Watch CBS News

Following death of Willie Mays, Rickwood Field game takes on renewed significance

Rickwood Field game takes on renewed significance
After Willie Mays' death, Rickwood Field game takes on renewed significance 03:21

Birmingham, Alabama — Before Willie Mays electrified fans with the New York Giants and made "The Catch" in the 1954 World Series, he patrolled centerfield at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, as a teenager in 1948.

"Willie was something else," Rev. William Greason said of Mays, who died Tuesday at the age of 93. "He had a gift that God gave him."

Greason, now almost 100 years old, was Mays' teammate on the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues.

"The camaraderie that we had on that team, it was out of sight," said Greason, who added that, at the time, he had no idea he was playing alongside one of baseball's all-time greats.  

Willie Mays
A view of the history wall during the game between the Montgomery Biscuits and the Birmingham Barons at Rickwood Field on June 18, 2024 in Birmingham, Alabama. Parker Freedman/MLB Photos via Getty Images

"I just wanted to be a friend," Greason told CBS News.

Mays was too young to travel with the Black Barons, who barnstormed the Jim Crow South as a member of the Negro Southern League.

At Rickwood Field, which the Black Barons shared with the all-White Birmingham Barons, segregation was the enforced custom.

"When we played here, the Whites were in right field," Greason said. "When they played, we were out there."

Since 1910, 182 MLB Hall of Famers, both Black and White, have graced Rickwood's grounds. Legends like Reggie Jackson, Babe Ruth and "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron.

When the St. Louis Cardinals play the San Francisco Giants at Rickwood Field Thursday in a game that will pay tribute to both Mays and the legacy of the Negro Leagues, Cardinals shortstop Masyn Winn will be a rarity — an African American on a Major League roster.

"Being maybe the only Black person on the field is going to be pretty special for me to represent that out there," said Winn, acknowledging, though, that the situation speaks poorly of the state of African Americans in baseball right now.

"I think it just means we need more," Winn said.

In 1991, 18% of players on opening day rosters were African American, according to numbers from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. This season, that is down to 6%.

But there are signs that could be changing. In 2022, four of the top five draft picks were African American. In 2021, MLB announced a $150 million investment aimed at increasing Black representation in baseball.

And last month, statistics from the Negro Leagues were officially incorporated into MLB record books.

"I think it's cool to have that Black representation up there," Winn said of that move. "I think it's good for the next generation."

MLB had planned for Mays to attend the Rickwood game, a ballpark just six miles from Mays' boyhood home. Now, the field where Mays' baseball dreams began will poetically symbolize the end of that era and possibly the dawn of a new one.  

"Many of those stats happened … right here at Rickwood Field," Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin told CBS News. "…What happened here is not just Black history, it's America's history. And the greats that came through this place, they literally went on to change what baseball meant."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.