The World Takes Notice of Birmingham’s Rickwood Field

Bessemer’s Kewanna Benson and her son Kamaurion dressed for the occasion when they went to Carver Theatre for a film on Willie Mays as part of this week’s MLB events. (Photo by Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Bessemer’s Kewanna Benson and her son Kamaurion were dressed for baseball. The 9-year-old rising 4th grader could have been at practice for his Hueytown youth baseball all-star team.

Instead, mother and son were at Birmingham’s Carver Theater for a screening of the HBO Original documentary “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” It is one of several events happening around town related to Major League Baseball’s hosting three games at historic Rickwood Field.

The announcement of Mays’ death at the age of 93 during the game Tuesday evening was met with groans of disappointment that a legend had been lost and then a standing ovation by the crowd.

Benson said she took her son to Monday’s event to enlighten him.

“It was to get him more in tune with baseball,” she said. “He’s been playing since he was 5. He loves Jackie Robinson so I brought him to see, to get more in tune with it and be caught up on his sport that he loves to play. I wasn’t brought up on it, so I want my son to be brought up on it.”

Perhaps many more youth and adults will learn about the history of America’s pastime as MLB hosts a three-day baseball extravaganza, with each game honoring the history of Negro League Baseball, including that of the Birmingham Black Barons.

Rickwood Field, America’s oldest baseball park, is getting called up to the big leagues as it hosts the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants on Thursday evening in a real Major League game.

Gerald Watkins, chairman of the Friends of Rickwood. (Photo by Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

The real stars of the show this week are the venerable ballpark that sits a block south of Third Avenue West and north of Lomb Avenue in the Fairview Neighborhood and the Negro League teams and players who applied their craft there.

Tuesday’s Minor League Baseball game pit the Birmingham Barons against the Montgomery Biscuits. The teams paid tribute to the Negro Leagues, wearing vintage uniforms.

Barnstorm Birmingham will highlight the festivities Wednesday. The name comes from an integral practice of Negro Leagues baseball in an era when teams and players in the leagues traveled to different communities to promote their style of baseball. That practice was called barnstorming.

Wednesday’s event is a Juneteenth celebration at Rickwood Field that will be centered on Fam Jam, a celebrity softball game, followed by an electric performance by global music superstar Metro Boomin.

Launched by former All-Star pitcher CC Sabathia and Uninterrupted co-founder Maverick Carter, Uninterrupted Fam Jam is a celebrity event platform where attendees will witness another kind of history as stars of entertainment, sports and baseball descend on Birmingham to thrill fans in a celebrity softball game with remixed rules that will celebrate the Negro Leagues in a fresh way.

The buildup to this week’s events has been a year in the making.

“It has been stated but it is worth repeating that Rickwood Field is hallowed ground, where sports became more than entertainment. It was a source of empowerment,” Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said in announcing MLB at Rickwood last year. “That’s what this game represents, progress, power – and my favorite – pride in a city that exemplified those three terms.

“We can’t wait to welcome the Cardinals, the Giants as well as the entire world to Birmingham, on the same field where the victories came in two forms, both winning in games and chipping away at the barriers that blocked Black athletes from the recognition they deserved.”

The buzz from these festivities is palpable.

“Oh, my God. There’s been a buzz for a long time, not only in our community but nationally,” David Galbaugh of the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau said. “People are really excited about this game, about the whole week because it’s not just the MLB game. Tomorrow (Wednesday) you’ve got softball and you have the minor league game today.”

Galbaugh said the events are sure to have an economic impact, but Major League Baseball has been close-lipped about any projections.

“We know there’s going to be significant economic impact. We just don’t know what that looks like,” he said.

Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson donned her Rickwood shirt for Tuesday’s Jefferson County Commission meeting. (Photo by Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson was dressed for the occasion during the commission committee meeting Tuesday, wearing an MLB at Rickwood T-shirt. Rickwood Field sits in her district, and she said she’s always loved baseball, remembering when her uncle took her to games at the ballpark.

“I think it’s bringing back life to the community,” she said, citing the new Mama Nem’s restaurant on nearby Lomb Avenue. “Even some of those guys (in nearby low-end apartments) are able to get a little work. They were actually hiring a couple of guys out of the community. They (MLB staffers) have been purchasing food from the grocery store around in that area and getting gas in that area. It has brought some economic value to the area and they are eating in our two restaurants that we do have that’s walking distance from there.”

Michael Mays, the son of baseball legend Willie Mays, appeared at the Carver Theatre screening Monday night, the day before his father passed. He said he hopes the events of this week are “just the beginning.

Michael Mays, the son of baseball legend Willie Mays, at the Carver Theatre for a documentary on his father. (Photo by Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

“It’s not something that is just a party,” he said. “You’ll see that MLB has taken a lot of time and effort with everyone here to make sure that you’re represented. This isn’t a game for the Who’s Who. This is a game for who’s local and who did something about it. You’re going to see a lot of kid organizations. You’re gonna see Boys and Girls Clubs. You’re going to see local schools, local teams, the people.

“That’s who this is for and that’s what this is about,” Mays said. “I, for one, will be doing all I can do to make sure that this is, like I say, the first of many.”

Gerald Watkins, chairman of the Friends of Rickwood, expects tourism to get a boost from this week’s events, as well as an impact on area youth.

“Hopefully, there are gonna be some kids in Birmingham that will become baseball players instead of football or basketball players,” he said. “As far as Rickwood goes, it’s going to just create so much greater awareness nationally and internationally. That can only be great for us as we’ll have more people coming to the park and more support worldwide.”

Could a new crop of baseball players grow out of the seeds that are sown this week?

“It should,” Watkins said. “A lot of kids that will see this ballgame and all the events surrounding it will never have known about Willie Mays the way they’re gonna know about him after this and the same with the Negro Leaguers. Hopefully, it will encourage young African American guys to play baseball, and that can only be a good thing.”