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  • Writer's pictureDavid Welch

In Tribute to Negro Leagues, Professional Baseball Returns to Rickwood Field

Photo by David Welch, Stadium Journey

On June 20, 2023, Major League Baseball (MLB) commissioner Rob Manfred announced that MLB would be coming to Birmingham, Alabama’s Rickwood Field for a regular season matchup between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants. The latter team’s involvement in the game pays tribute to Giants legend Willie Mays, who grew up just four miles from Rickwood.

Willie Mays not only grew up in Birmingham's surrounding neighborhoods but also made his professional baseball debut at Rickwood Field. At age 17, Mays played for the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Southern League. In 2024, a year after MLB announced the matchup, the Giants will play at the same stadium, honoring Mays' legacy and that of the Negro League’s players.

Older than both Boston’s Fenway Park (1912) and Chicago’s Wrigley Field (1914), Rickwood Field opened in 1910 and is currently the oldest baseball stadium to currently host professional baseball. Ironically, the first game was played between the Birmingham Barons and the Montgomery Climbers – these same two cities will be represented 114 years later for a Southern League (AA) matchup between the Birmingham Barons and the Montgomery Biscuits.

The four-day recognition of Willie Mays and the Negro Leagues aims to shed light on a league that remained in the shadows for far too long; the events begin Monday evening with a screening of the HBO documentary, Say Hey, Willie Mays!

Tuesday will feature events across Birmingham, including a 24-foot-tall Topps card of Willie Mays displayed outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute – the card was created by former Birmingham Baron and MLBer Micah Johnson and is part of a six-card set honoring the heroes of the Negro Leagues, which will be on display from Tuesday through Thursday with special guests in attendance. Regions Field, the current home of the Barons, will also host MLB’s Play Ball youth initiative.

The day will conclude with “MiLB at Rickwood Field: A Tribute to the Negro Leagues”, as the Barons and Biscuits play as the Birmingham Black Barons and the Montgomery Gray Sox, respectively, representing the teams from the 1920 Negro Southern League season. This will mark the first minor league game at Rickwood Field since 2018 when the Barons hosted the Chattanooga Lookouts.

Much of Wednesday’s events will focus on the Birmingham community, including visits to Children’s of Birmingham, a reception for former Negro League players and their families, and the dedication of a Willie Mays mural at 1801 1st Street South. The day concludes with “Barnstorming Birmingham”, a celebrity softball game at Rickwood Field featuring former major leaguers CC Sabathia and Ryan Howard, along with native Alabamans Jameis Winston, Terrell Owens, University of Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe, and others.

Thursday will feature the main event of the week, “MLB at Rickwood Field: A Tribute to the Negro Leagues”. The teams will represent Black baseball from their cities, with the Cardinals wearing jerseys representing the Saint Louis Star, and the Giants donning the jerseys of the San Francisco Sea Lions. Tickets for this game have been limited, with Alabama residents given the first opportunity to purchase tickets, and 26% of the 8,300 tickets reserved for the Birmingham community and youth groups, at no cost. For those unable to secure tickets to Rickwood, watch parties are planned at several locations around the city.

MLB partnered with Friends of Rickwood, dedicated to preserving the park's legacy, and the City of Birmingham to transform Rickwood Field from an aging relic into a historical gem able to host Major League Baseball. Upgrades included expanding the dugouts, adding handicap-accessible seating, upgrading the playing surface with new drainage and sod, installing padding on the outfield walls, and improving the lighting while preserving the iconic light stations. Overall, Rickwood Field has benefited from $7.5 million in upgrades.

Baseball history permeates the atmosphere at Rickwood Field – as of the 2023 induction class, more than half of all National Baseball Hall of Famers have graced its grounds. Mays will be a featured player, but Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Josh Gibson, Monte Irvin, Satchel Paige, and Jackie Robinson also started their careers in the Negro Leagues before moving to Major League Baseball.

Many other stars of the Negro Leagues, such as James “Cool Papa” Bell, Oscar Charleston, Rube Foster, Walter “Buck” Leonard, John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, Norman “Turkey” Stearnen Taylor, Willie Wells, and Smokey Joe Williams also left their indelible marks on the game, despite never getting the chance to play in the major leagues.

At the press conference held at Rickwood Field to officially announce the game, Harold Reynolds, former MLB player, and current MLB Network commentator, shared a text message from Willie Mays. In the message, Mays hoped the spotlight on Rickwood “will be a chance to remember so many really good ball players from the Negro Leagues who played at Rickwood Field, but never got the chance to play in the big leagues”.

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