Rickwood Field on Thursday was electrifying even before arriving at the ballpark. The rapid thumping of a drum echoing from inside the park, excited murmurs from fans skipping toward the music, and frequent bursts of laughter foreshadowed the event's grandeur.

A Living Museum

Inside, reminders of history were all around. Photos and artifacts of baseball Hall of Famers who 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 of the Negro Leagues, where Mays got his pro start in 1948, was open. A memorial of Mays was at the front, with bobbleheads, a signed glove, and his Black Barons and San Francisco Giants jerseys on display.

Fans Relive History

Outside, fans stood in line to hold a baseball bat used by Mays in 1959, and took photos sitting inside an original bus from 1947. This bus was typically used during barnstorming tours by Negro Leagues teams. Fans danced to live music and ate 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. They are lifelong Giants fans who came from California for the game. Musical artist Jon Batiste strummed a guitar while dancing on a wooden stage near home plate just before the first pitch. Fans stood as former Negro Leaguers were helped to the field for a pregame ceremony. Shouts of "Willie! Willie!" broke out after a brief moment of silence.

Echoes of the Past

Michael Jackson, sitting in the stands at Rickwood Field, was reminded of the past. Jackson played baseball in the 1970s and 80s with the East Thomas Eagles of the Birmingham Industrial League. Jackson's baseball journey took him to Rickwood Field many times, and he was just excited that it's 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 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 said.

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, it was clear that Rickwood Field was more than just a ballpark for that evening. It was 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.