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Monday, July 15, 2024

MLB’s Rickwood Game Plans Change Significantly After Passing of Mays

  • The special-event game at the historic Negro League park follows the death of the iconic Willie Mays.
  • MLB has been working to expand its diversity both on and off the field.
USA TODAY Sports/Malcolm Emmons

Major League Baseball’s strategy for staging special-event games is taking a new and dramatic turn with Thursday’s game at Rickwood Field in Alabama, but the league’s leaders are doing so with heavy hearts after the death this week of one of the game’s all-time greats.

The league will host a game between the Giants and Cardinals tonight at the historic Birmingham park that opened in 1910 and hosted Negro Leagues games for decades. The event, announced last year, marks MLB’s first competition at a historic Negro Leagues field and extends a recent run of U.S.-based games held at nontraditional locations, including the Field of Dreams movie site in Iowa, the Little League complex in Pennsylvania, Fort Liberty in North Carolina, and the College World Series site in Nebraska.

A Legend Passes

Willie Mays (above), one of the foremost icons of baseball, played as a teenager at Rickwood, the oldest professional ballpark in the U.S. When the game was first scheduled, part of the idea was to celebrate the Hall of Famer. But he issued a statement Monday saying he would not be able to travel from California to Alabama. The following day, he died at the age of 93 of heart failure. Mays’s Baseball Hall of Fame plaque is on display at Rickwood, a move planned before his death, and memorializing his legacy will be a central part of both the in-venue game operations and the national broadcast coverage on Fox. 

“Thursday’s game at historic Rickwood Field was designed to be a celebration of Willie Mays and his peers,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “With sadness in our hearts, it will now also serve as a national remembrance of an American who will forever remain on the short list of the most impactful individuals our great game has ever known.”

Bigger Showcase

The Rickwood game required an extensive overhaul by MLB and field consultant BrightView, stretching more than a year, to bring the aging facility up to league code for a regular-season game. The event is also the centerpiece of a much larger recognition by MLB of the often-overlooked contribution of the Negro Leagues to baseball. Last month, the league formally incorporated former Negro Leagues players into its official statistics, allowing players who were banned from MLB due to segregation to be considered in the same way as white players. 

Since the history and statistics of baseball are integral to the overall fandom and culture of the sport, a move such as this arguably resonates much more than if it happened elsewhere. This also likely will have significant impacts on future inductions to the Hall of Fame, which also can produce a sizable influx of income for those players and the Cooperstown, N.Y., shrine itself.

The Hall of Fame has also been an active participant in the broader commemoration, recently holding its Hall of Fame East-West Classic, a tribute to the Negro Leagues East-West All-Star Game that ran annually from 1933 to ’62. 

More Change On and Off the Field

MLB, meanwhile, continues to push for greater diversity, both on the field and off. Black people comprise 6% of major league rosters, down from 18% 30 years ago, and standing at the lowest level since the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport began tracking this data in the early 1990s. 

But people of color such as the Yankees’ Aaron Judge and Dodgers’ Mookie Betts represent some of the sport’s biggest stars. Recent draft classes have also shown greater percentages of Black people, suggesting improvement to come at the major league level in future years. 

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