Rickwood festivities celebrate Willie Mays, a Negro Leagues legend

Birmingham, Ala. — As Ajay Stone strolled around historic Rickwood Field, looking at the tributes to Willie Mays and other Negro League players, he clutched a cherished memory under his arm.

A 2004 photo of Mays holding Stone’s then-10-month-old daughter, Haley, wearing San Francisco Giants gear. Mace had a chocolate chip cookie in her hand, which she gave Haley to eat.

“Willie gave her that cookie,” Stone recalled. “She had no teeth. But we got the cookie and kept it in her stroller for a year and a half. Big Willie Mays gave it to her, and it was special to us.”

Stone and his wife Christina traveled from Charlotte, North Carolina to Birmingham, Alabama on Thursday.

Rickwood Field is just hours away from hosting its first Major League Baseball game, between the Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals. The game, which MLB called “a tribute to the Negro Leagues,” was meant to honor the legacies of Mays and other black baseball legends who left a lasting mark on the game.

MLB planned a week of activities around Mays and the Negro Leagues, including the unveiling of a Willie Mays mural in downtown Birmingham on Wednesday. Those tributes took on even greater meaning when Mays died Tuesday afternoon at age 93. As news of his death spread across Birmingham, celebrations of his life mounted.

You could hear the celebration at Rickwood Field on Thursday before you even arrived: the rapid thump of drums echoing from inside the ballpark, the excited murmurs of fans jumping to the music, and often bursts of laughter.

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Inside, all around were reminders of history.

There were photos and artifacts of baseball Hall of Famers who played in the 114-year-old ballpark, including Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. Birmingham was the original clubhouse of the Black Boys of the Negro Leagues, where Mays made his pro debut in 1948. Mays’ memorabilia was out front, with bobbleheads, a signed glove and his Black Barons and San Francisco Giants jerseys on display.

Outside, fans lined up to grab the baseball bat Mays used in 1959. They took photos sitting inside the original 1947 bus, which was commonly used during barnstorming tours by Negro Leagues teams. They danced to live music and ate food from concession stands with menu boards designed to reflect the look and feel of the 1940s.

Eddie Torres and his son Jr. wore matching Giants jerseys as they posed for photos inside the ballpark. They were lifelong Giants fans who came from California for the game.

“I’ve never seen Willie Mays play, but as a Giants fan, you know what he means to the game of baseball,” Torres said. “My son, he’s 11. Willie Mays made an impact on the game, he knows who Willie Mays is.”

Musician John Bautista 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 the first-pitch ceremony.

Willie! Willie! After a moment of silence it broke up.

For Michael Jackson, sitting in the stands at Rickwood Field reminded him of the past.

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Jackson, 71, played baseball in the 1970s and ’80s with the East Thomas Eagles of the Birmingham Industrial League, a semi-professional league made up of iron and steel workers that was an integral form of recreation in Birmingham. 20th century.

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

“It’s nice to see them do it all over again,” he said, “and instead of tearing it down, we played in the same ballpark named after Willie Mays in Fairfield. [Alabama]. And then I spent time here playing bowling. It’s very exciting.”

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