July 19, 2024

Cardinals’ Willie McGee savors his brush with baseball history: ‘They deserve this’

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The most important pitch of Major League Baseball’s game Thursday night in tribute to the Negro Leagues did not take place during the St. Louis Cardinals’ 6-5 win over the San Francisco Giants.

It occurred roughly 20 minutes beforehand, when Rev. Bill Greason, a former Birmingham Black Baron and the first Black pitcher signed by the Cardinals, walked onto the field. Greason, a long-time Birmingham resident, and at 99 years old, the oldest living Negro Leagues player, stood a few feet in front of home plate. On his right stood Giants outfielder LaMonte Wade Jr. On his left stood Cardinals coach Willie McGee. Behind the plate was Ron Teasley Jr., the son of Ron Teasley, the only other surviving player to have competed in the Negro Leagues era from 1920-1948.

Greason palmed the baseball — hand-delivered by Hall of Famer Derek Jeter — began his windup and delivered. When the ball crossed home plate, the crowd at historic Rickwood Field erupted in applause and appreciation.

Greason debuted for the Cardinals on May 31, 1954. His ceremonial first pitch Thursday was the perfect dedication to MLB’s first Negro Leagues tribute game, designed to commemorate the deep history entrenched in the ballpark and the players who filled it. The emotional event left McGee, a Cardinals Hall of Famer, a four-time All-Star and the 1985 National League MVP, at a loss for words.

“I’ve had a lot of things happen in my career,” McGee said. “A World Series, All-Star games, personal stuff. I’m telling you, this …”

McGee’s voice trailed off as he reflected on the magnitude of the day. He spent the morning gathered with former Negro Leagues players at the Negro Southern League Museum. He swapped stories, inquiring about the extreme challenges those players faced and what it was like playing against white teams in that era. He did not know that he would be escorting out Greason before the game, or that the two would be the first to take the field, but he sure as heck knew he didn’t want to screw it up. He did not realize how powerful the day would be, or how much he would be impacted.

Eventually, McGee was able to explain why Thursday’s game meant so much to him.

“It’s not about me. It’s not about us. It’s about them.”

Major League Baseball’s effort to recognize the Negro Leagues has introduced the casual fan to a new encyclopedia of baseball history. In late May, MLB integrated Negro Leagues stats as part of its historical record. Throughout the pavilion outside of Rickwood Field, billboards and banners proudly listed iconic players like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Hank Aaron, and of course, Willie Mays, detailing how all of these players started their careers by playing in the Negro Leagues.

Before Greason’s first pitch, nearly 70 former players lined the first- and third-base lines. They were led out by players and coaches from each team and received a standing ovation. A celebration was held for Mays, who died Tuesday, led by Ken Griffey Jr., godson Barry Bonds and son Michael Mays.

“I’ve been telling you all that if there was any way my father could come down here, that he would,” Michael Mays said. “Well, he’s found another way. You’re already standing to your feet. Let him hear you. He’s listening.”

McGee, who is from the Bay Area, met Mays during his tenure playing for the Giants. When he looks back on his career, the former center fielder recognizes elements of his game he picked up from Mays and other Black baseball players around the San Francisco and Oakland areas.

“Watching the highlights, now I know why we played like we played,” McGee said. “(Mays) played the game like a kid. He’s going to make you stop on the bases. He’s going to take that extra base. That’s how I played the game — not nearly as good as him, but the heart and the love of the passion was there. And you see where it comes from.”

It was hard for McGee to pinpoint a favorite part of the day. He referenced the luncheon with former Negro Leagues players as a top experience. “You could see it in their eyes,” he said. “They deserve this.” Being able to catch up with former players like Bonds and CC Sabathia also stood out. But the meaning behind the game and how it united those in attendance will stick with McGee for a long time.

“It’s a good event because you have a multicultural group of people here,” he said. “That’s needed more too. Supporting each other, supporting a cause, the great game of baseball. I liked that part of it too. Everybody showed up representing, appreciating and giving them their flowers.”

On a night designated to honor a vital chapter of baseball history, McGee’s final thoughts echoed many of those leaving the ballpark.

“I think this is one of the best days I’ve had,” he said.

(Photo of Bill Greason with LaMonte Wade, left, and Willie McGee, right: Mary DeCicco / MLB Photos via Getty Images)