MLB pays powerful tribute to Willie Mays and other Negro League stars

Birmingham, Alabama - Major League Baseball paid tribute to Negro League stars, including legend Willie Mays who died on Tuesday at age 93, with a regular-season game on Thursday in Birmingham, Alabama.

Baseball fans paid tribute to Willie Mays in a special game at Alabama's Rickwood Field on Thursday – two days after the legendary player passed away.
Baseball fans paid tribute to Willie Mays in a special game at Alabama's Rickwood Field on Thursday – two days after the legendary player passed away.  © Collage: USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Connect

The San Francisco Giants, the club where Mays became a legend, faced the St. Louis Cardinals at historic Rickwood Field, the oldest US ballpark dating to 1910 and the venue for the last Negro League contest in October 1948.

"Today feels like it's a little bit bigger than baseball," Cardinals shortstop Masyn Winn said. "My emotions are running so high."

Black players were not allowed to compete in MLB until 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by starting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, although he and other Black pioneers endured racist taunts and threats for years as they fought for respect and equality.

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The game was part of Juneteenth holiday festivities by MLB, which announced earlier this season it was incorporating Negro League statistics into MLB history, and was scheduled before the death of Mays, who is from Birmingham.

Mays began his career as a 17-year-old player in the Negro Leagues playing at Rickwood for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948.

"It's great for the game of baseball," said former Giants slugger Barry Bonds, MLB's all-time home run king and the godson of Mays.

"It was a time that occurred in our history. You don't erase history no matter what. Today in integrating everything, now I feel like we're all MLB players together."

MLB standout Ken Griffey Jr. said it was great to play on the fields where Black players starred in an era when they were not allowed into MLB.

"It's important," Griffey said. "It's a major step in the right direction."

Mays served in the US Army from 1952-53 and won his only World Series title in 1954 with the Giants, when he was the National League batting champion.

Willie Mays celebrated in historic fashion at Rickwood Field

A tribute to the Negro Leagues stands outside Rickwood Field, the oldest baseball stadium in America.
A tribute to the Negro Leagues stands outside Rickwood Field, the oldest baseball stadium in America.  © USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Connect

Mays hit 660 career home runs, averaging .301 with 1,909 runs batted in and 3,293 hits. Mays was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.

"It really (stinks) that it happened two days before we're playing at Rickwood Field, but we’re going to play in his honor," Giants pitcher Logan Webb said of Mays' death. "Willie is kind of 'The Giant.' He's the guy. It's going to be awesome and emotional. I’m excited to be a part of it."

Reggie Jackson, a five-time World Series champion and Hall of Famer, called Mays "(Mikhail) Baryshnikov on the baseball field" in comparison to the legendary European dancer.

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Mays made one of the most iconic plays in baseball history in the 1954 World Series, racing away from the infield and catching a long fly ball with his back to the plate, a move simply called "The Catch."

"Thursday’s game at historic Rickwood Field was designed to be a celebration of Willie Mays and his peers," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. "With sadness in our hearts, it will now also serve as a national remembrance of an American who will forever remain on the short list of the most impactful individuals our great game has ever known."

Fans chanted "Willie, Willie" in a pre-game tribute to Mays.

Wynn, batting .203 to lead all MLB rookies, was thrilled at the moment.

"I'm so happy to see the players from the Negro Leagues get honored the way they have today," he said. "I'm sad it took this long but happy for them. It's incredible. Just to have a conversation with them feels amazing."

The game was overseen by the first all-Black umpire crew in MLB history.

Cover photo: Collage: USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Connect

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