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Chants of ‘Willie! Willie!’ stretched to the heavens at MLB game honoring Negro Leagues and Willie Mays

By Elizabeth Wolfe, CNN

(CNN) — All eyes in American baseball turned to Birmingham, Alabama’s historic Rickwood Field Thursday night, where the stands shook with deafening applause and hoots of pride in honor of one of the best the game has ever seen.

Three days after the legendary Willie Mays died at 93, Major League Baseball honored him at the oldest professional ballpark in America, where a teenaged Mays once roamed the outfield for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues.

Though the MLB planned Thursday’s game between the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals to be a tribute to the Negro Leagues and recognition of Mays’s legacy, the Hall of Famer’s death on Tuesday transformed the evening into an emotional – and overwhelmingly joyful – remembrance of the legend.

“We all wanted to be like Willie,” Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said on the Fox broadcast. “When one played against him, one got caught up in watching Willie. He was pure baseball, my all-time favorite. I loved the guy, I wanted to be like Willie.”

Just a day before his death, Mays said he wouldn’t be able to attend the tribute game in his hometown and would instead watch the event on TV. But his son, Michael Mays, said his presence could be felt Thursday night.

“Birmingham, I’ve been telling y’all that if there’s any way on earth my father could come down here, that he would. Well he’s found another way,” the son told the packed stadium Thursday. “Let him hear you! He’s listening.”

Chants of “Willie! Willie!” grew to a crescendo across the stands as Mays’ son and the field of veteran players looked on.

The swell of applause soon softened and heads bowed as Grammy-award-winning artist Jon Batiste led a preformance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in tribute to Mays.

Approximately 60 Negro League players were in attendance – marking the largest official gathering of the league’s players in nearly 30 years, according to the MLB.

A line of Negro League luminaries processed onto Rickwood Field before the game as “When the Saints Go Marching In” swelled through the stadium. Attendees included Bill Greason, Eugene Scruggs, Pedro Sierra and Henry Collins.

Lively jazz performances led by Batiste throughout the event showcased the Negro League’s storied relationship with jazz artists. Country artists Brittney Spencer and Willie Jones and blues singer C.S. Armstrong joined Batiste in several songs.

The first pitch was thrown by 99-year-old Greason, who played with Mays on the Birmingham Barons and pitched for the St Louis Cardinals in 1954.

The Cardinals went on to beat out the Giants 6-5 but much of the focus remained on Mays and the brilliant careers of the Neagro League players.

“Todays feels like it’s a little bit bigger than baseball,” Cardinals shortstop Masyn Winn told the Fox broadcast before the game.

Greason, who served as a mentor to teenaged Mays, told Fox Sports reporter Ken Rosenthal that Negro League players took to the field despite racism and segregation.

“We didn’t allow segregation to stop us from playing, from using our talents and gifts for what we were there for. It was a tremendous blessing to have a gift from God to be recognized as such.”

Honoring a long, captivating career

Though the Giants did not take home a win Thursday, their place on the field seemed especially fitting. It was with the Giants that Mays made his Major League debut in 1951 at the age of 20 after departing the Negro Leagues.

His star quickly rose.

He became Rookie of the Year and helped New York rally from a 13-game deficit to tie the Brooklyn Dodgers at the end of regular season.

In 1958, baseball’s landscape changed dramatically as the Giants moved west to San Francisco but Mays continued to deliver an outstanding level of play. He notched a career-high .347 batting average in his first season out west.

Four years later, Mays’ 49 homers and 141 runs batted in (RBI) helped the Giants return to the World Series, where they lost a 7-game thriller to the New York Yankees.

Mays was a five-tool player with the rare ability to hit for power and for average while also excelling at running, throwing and fielding. In 23 major league seasons, mostly with the New York Giants and the San Francisco Giants, he finished with 660 career home runs – then the second most behind legend Babe Ruth.

Mays would play in 24 All-Star games before retiring in 1973 after two seasons with the New York Mets. The Giants have since retired his number, 24.

“The overwhelming consensus is that Willie Mays is the greatest all-around player who has ever played,” veteran sportscaster Bob Costas told CNN. “And, as sad as it is, there’s something poetic about the fact that he passes while much of the baseball world is gathered in Birmingham, Alabama, in Rickwood Field, for a game that was to be dedicated to Willie and still will be.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed remembered Mays on Tuesday as “the best there ever was.”

“He was from a generation who faced segregation and racism, a generation that paved the way so that many of us could have the freedom to thrive,” Breed said.

CNN’s Ray Sanchez, Wayne Sterling and Kevin Dotson contributed to this report.

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