July 15, 2024

Postcard from Rickwood Field: MLB prepares to honor the Negro Leagues

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Fervor and enthusiasm rang throughout the confines of historic Rickwood Field on Wednesday afternoon, making for the ideal Juneteenth celebration ahead of Major League Baseball’s inaugural Negro Leagues tribute game.

Live music paying tribute to rap and hip-hop classics from all decades thumped from a makeshift stage near the ballpark. Concession stands featuring Southern cuisine — hot chicken and barbecue included, obviously — lined the concourse leading to the ballpark’s main entrance. Large billboards planted to the left of Rickwood Field’s famed green walls provided history lessons, summarizing the impact of the Negro Leagues and how those players helped propel Major League Baseball to new heights. One sign in particular stood out, a quote from Buck O’Neil, a first baseman and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs.

“Don’t feel sorry for the Black baseball player. Feel sorry for the ones who didn’t get to see them play.”

MLB’s Negro Leagues tribute game between the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals will take place Thursday evening, but the party in Birmingham is well underway. On Wednesday afternoon, former MLB stars ranging from Barry Bonds to David Ortiz to CC Sabathia to Derek Jeter gathered on the field ahead of a celebrity softball game designed to celebrate Juneteenth. The event featured prominent professional athletes from other sports, such as Najee Harris of the Pittsburgh Steelers, three-time Pro Bowler Dez Bryant, former NBA players Eric Bledsoe and Matt Barnes, and NFL Hall of Famer Terrell Owens. Actors Omari Hardwick and Kel Mitchell also headlined the contest.

For many fans, attending any sporting event at Rickwood Field — the oldest ballpark in the country — was well worth the cost of admission. For Sabathia, it’s a vision that came to fruition. He was a driving force in establishing MLB’s tribute to the Negro Leagues and a leading proponent of providing top-tier upkeep at Rickwood Field in advance of the event.

“It means a lot to be able to see this field,” Sabathia said. “This is a dream of mine and a lot of people that understand what this field means for Black baseball. Without this field, a lot of us — none of us — would be playing the game. This field, I always say, is the birth of Black baseball.”

One of the purposes of the Rickwood Field game is to recognize the greats who played in the Negro Leagues. That includes Willie Mays, an Alabama native who began his professional career as a teenager with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. Mays died at age 93 on Tuesday, a day after releasing a statement explaining that he wouldn’t be able to attend the game but was looking forward to watching from home.

The news of Mays’ death rocked baseball, with tributes and acknowledgments flowing in from across the sport. But the National Baseball Hall of Fame ensured Mays would be present in some form. President Josh Rawitch traveled to Birmingham from Cooperstown, N.Y., with Mays’ Hall of Fame plaque in tow Wednesday morning. Minutes after gates opened to the public, a line began forming outside the stadium’s pop-up museum where the plaque was displayed for most of the afternoon. It marked the first time Mays’ plaque was brought to an event outside the Hall of Fame since he was enshrined in 1979.

“We had been talking about (bringing the plaque) for probably three, four months,” Rawitch said. “It certainly wasn’t tied in any way to his passing. We were all really excited at the idea that this plaque could be here.

“There are a lot of people who have never been to Cooperstown, who when we bring plaques on the road, this is their chance to get a taste of it,” he added. “It’s always incredibly popular when we bring any plaque outside. But obviously under these circumstances, as soon as we had the stand set up and the plaque on it, people were lined up — and it’s going to be that way for the next two days.”

Mays’ plaque was also displayed on the field before Wednesday’s celebrity softball game, where various athletes paid their respects. A moment of silence was held before the start of the game. Major League Baseball plans to honor Mays ahead of Thursday’s game, as well.

“Anybody who loves this game loves Willie Mays,” Rawitch said. “I don’t know that there’s a more fitting place for this plaque to be than right here right now.”

Dexter Fowler was slated to only coach in Wednesday’s softball game, not play. He did provide a disclaimer, though.

“If Barry (Bonds) says I have to hit, I have to hit,” he laughed.

Bonds was the coach of the Say Heys, named, of course, after his godfather. The other team was dubbed the Hammers as a nod to Hank Aaron. Fowler was among many former major leaguers who considered this week a must-attend event.

“It’s great to be here, especially honoring Hank Aaron and Willie Mays,” Fowler said. “I believe it gives awareness because now people will look up what the Negro Leagues did and how important it was to the game.

“It’s a special moment to have everybody come out here, especially for a great cause, to celebrate the greats.”

Adam Jones echoed those sentiments, offering effusive praise for Sabathia and MLB in ensuring the event took place.

“It’s beautiful,” Jones said. “The initiative from CC and the commissioner’s office, the (Birmingham residents). Tireless work from countless people. … Seeing pictures from before and after, talking to people from before and after who were on the ground, making sure this field got into tiptop shape, they just made the space unbelievable. But the initiatives that we’re trying to do and celebrate the Negro Leagues are fantastic. Obviously in baseball history and American history, African Americans are a big part of it. To be recognized, it’s amazing.”

Both Fowler and Jones were stunned to hear of Mays’ passing the night prior. Fowler was inside a building named in honor of Mays at the time of the announcement and called the feeling “surreal.”

Jones hopes Thursday’s game will honor Mays accordingly. He has a clear idea of what he hopes that will look like.

“Obviously, we’re sad about his passing,” Jones said, “but I think we should honor and celebrate his life by having a great time here and do what Mr. Mays would do: Play the game hard, have some fun and hopefully entertain the crowd.”

(Photo of former Negro Leagues player Al Holt on Tuesday: Daniel Shirey / MLB Photos via Getty Images)