Remembering Willie Mays: A Baseball Legend

The Passing of a Legend

Willie Mays, an inner-circle baseball great, passed away at the age of 93. The timing of his departure came just two days before he was set to be honored at Birmingham's Rickwood Field, a place deeply embedded in his storied career.

Mays' big-league baseball career had its early moments at Rickwood Field. In an event intended to be a celebration of Mays, Rickwood, and the Negro Leagues, the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals will play a game at Rickwood Field on Thursday evening. The event would have been a testament to Mays’ enduring legacy, and up until recently, there was hope that he would attend. However, on Monday, Mays informed the San Francisco Chronicle that he would not be able to make it, and sadly, on Tuesday, he passed away.

Despite his absence, the upcoming evening will still be rich with appreciations, memories, and tales of Mays' brilliance. His journey to baseball greatness began at Rickwood Field, and it is fitting that baseball says goodbye to him at the same venue.

The Early Years

Willie Mays was born in 1931 during the Great Depression, growing up in the mill towns outside Birmingham. Even in his early years, he was a gifted multi-sport athlete, showing prowess not just in baseball but in various other sports as well. He played outfield alongside his father for a local team and later for a semi-pro outfit before being noticed by Piper Davis, the manager of the Birmingham Black Barons.

The Unconventional Path

At the age of 16, Mays was signed by the Black Barons. His father, however, insisted that he finish high school, which meant that Mays could only participate in the Black Barons' weekend home games at Rickwood Field. He debuted in the second game of a doubleheader, playing left field and batting seventh, where he managed two hits against Chet Brewer. A fortuitous broken leg by center fielder Bobby Robinson allowed Mays to play center field, a position where he would eventually become a legend.

Scouting the Prodigy

Rickwood Field's expansive outfield provided the perfect setting for Mays to display his exceptional abilities. Scouts were increasingly drawn to the Negro Leagues following Jackie Robinson's groundbreaking debut in 1947. Mays played 10 games for the Black Barons, exhibiting a .233/.313/.326 batting average. Although his numbers might seem modest, the 10 hits Mays accumulated at Rickwood Field are included in his official Major League Baseball stats.

The Black Barons were a formidable team in 1948 with a 63-28-2 record, edging out the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro American League Series. Mays had seven hits and six walks during that series, although the Black Barons eventually lost to the Homestead Grays in the Negro League World Series. Even playing just once a week, Mays gave glimpses of his prodigious talent.

The Legacy of Greatness

Willie Mays’ first 10 major-league hits came at Rickwood Field, and it is fitting that the baseball world will honor him at this same historic venue. "It'll be a special day, and I hope the kids will enjoy it and be inspired by it," Mays once said. Indeed, Rickwood Field, the oldest professional ballpark in the United States and once the home of the Birmingham Black Barons, holds an enormous place in Mays' heart.

The event is scheduled around Juneteenth next year, designed to honor Hall of Famer, Giants legend, and Birmingham native Willie Mays. "It has been 75 years since I played for the Birmingham Black Barons at Rickwood Field, and to learn that my Giants and the Cardinals will play a game there and honor the legacy of the Negro Leagues and all those who came before them is really emotional for me. We can't forget what got us here and that was the Negro Leagues for so many of us," Mays had expressed emotionally.

Mays’ legacy and memories will resonate powerfully at Rickwood Field during the event. Fans and players alike will gather to honor the enduring spirit of one of baseball's greatest heroes, celebrating his monumental contributions to the sport and the profound impact he had on the game of baseball.