BIRMINGHAM — A celebration of Willie Mays’ career and the history of the Negro Leagues was already in the works at historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, before the Hall of Famer’s death.

Canopy, a Baltimore project management firm specializing in sports venues, helped renovate the historic ballpark where Mays, who attended school in nearby Fairfield, made his debut as a teenager with the Birmingham Black Barons. The Double-A “Rickwood Classic” would feature the Birmingham Barons and Montgomery Biscuits donning the uniforms of the Negro League teams of their cities.

And Mays’ Hall of Fame plaque was scheduled to arrive from Cooperstown on the afternoon of Juneteenth, ahead of a major league game between the San Francisco Giants (the organization where Mays played for 21 years) and the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Prior to the event there was tremendous anticipation among the baseball community whether Mays would be on hand for the celebration. There was so much speculation that he issued a statement through the Giants on Monday, June 17, the day before the festivities were to begin, saying he would not be attending.

The next day, the Giants announced that Mays had died at the age of 93.

View post on X

Shortly after word began spreading via text messages and notifications during the seventh inning stretch of Double-A “Rickwood Classic,” the public address announcer informed the crowd of Mays’ death.

It didn’t take long for the festivities to be converted into a three-day memorial celebration of his life.

“While the immediate reaction on the death of Willie Mays is a sense of loss and a connection to greatness, gone, there is some poetic justice and a bittersweet feeling that this series at Rickwood Field was designed by MLB with Willie Mays as a focal point, honoring his great career and the barriers he transcended in American sports and indeed, American history,” said Janet Marie Smith, founder and executive chair at Canopy, who is best known for her role in making Oriole Park at Camden Yards one of the country’s most beloved and admired ballparks.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

View post on X

Canopy was put to the task of bringing the rustic relic of a ballpark up to date for a celebration of this magnitude. Rickwood Field opened in 1910 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The company created multiple museum installations in the ballpark’s vintage home and visiting clubhouses, gift shop, and along the concourses, and erected a carnival-like Fan Plaza with informative kiosks highlighting Negro Leagues legends and chronicling Black professional baseball. The story boards and narrative content were written by Canopy special projects manager Sabriya Chaudry over the course of an entire year.

A memorial to Willie Mays is seen inside Rickwood Field before a baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants on Thursday, June 20, 2024, in Birmingham, Alabama. Mays, who began his professional career with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues in 1948 and played at Rickwood Field, died June 18 at the age of 93. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt) (Vasha Hunt/AP)

Ballpark restoration and surrounding development are a specialty of Smith and her team, which includes CEO Fran Weld and COO Paul Hanlon. Smith, a Baltimore resident, previously directed the design and development of Oriole Park at Camden Yards as well as renovations to Boston’s Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

“It has long been one of our favorite historic ballparks, and to be a part of seeing the national spotlight placed on it for the Rickwood Classic and the game between the St Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants is so important to the preservation of the story of baseball and particularly, Negro League Baseball,” Smith said. “To be on the field where 182 players enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown once played is inspiring.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The results were heartfelt presentations of the rich local history. Canopy worked as an extension of the MLB’s event team and consulted with the league’s design team on content for signage and design elements.

“Having researched and developed many of the displays that are showcased this week, as well as overseeing the development of the Fan Plaza, we have renewed respect and appreciation for these players, most particularly Willie Mays who was born in Birmingham and played 3 seasons for the Black Barons before signing with the Giants in 1950,” Hanlon said.

The City of Birmingham paid $4.5 million for the restoration of the city-owned ballpark and event production. MLB and the Players Association, which made undisclosed contributions, took part in the three-day event as part of ongoing efforts to highlight both historic Black participation and future involvement in baseball.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, has been at the forefront of raising consciousness about the history of Black professional baseball prior to Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in 1947 and the integration of Major League Baseball. He was a visible spiritual presence throughout the three-day ceremony at Rickwood.

The front entrance of Rickwood Field was home to the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. Willie Mays also played there as a teenager. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

“”MLB and the Players Association have been so instrumental in helping create this interest in Negro Leagues Baseball. I couldn’t be more excited,” Kendrick said. “And when you come to a cathedral like Rickwood Field is, and then everything that has been done in preparation for this game, it’s almost impossible not to feel like you have time traveled. You feel like you have been moved back into the days when the Black Barons were playing in this stadium, and the look, the feel, the sound, the energy, it’s just been amazing.”

The league recently incorporated the statistics of more than 2,300 Negro Leagues players from 1920 to 1948 into its historical record. And representatives from all corners of the baseball community were moving in and around Rickwood Field and other sites in Birmingham.

The Negro Southern Leagues Museum hosted a brunch with a who’s who in Negro Leagues on Juneteenth, where the Negro Leagues Family Alliance (founded to collectively preserve the legacies, history and intellectual properties of the Negro Leagues while contributing to the education and uplift of baseball and sports) was presented with a check in the amount of $500,000 from MLB and the MLBPA Youth Development Foundation. Founding member Sean Gibson, great-grandson of legendary Negro League’s slugger Josh Gibson, received the check from MLB-MLBPA YD executive director Jean Lee Batrus.

A celebrity softball game between the Say Heys (named for Mays) and the Hammers (in honor of Henry Aaron), including former Major Leaguers such as former Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, took place Wednesday night.

“I love the celebration of Black baseball — it’s been hidden a long time. … This is what our ancestors did. This is a ballpark that our ancestors came through and had fun and entertained, and for us to be here right now this is special and it started with Willie,” said Jones.

View post on X

Not all the memories and feelings were pleasant.

In one of the most poignant moments on Fox’s broadcast, Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson recalled the racism he experienced when he played in Birmingham as a prospect in the Oakland Athletics organization, 20 years after Robinson became the first Black player in pro ball. Jackson said he was called the n-word and refused service at hotels and restaurants in the South because of his race.

“Coming back here is not easy — the racism when I played here, the difficulty of going through different places where we traveled in the South,” he said. “Fortunately, I had a manager and I had players on the team who helped me get through it.”