Historic Rickwood Field and the Say Hey Kid, Willie Mays

*This article was published the day before Willie Mays passed away, on 18 June 2024. This piece has been preserved in it’s original form, shortly before Mays left us. RIP Willie.

Rickwood Field, the oldest ballpark in America, will play host to the San Francisco Giants and St Louis Cardinals on 20 June. Major leaguers and fans alike will flock to the 114-year-old ballpark in Birmingham, Alabama for this special celebration of the Negro Leagues.

The unique event will include stirring tributes to Negro Leaguers of the past, but particular attention will be devoted to baseball’s greatest living ballplayer, Willie Mays.

You’re probably pretty familiar with Mays’ incredible legacy but in case you need a recap: 660 home runs (sixth all-time), 2 MVP awards, 24 All-Star appearances, 12 Gold Gloves, a 1954 World Series champion. When you hear someone talk about “The Catch,” you know who and what it refers to instantly. Accolades and stats alone cannot measure the remarkable impact Mays has had on the game. 

He is undisputed baseball royalty, but where did his journey begin?

The Say Hey Kid, a first ballot Hall of Famer and Giants legend, would become a superstar in the Polo Grounds and a hero at Candlestick Park, but the Birmingham native learned his trade at Rickwood Field, just minutes away from his home.

Mays was a teenaged star on the Birmingham Black Barons squad who called Rickwood Field home between 1924 and 1960. For $250 a month, the 17-year-old Mays spent the summer of 1948 chasing down fly balls in the park’s spacious outfield (straightaway centre was measured at 470 feet) and gained all the wisdom he could from his Black Barons teammates (most of whom were ten years his senior). 

The author at 24 Willie Mays Plaza, Oracle Park – April 2019

Birmingham manager Piper Davis was especially valuable to the young Mays and would become an important mentor, ensuring Mays’ education wasn’t sacrificed to play ball; Davis had Mays play only at Rickwood Field in 1948 and he didn’t travel with the team on the road, so Mays could still attend high school. Mays was a precocious talent but still very raw, and needed fine-tuning under Davis’ tutelage. Davis educated Mays on the fine art of hitting curveballs, how to charge grounders in the outfield, and how to mature as a hitter in a bid to refine his overall game. 

Pitchers from the Negro Leagues and MLB can thank Davis for the mental anguish Mays would cause them, as he circled the bases time after time over the next two decades. 

The 1948 Black Barons were a force in the Negro American League, with veterans like Artie Wilson, Ed Steele and the skipper Davis leading Birmingham to a 63-28-2 record. With Mays featuring in the lineup regularly, the Black Barons dispatched the Kansas City Monarchs in an epic series to capture the pennant and progress to the World Series. The 1948 World Series would prove to be the Negro League’s final edition and sadly for Mays the mighty Homestead Grays were too much for Birmingham, winning the series 4-1.

Losing a championship at the final hurdle would be a setback for most young players but the pain of defeat could not detract Mays. The gifted youngster quickly put the disappointment behind him and proceeded to spend the next two summers honing his craft with the Black Barons to emerge as a generational talent. 

Rickwood Field was the perfect home for Mays to display his plethora of abilities; his aptitude at reading the ball off the bat, coupled with his astonishing range, allowed him to catch anything put in the air. Mays had an unmatched combination of athleticism and speed; he could cover ground in the Rickwood outfield like no one else could. Under the scorching and unrelenting Alabama sun, Mays blossomed.

James S. Hirsch, in his must-read biography ‘Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend’, wrote that Mays was “often described as the game’s most exciting player, and his style can be traced to the Black Barons. The black game placed greater emphasis on speed, creativity, and daring.” Mays displayed all three of those traits in abundance.

Unsurprisingly, Mays’ tenure as a Black Baron would be relatively short-lived, as the majors soon came calling. With Jackie Robinson’s successful breaking of the colour barrier in 1947 opening the door for Negro Leaguers, players of Mays’ calibre were in serious demand as ballclubs looked to integrate their rosters. 

Birmingham’s worst-kept secret was out: the man named Mays, the greatest player of his generation, was ready for the show. 

Several major league teams showed interest but it was the New York Giants who secured Mays’ signature in the summer of 1950. A short, albeit spectacular spell in the minors paved the way for his Giants debut in 1951, and a Rookie of the Year award soon followed.

Just like that, Mays was on the grandest stage of all, and nothing would stop him. The rest, as they say, is history. 

He became a hero to the men, women, and children of Harlem, who cherished his daily development in the Polo Grounds. When the Giants went west in 1958, Mays became a legendary figure in San Francisco, evolving into an icon of the sport, beloved on both coasts and everywhere in-between.

Mays undoubtedly changed the game, alongside contemporaries like Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider, and kept performing at the highest level well into the era of Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, and Pete Rose.

Let us not forget, however, that it all began at Rickwood Field, in the Negro Leagues. 

When the Giants take on the Cardinals on 20 June, the baseball world will mark the occasion with a celebration worthy of the amazing men and women who made the Negro Leagues what they were.

Say Hey Willie, this one’s for you.

Ash Day is the San Francisco Giants writer for Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on X (Twitter) @AshDay29

Photo credit for featured image by Bettmann/Getty Images.

2 Comments

  1. Ash Day: What a well written story. And because this story was posted on 6/17/2024 this is perhaps the last story written about Willie Mays before his passing today on 6/18/2024.

    “Say Hey Willie, this one’s for you”: indeed!

    1. Hi Sarah, thanks so much for reading and your kind words. It’s incredibly sad to hear of Willie’s passing, and I’m fortunate to contribute a little something about the great man.

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