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Birmingham pays tribute to the baseball legend Willie Mays, dead at 93

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

All around the sports world today, there have been tributes to the great Willie Mays. The Say Hey Kid, who some consider the greatest player in baseball history, died yesterday at the age of 93. In Birmingham, Ala., near where Mays grew up, the tributes were to someone people felt they knew. Steve Futterman reports.

STEVE FUTTERMAN: Here in Birmingham this morning, as Jon Moran (ph) waited at the bus stop, he talked about Willie Mays.

JON MORAN: He opened a lot of doors and opened a lot of people's eyes around here and around the world, you know?

FUTTERMAN: A hero to you?

MORAN: Oh, yeah, definitely.

FUTTERMAN: Around a mile away, Christopher Reese stood and looked at a giant mural depicting Mays during his Negro League days, when he played for the Birmingham Black Barons.

CHRISTOPHER REESE: Willie Mays? Come on, man.

FUTTERMAN: He considers Mays the best ever.

REESE: Willie did stuff others couldn't do - all the time, every day - playing, throwing. Man, he changed the entire way we played because he could steal bases. He didn't need a third base coach to tell him when to go.

FUTTERMAN: This is where Mays grew up. He was born around eight miles away, in the town of Fairfield. And today was a day to pay tribute, whether it be ordinary residents or the Birmingham mayor, Randall Woodfin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RANDALL WOODFIN: Today is Juneteenth, a day that is designated to celebrate the independence of Black Americans. There's no better way to celebrate him than the day designated to celebrate Black excellence.

FUTTERMAN: Major League Baseball had previously planned a week of events here to honor the Negro Leagues, with Willie Mays being the centerpiece. On Monday, Mays announced he would not be able to attend. Then, last night, at a special minor league game at the city's classic Rickwood Field, America's oldest ballpark, the game was stopped for news of Mays' death.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: He was born here in Alabama, got his start at this very ballpark. And we will always cherish the memory and life of the great Willie Mays.

(CHEERING)

FUTTERMAN: Today, people with connections to the Negro Leagues took part in the reception, and they talked about Mays' contributions.

SONYA PANKEY ROBINSON: My name is Sonya Pankey Robinson. I'm the eldest granddaughter of Jackie Robinson.

FUTTERMAN: Jackie Robinson's granddaughter said her father was a pioneer, but so, too, was the first wave of young Black players in the major leagues, especially Willie Mays.

ROBINSON: These are great legacies that we want people to know about - about their contributions. And I think that it is so important to realize that he did walk on the same grounds.

FUTTERMAN: And some of those who played with and against Mays talked about their memories, like Joe Torre, who recalled trying to chat when Mays came to bat and Torre was catching.

JOE TORRE: You know, you try to distract him. You try to get him off what he's up there to do at home plate. And I asked him a question, you know? And so as he was answering the question, he hit a ball out of the ballpark.

FUTTERMAN: (Laughter).

TORRE: And then before he left home plate to go around the bases, he said to me, I'll finish the answer when I get back.

FUTTERMAN: (Laughter) Really?

TORRE: Yeah, I mean, you can't make this stuff up.

FUTTERMAN: Tomorrow night will be the culmination of this week's events, a major league game between Mays' longtime team, the San Francisco Giants, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Now, in addition to celebrating the Negro Leagues, it will also be a chance to pay tribute to the life and career of Willie Mays.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Futterman in Birmingham, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Futterman
[Copyright 2024 WYPR - 88.1 FM Baltimore]