Birmingham, former MLB players heartbroken over death of native son Willie Mays

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — They shared the glorious stories passed on from their relatives who played in the Negro Leagues.

Some who had the privilege of knowing the man, even playing against him, shared their deepest memories.

This was a celebration of the Negro Leagues Family Alliance on Juneteenth, with family, relatives and dignitaries in attendance Wednesday morning at the Negro Southern League Museum, but the focus was on their native son:

Willie Mays, the Birmingham native, who died Tuesday at 93.

Hall of Famer Joe Torre, who grew up in Brooklyn as a Giants fan, talked about being in awe of his athleticism and the joy he played the game with, while still in disbelief at some of his accomplishments.

“I grew up idolizing Willie, and little did I know that nine years later I’d be catching when he was hitting,’’ Torre said. “He was special. Willie, when he got into the batters’ box, he didn’t want to know much. I mean, he was cordial, he would always answer your question and talk, but you couldn’t distract him for what he was there to do.’’

But, oh, Torre tried. When Torre was catching for Milwaukee and playing against the Giants, he engaged Mays in conversation and asked a question.

“So, as he’s answering the question,’’ Torre said, “he hit the ball out of the ballpark. And then, before he left home plate to go around the bases, he said to me, 'So I’ll finish the answer when I get back.'

“I mean, you can’t make this stuff up.’’

San Francisco Giants outfielder Willie Mays in 1967.
San Francisco Giants outfielder Willie Mays in 1967.

Torre last spoke to Mays last month to wish him happy birthday. Torre said they spoke for five minutes, and Mays asked when Torre was coming to see him.

Torre never got the chance to say goodbye, but the memories will last forever, knowing he was one of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived.

“I played with Hank Aaron for eight years, and Hank, I believe, could do everything Willie could do,’’ Torre said. “Maybe not play center field, but Willie did it with such flair. The thing you noticed watching him play, and you see film and stuff of Willie, he never needed a coach because his head was on swivel. He’d hit the ball down the right- field line and still be looking to right field as he’s running to second base. The instinctive things he had were amazing.

“The one thing about Willie is that he never hit a cutoff man. He always threw it all of the way in the air. He was an exciting player to watch. He was just very human. He loved kids. You saw him play stickball back in the old days. He was just a fun person to be around.’’

Torre still laughs remembering the time St. Louis Cardinals great Bob Gibson and teammate Bill White went to Mays’ home in San Francisco for dinner. Mays greeted White and asked who was with him. White told him it was Gibson, who was wearing glasses.

“He says, 'Bob Gibson, you wear glasses and you don’t wear them when you pitch? Are you crazy? You’re going (to) hurt somebody.’

“That was Willie. He was an open book.’’

This week’s Road to Rickwood was in honor of the Negro Leagues, but in particular, Mays. This is where he began his professional career, playing as a 17-year-old for the Birmingham Black Barons, and leading them to the 1948 Negro League World Series. He played two more years for the Black Barons until being signed in 1951 by the New York Giants.

“Man, that was so tough to hear that he passed,’’ said Jonathan Fox-Hunter, grandson of Hall of Famer Buck Leonard. “That was one that really broke my heart. But at the time, I had to pull out the positive things because Willie Mays was such a beautiful spirit.

“He was one of the greatest baseball players this world has ever known, so I’m just going to concentrate on the positive things about the way he (lived) his life moving forward.

“All eyes are on Birmingham right now, and he passes away. So evidently, everything is done at the right time, so I think he’s going to look down from heaven and say, 'You guys go ahead and carry on my legacy.' ’’

Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, says one of his regrets is that he never got the opportunity to meet Mays, but loved hearing the stories from the old Negro League players during his 15-year career.

“I couldn’t believe it,’’ Clark said, “knowing that a lot of what was happening here was because of him. He was the focal point. He was the bridge, the tangible, the visual of the history of this ballpark. He was the ambassador for our major league and the icon that he has been for as long as he’s been there.

“Hearing that he physically was no longer with us was a little tough to swallow.’’

Even with Mays’ passing, he was still being wildly celebrated in Birmingham and was honored with a mural painted where Mays had penned a note with good friend Jeff Bleich to the city of Birmingham.

“Today’s Juneteenth, a day that is designated to celebrate the independence of Black Americans,’’ Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said. “The day that best represents breaking barriers. So, last night when I got the news that Willie Mays passed, I was saddened. But when I woke up this morning, I had a different thought. The thought is that there is no better way to celebrate him and the day designated to celebrate Black excellence.

“Willie Mays brought to our world, and our country, massive impact and change. With one bat you can knock down so many walls, so it’s fitting that we pay tribute to him now.’’

Follow Bob Nightengale on social media @BNightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Willie Mays, Birmingham native, mourned, remembered in city