Willie Mays’s Presence Looms Large Over Rickwood

MLB’s tribute game between the Cardinals and Giants featured plenty of fateful moments, connecting the present to the venue’s storied past.
Rickwood Field, America’s oldest ballpark, turns 114 years old in July.
Rickwood Field, America’s oldest ballpark, turns 114 years old in July. / John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Birmingham, Ala. – Brendan Donovan was standing on the first base line of Rickwood Field with the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals Thursday night when he looked overhead as the last notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” were being sung. A military brat who was born in Germany, the son of an Army aviation specialist who flew Black Hawk helicopters, Donovan saw the formation of the fighter jets and knew instantly the message they were sending. The asymmetrical grouping of jets in the perfectly timed flyover was missing one jet off the left flank. The “missing man formation,” a military tradition to honor a fallen soldier, was done in honor of Willie Mays, who passed away two days before this game.

“That,” Donovan says, “was very cool. I knew right away what they were doing.”

The game between the Cardinals and Mays’s old team, the San Francisco Giants, was arranged as a tribute to the Negro Leagues, where Mays got his start in pro baseball in 1948, and to Mays. It may have provided similar eye candy as the Field of Dreams games in Iowa, but that venue was based on a Hollywood movie script in a wholly invented ballpark. This one took place in the oldest professional ballpark on the planet and honored those who played with pride and without bitterness when the National and American Leagues disqualified them from playing, simply because of the color of their skin.

Lo and behold, into this Smithsonian kind of night that recalled truth and history, another Hollywood script emerged in a city known as Magic City on the night of the summer solstice under a strawberry moon. Among the did-that-really-happen? plotlines:

  • The center fielder for the Giants—a position forever synonymous with Mays—hit a three-run homer. 
  • In the first National League game played in Alabama, and one that also celebrated the life of the Alabama-born Mays, a kid from Enterprise, Ala., had three hits. Moreover, that Alabaman, Donovan, started the game playing left field at Rickwood, just as Mays did in his first game for the Birmingham Black Barons in the same park 76 years ago.
  • A player for the Giants wearing No. 14—Mays’s original number with the team—had the first four-hit night of his career. Mays holds the San Francisco record with 35 such games.
  • The final score posted on the 33-foot-tall manual scoreboard at Rickwood was 6–5, Cardinals. Mays was born on the sixth day of the fifth month in 1931.
Ramos hit a three-run homer for the Giants during the Rickwood game.
Ramos hit a three-run homer for the Giants during the Rickwood game. / John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Mays, Willie’s son, had said only half-jokingly before the game that his father’s death just 48 hours before this game was Willie’s mic drop, leaving us with a twinkle in his eye and to cede the stage to his Negro League brethren who did not get the spotlight he did.

“I’m telling you, I feel him all around here,” Michael said before the game.

After a game full of sweetness, pride and, let’s face it, godwinks to Willie, I had to find Michael again.

“And the clock! Did you see the clock?” he says.

The analog clock atop the manual scoreboard was frozen at 8:24—eight being Willie’s number with the Black Barons and 24 his number with the Giants.

“His presence was with us,” Michael says.

MLB at Rickwood, as the game was packaged, was the rare big event that over-delivered. A great idea somehow exceeded its announced grand intentions. It was that sweet. Part of it was the simple and true beauty of Rickwood, which dazzled as the sun set on a warm Alabama evening and even more so as the strawberry moon rose in the darkening sky. (The full moon officially arrives Friday, but this was one of three evenings around the solstice when the moon appears full.)

Also, the game captured the spirit of the Negro Leaguers, who played for the love of the game despite being surrounded by prejudice. Mays and his Black Baron teammates, for instance, were refused access to the Rickwood locker room the white Barons used, forcing them to dress at nearby black-owned motels.

And then there were all the godwinks. Heliot Ramos was the Giants center fielder who hit the three-run homer. Patrick Bailey was the Giants’ No. 14 with four hits. Mays was given No. 14 when he arrived with the Giants in 1951. An outfielder named Jack Maguire wore No. 24. Mays made his debut on May 25. Three days later, Maguire was claimed off waivers by the Pirates. Mays switched to No. 24, which he wore for 22 years, longer than any other player wore that number.

Maguire also was a childhood friend of Lawrence Peter Berra in St. Louis. It was Maguire who gave Berra his nickname, which means Jack Maguire, who played just 94 games in the majors, gave Yogi Berra his nickname and Willie Mays his number.

Donovan, of Alabama, hit a homer to help the Cardinals to a win over the Giants at Rickwood Field.
Donovan, of Alabama, hit a homer to help the Cardinals to a win over the Giants at Rickwood Field. / John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Donovan had the biggest night of all. He was born in Germany, moved often because of his father’s service, but spent most of his time growing up in Enterprise.

“I got the six tickets in the allotment,” he says when asked about friends and family at the game. “That’s it. I probably could have used a hundred.”

His parents were not in attendance. He says his father, recently retired, took another job and was on an international assignment. His wife accompanied him.

“I can’t wait to call him,” Donovan says. “He’s probably called me several times already. I know what he’s going to say. It’s probably something like, ‘That 0–2 pitch you took? It was too close to take.’”

Donovan long ago circled this date on the calendar. He did not dream he would homer, double and single in a Major League game in his home state.

“It was all better than I imagined,” he says. “Growing up, I had played around this area a bunch but never here at Rickwood.”

I asked him if he allowed himself time during the game to appreciate playing in the oldest ballpark and in his home state.

“Well, not before the sun went down,” he says. “Until then it was so hard to see in left field. But yes, after that I looked around and thought, This is so cool. You know what it felt like? It felt like I was a kid again. I had that feeling again like I was in a high school game, or even before high school. I never had the feeling before in the major leagues.”

Mays played with such elan that he was associated with style even more so than the massive merits of his playing career. He invented his famed basket catch while playing ball in the Army simply because … well because he thought it was fun, that’s all. He would intentionally break late on a routine fly ball so that he could catch it on the run. What fun was there in camping out underneath a can of corn?

Donovan did not know it, but the feeling he described of becoming his younger self again at Rickwood was the most important part of his night. There is no better tribute to Mays and the Negro Leagues than to play the game with childlike joy.


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Tom Verducci

TOM VERDUCCI

Tom Verducci is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who has covered Major League Baseball since 1981. He also serves as an analyst for FOX Sports and the MLB Network; is a New York Times best-selling author; and cohosts The Book of Joe podcast with Joe Maddon. A five-time Emmy Award winner across three categories (studio analyst, reporter, short form writing) and nominated in a fourth (game analyst), he is a three-time National Sportswriter of the Year winner, two-time National Magazine Award finalist, and a Penn State Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient. Verducci is a member of the National Sports Media Hall of Fame, Baseball Writers Association of America (including past New York chapter chairman) and a Baseball Hall of Fame voter since 1993. He also is the only writer to be a game analyst for World Series telecasts. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, with whom he has two children.