Historic Rickwood Field Welcomes Major League Tribute to Willie Mays


In 2021, Gerald Watkins was captivated by the spectacle of the New York Yankees stepping onto the fabled Iowa cornfield, a familiar setting to anyone who had watched the 1989 film, “Field of Dreams”. But this sight stirred something in him. He thought about his own hometown, Birmingham, Alabama, and the historical marvel that graced it – the iconic Rickwood Field. Standing at 114 years old, it was the launchpad of arguably one of the finest baseball talents of history, Willie Mays.

“The Field of Dreams is captivating,” expressed the 68-year old Watkins, “but we have our own field of dreams – Rickwood Field. This is a place that saw a young Willie Mays dreaming of making it to the big league while standing in the outfield.”

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Watkins’ dreams are now a reality as the Major Leagues graces the historic turf of Rickwood Field. Distinguished as the oldest professional ballpark in the United States, Rickwood Field played host to the baseball great Willie Mays and the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. Now, it’s set to welcome a contest between the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants.

While the game intends to celebrate Mays and numerous other Negro Leaguers, it will carry with it a somber note. Mays, the electrifying center fielder who left an indelible imprint on the sport, passed away on Tuesday, a day after announcing that he would not be able to attend the game.

“Major League Baseball mourns today as we stand on the very turf where a legendary career was born,” said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. “Willie Mays carried his all-around brilliance from the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League to the historic Giants franchise.

Nestling just a few miles west of downtown Birmingham, Rickwood Field stands as a historic monument encapsulating memories of trials and triumphs. It was not only the pulse of the local community, hosting women’s suffrage rallies and political events, but also the heartbeat of some of the greatest names in baseball.

Rickwood Field was the host to Alabama’s first integrated sports team, the minor league Birmingham Barons, in 1964. More than half of the baseball Hall of Famers, from Negro League legends like Mays, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige to MLB greats Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Mickey Mantle, have left their footprints on this field.

Mays, who got his start at Rickwood Field at the tender age of 17, helped the Black Barons reach the Negro League World Series in 1948. The charisma of the Black Barons was so palpable that Sunday sermons were hurried to accommodate fans raring to attend the games.

Rickwood Field is still treasured as the birthplace of countless storied careers, even by the younger generation. Roy Wood Jr., a comedian and actor who played high school baseball at Rickwood Field in the 1990s, became cognizant of the field’s historical value over time.

With a capacity of 10,800, Rickwood Field opened its gates in 1910 when baseball was Alabama’s premier sport. For Black people, Rickwood Field and the Negro Leagues served as a beacon showcasing Black excellence in sports.

Amidst the harrowing fight for racial equality during the 1950s and 1960s, Rickwood Field stood as a sanctuary, momentarily offering an escape from the harsh realities.

Rickwood Field, still standing strong against the odds of time, continues to host high school and college games. Watkins, along with a group of about 30 volunteers, ‘Friends of Rickwood,’ work tirelessly to maintain its aura. Other dedicated personalities, like head groundskeeper Jabreil Weir, meticulously care for the field.

Recently, a series of renovations were carried out, including a new field with lights, upgraded dugouts, a new drainage system and a new backstopping netting system, under the guidance of MLB’s field and stadium consultant, Murray Cook.

As Major League Baseball spotlights the towering accomplishments of Black players, this discerning effort highlights the need for a wider conversation about race in the realm of sports. The distinct history etched in every corner of Rickwood Field serves as an unrivaled testament to a time of struggle and triumph, and a poignant reminder of our unfinished quest for racial equality.