Celebrations Honor Willie Mays and Negro League Players Ahead of MLB Game at Rickwood Field

Willie Mays Tribute

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Ajay Stone wandered through historic Rickwood Field, admiring tributes to Willie Mays and other Negro League legends while holding a treasured memory—a 2004 photo of Mays with Stone’s then-10-month-old daughter, Haley, wearing San Francisco Giants gear. In the picture, Mays is handing Haley a chunk of a chocolate chip cookie.

“Willie gave her that cookie. She had no teeth,” Stone recalled. “We kept that cookie in her stroller for a year and a half. The great Willie Mays gave it to her, so it was special to us.”

Stone and his wife Christina traveled from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Birmingham, Alabama, for a moment they considered equally special. Hours before Rickwood Field hosted its first MLB game, the St. Louis Cardinals edged the Giants 6-5. MLB dubbed the event “A Tribute to the Negro Leagues” to honor Mays and other Black baseball icons.

A week of activities was planned around Mays and the Negro Leagues, including a mural unveiling on Wednesday in downtown Birmingham. These tributes gained more significance when Mays died at 93 on Tuesday. As news of his passing spread, celebrations of his life intensified.

Rickwood Field was alive with the sounds of celebration on Thursday. Drumming echoed, fans eagerly approached the music, and laughter filled the air.

Inside the ballpark, history was on display with photos and artifacts of Hall of Famers like Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige. The original clubhouse of the Birmingham Black Barons, where Mays began his pro career in 1948, was open with a memorial showcasing Mays’ memorabilia, including bobbleheads, a signed glove, and jerseys from the Black Barons and Giants.

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Outside, fans lined up to hold a bat used by Mays in 1959 and posed for pictures in a 1947 bus used by Negro League teams. Live music, dancing, and concession stands with a 1940s theme added to the festive atmosphere.

Eddie Torres and his son Junior, in matching Giants jerseys, traveled from California for the game. “I never saw Willie Mays play, but as a Giants fan, you knew his impact,” Torres said. “My 11-year-old son even knows who Willie Mays was.”

Musician Jon Batiste performed near home plate before the first pitch. Fans stood for a pregame ceremony honoring former Negro Leaguers, followed by a brief moment of silence, then shouts of “Willie! Willie!”

For 71-year-old Michael Jackson, sitting in the stands was a nostalgic experience. Jackson, who played baseball in the 1970s and 80s with the East Thomas Eagles of the Birmingham Industrial League, reminisced about his time at Rickwood Field.

“It’s nice seeing them re-do all of this instead of tearing it down,” Jackson said. “We played in the same ballpark named after Willie Mays in Fairfield. It’s all very exciting.”

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