Willie Mays will not attend MLB game at historic Rickwood Field

Willie Mays

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays said that he will not be attending Thursday’s major league baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals at historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

Mays, 93, who grew up near the oldest professional baseball stadium in the United States, is the oldest living member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He said he was holding out hope to make the trip to Alabama, but mobility issues would make it difficult to travel that far, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The game, billed as “MLB at Rickwood Field: A Tribute to the Negro Leagues,” will be the first regular-season MLB game played at the stadium, which opened on Aug. 18, 1910. That was nearly two years before Fenway Park opened in Boston in April 1912.

In a statement to the Chronicle on Monday, Mays shared fond memories of the ballpark and said he planned to watch the game from his home.

“Rickwood Field? I knew about it as a kid,” Mays said. “It was always there. As common as a church or a school or a movie theater. I grew up with Rickwood around the corner there, meaning nearby and within reach. The majors? I didn’t dream about the impossible. I was taught to see your goal in your mind and work toward it.

“I could work toward getting to Rickwood Field and the Birmingham Black Barons. I didn’t need to dream for that. For that, I needed to work hard, so I did. Rickwood became my training ground, my start, my first job. When things changed in ‘47 with Jackie (Robinson) coming in? Well, then I started to dream big. You never forget your firsts. Rickwood Field is where I played my first home game. Rickwood Field is still here. So am I. How about that?”

Mays attended Fairfield Industrial High School, about 4 or 5 miles from Rickwood Field, AL.com reported. He made his professional debut as a 17-year-old with the Birmingham Black Barons, who played their home games at Rickwood Field.

Signed by the New York Giants, Mays made his MLB debut in 1951. He was a two-time National League Most Valuable Player and won a batting title. He hit 660 home runs, stroked 3,293 hits and drove in 1,909 runs. Mays earned 12 Gold Gloves and 24 All-Star Game berths.

Mays was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979, appearing on 409 of the 432 ballots cast.

Mays was a powerful hitter who collected 1,326 extra-base hits during his career, but his fielding drew gasps from baseball fans. His back-to-the-plate, over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz’s long drive in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series is simply known as “The Catch” and remains one of the great defensive plays of the Fall Classic. Mays, after making the catch, whirled and fired the ball back to the infield to preserve a tie game, won in the 10th inning by the Giants.

Mays played 22 seasons in the major leagues. He followed the Giants west to San Francisco in 1958 and stayed with the team until 1972 when he was traded back to New York to play for the Mets. In his debut with the Mets, on May 14, 1972, Mays homered in his second at-bat against his former team -- his 647th career four-bagger.

Mays will be honored at Thursday’s game, Sports Illustrated reported.

“I’m not able to get to Birmingham this year but will follow the game back here in the Bay Area,” Mays said in his statement to the newspaper. “My heart will be with all of you who are honoring the Negro League ballplayers, who should always be remembered, including all my teammates on the Black Barons. I wanted to thank Major League Baseball, the Giants, the Cardinals and all the fans who’ll be at Rickwood or watching the game. It’ll be a special day, and I hope the kids will enjoy it and be inspired by it.”

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