Honoring Willie Mays at Rickwood Field

Ajay Stone strolled around historic Rickwood Field, gazing at tributes honoring Willie Mays and other Negro Leaguers. Clutched tightly under his arm was a cherished memory—a picture from 2004 of Mays holding Stone's then-10-month-old daughter Haley, who was donning San Francisco Giants gear. Mays, with a chunk of a chocolate chip cookie in hand, was about to hand it over to Haley.

Stone and his wife, Christina, had made the journey from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Birmingham, Alabama, on Thursday for an event they deemed equally special. Hours before Rickwood Field hosted its first Major League Baseball game between the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals—an event MLB dubbed "A Tribute to the Negro Leagues"—the Stones were steeped in nostalgia.

Honoring Willie Mays

MLB planned a week of festivities honoring Mays and the Negro Leagues, including the unveiling of a Willie Mays mural in downtown Birmingham on Wednesday. These tributes took on a greater significance on Tuesday afternoon when Mays passed away at the age of 93. As news of his death spread, celebrations of his life intensified throughout Birmingham.

The atmosphere at Rickwood Field was electrifying even before the gates opened. The rhythmic thumping of a drum echoed from inside the ballpark. Excitement buzzed among fans, punctuated by laughter and murmurs of anticipation. Inside, history was ever-present. Photos and artifacts of baseball Hall of Famers who had graced the 114-year-old ballpark—including Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige—adorned the walls. The original clubhouse of the Birmingham Black Barons, where Mays started his pro career in 1948, was open for visitors. A memorial paying tribute to Mays featured bobbleheads, a signed glove, and his Black Barons and San Francisco Giants jerseys.

Reliving History

Outside, fans stood in line to hold a baseball bat used by Mays in 1959 and took photos inside an original bus from 1947, typically used during barnstorming tours by Negro Leagues teams. Food concession stands offered menus designed to reflect the 1940s, while fans danced to live music.

Eddie Torres and his son Junior, lifelong Giants fans from California, wore matching Giants jerseys as they snapped pictures inside the ballpark. Musical artist Jon Batiste added to the atmosphere, strumming his guitar and dancing on a wooden stage near home plate just before the first pitch. Former Negro Leaguers were helped to the field for a pregame ceremony, and spontaneous shouts of "Willie! Willie!" broke out after a brief moment of silence.

Echoes of the Past

Michael Jackson, seated in the stands, reflected on his past. Jackson played baseball in the 1970s and 80s with the East Thomas Eagles of the Birmingham Industrial League, often at Rickwood Field. "It's nice seeing them re-do all of this instead of tearing it down," Jackson said. "We played in the same ballpark they named after Willie Mays out in Fairfield, Alabama. I had my times out here playing at this ballpark. It's all very exciting."

Memories and Reflections

Ajay Stone reminisced about his memories with Mays. "Willie gave her that cookie. She had no teeth. But we took the cookie and kept it in her stroller for a year and a half. The great Willie Mays gave it to her, so it was special to us," he recalled. Another fan shared, "I never even got to see Willie Mays play, but as a Giants fan, you knew what he meant to the game of baseball."

"The legacy of Willie Mays transcends generations," said Eddie Torres. "My son, he's only 11. Willie Mays had such an effect on the game that even he knew who Willie Mays was."

As the game commenced and the crowd cheered, it was clear that Rickwood Field was more than just a ballpark that evening. It was a living museum, a time capsule capturing the essence of a bygone era while honoring the life and legacy of one of baseball's greatest icons, Willie Mays.