Major League Baseball
How MLB at Rickwood Field will 'give the Negro Leagues their flowers'
Major League Baseball

How MLB at Rickwood Field will 'give the Negro Leagues their flowers'

Updated Jun. 19, 2024 6:40 p.m. ET

Oakland Coliseum, a historic site of baseball memories and legends, was within spitting distance of Dontrelle Willis' childhood home. The 2003 National League Rookie of the Year grew up in Fruitvale, California, staunchly watching Oakland Athletics games with his grandparents. One day when he was 12 years old, it was his mother who brought him to the ballpark, and the visit was different from all the rest. 

That day, Willis realized his life's journey, all because right-handed pitcher Dave Stewart, another Oakland native, approached him.

"One of the few times my mom took me there, he was warming up, and we got kind of close," Willis told FOX Sports. "And once I saw him, somehow he knew my mom. I don't know if they went to school together or what, but somehow he knew my mom. And he's like, ‘Hey J!' and that was it. 

"From that point on, I was like, I want to be a major-leaguer. There was no other job I cared about. I didn't want to be a pilot, I didn't want to be none of that stuff. Once I saw him, I was like, OK. That's what I want to be."


Willis said Stewart, a three-time World Series champion and 1989 World Series MVP in his own right, saved his life that day. 

"He doesn't like me getting all emotional about it because he's a little tough old man now, but he saved a lot of people's lives," Willis said. "He's CC Sabathia's favorite pitcher, too. Being African American, being from the area, dreams are great especially when they're positive. Dave Stewart was just going out there and doing his job. He didn't realize he inspired a generation to go out there and be big leaguers. He was our hero and we followed his footsteps and did our best to make him proud."

Like Willis' idolization of Stewart and the Oakland A's, previous generations of Black athletes looked up to elite players in the Negro Leagues as a source of inspiration. Though African American players faced rejection from Major League Baseball, being denied the opportunity to play in MLB all the way up until integration in the late 1940s, players turned that neglect into pure joy, playing the game with a passion and thriving at it, producing Hall of Famers like Willie Mays and Satchel Paige in the process. Rather than Oakland Coliseum, it was Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama where future athletes, their families and the neighborhood gathered to celebrate the game and each other. 

On Thursday, the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals will add to that legacy by squaring off in "MLB at Rickwood Field: A tribute to the Negro Leagues" (7:15 p.m. ET on FOX), which marks MLB's first regular-season game held in the state of Alabama. For Willis, also an MLB studio analyst for FOX, this week is his first trip to Birmingham's beloved ballpark, where Hall of Famers including Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson, Ted Williams, Mule Suttles, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig and countless other baseball legends also played. 

"The Rickwood Field game will help give the Negro Leagues their flowers," Willis said. "It's important to do that. It puts the city and, really, the game, on a national scale, which is very important. Everybody's going to be watching and learning about the historical factor and the significance of that field. It's not just about the African American players, which is a big component of it obviously, but there are so many great white players that played there, too.

"I'm just super excited to take that all in. If these men and women don't sacrifice and do this at the cathedral of baseball, then there's no Dontrelle Willis, and really a lot of the players you know and love today."

Make no mistake, Rickwood Field doesn't need to be retroactively romanticized. America's oldest professional ballpark debuted in 1910 and would soon become the mise-en-scène, as enthusiastic crowds came in droves to watch the Birmingham Black Barons showcase their talents — ultimately winning three Negro American League pennants in a six-year span in the 1940s. A single-season record 445,926 fans walked through Rickwood's gates in 1948. 

That very same year, a 17-year-old Willie Mays began his professional career with the Black Barons. While Mays would inspire the next generation of ballplayers, the Negro Leagues quickly declined in quality upon Jackie Robinson breaking MLB's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. With integration, the Negro Leagues began to resemble minor-league play. The final Negro League World Series game took place in October 1948, at Rickwood Field, where Mays' Black Barons fell to the Homestead Grays in five games. The Negro American League, the last major Negro League, played its final game in 1958.

It was the end of a magical and historically meaningful era, but it certainly wasn't the end of the Negro Leagues' influence on MLB players and baseball fans today. 

"As an athlete you obviously want to make money, you obviously want to be successful, but the whole point of it is to inspire the next generation — and they did that," Willis said. "The things I went through don't hold a candle to what they went through, having to go out there and still provide joy in the midst of adversity, and really just earning the respect of a city and the world. It was all about saying, ‘Hey, we can play this game at a high level. We can play this game with joy and flair.'"

Willis, and a number of MLB players, cherish the stories that former Negro League players passed onto them, because it's important to acknowledge those who came before them. Legendary Hall of Fame first baseman Buck O'Neill shared with Willis his experience playing and winning in the Negro Leagues, and he was proud of Willis because the right-hander reminded him of many of the athletes he played with in the 1930s and '40s. That's something Willis will never take for granted because, even though he's too self-deprecating to comfortably accept any type of praise, he too hopes to embolden a new generation of athletes to play baseball professionally, no matter how arduous and prejudicial the journey might be.

Willis hopes this showcase in Birmingham will encourage people to find their own Rickwood Field, their own Oakland Coliseum, their own Dave Stewart, and their own heroes to celebrate the impact of the Negro Leagues and baseball history every day, not just once or twice a year. The more that MLB pays tribute to the very trailblazers they kept out of the league, the more we can give players, new and old, their flowers. 

"It doesn't necessarily have to be around Juneteenth. It doesn't have to be around February [Black History Month]," Willis said. "We're American history. We sacrificed just as much as anybody to make this country great. And if you look at the game now, it's international. You can't promote it being international if you don't promote who established it in our country. It's just a walking contradiction. So I'm glad what Major League Baseball is doing [by honoring the Negro Leagues]. It's deserving."

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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