Tributes to Willie Mays pour in as mural unveiled in Alabama

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Willie Mays gave a message to his longtime friend Dusty Baker just a day before he died.

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Mays, who died Tuesday afternoon at 93 years old, knew that he wouldn’t be able to make the trip to Birmingham, Ala., for a week of festivities honouring the contributions that he and other Negro Leaguers have made to baseball. But he wanted Baker to share a message to the city he long called home.

“Birmingham, I wish I could be with you all today,” said Mays’ good friend and adviser Jeff Bleich, reading the statement at a ceremony Wednesday honouring Mays’ life and career. “This is where I’m from. I had my first pro hit here at Rickwood as a Black Baron. And now this year, some 76 years later, that hit finally got counted in the record books. I guess some things take time. But I always think better late than never.”

Mays also sent an antique clock with his picture on it to the City of Birmingham. Baker was not feeling well, Bleich said, so he was not at the ceremony.

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“Time changes things,” Mays continued in his note. “Time heals wounds. And that’s a good thing. I had some of the best times of my life in Birmingham. So I want you to have this clock to remember those times with me, and to remember all the other players who were lucky enough to play here together.”

The ceremony took place in downtown Birmingham just miles from Rickwood Field, where Mays’ unforgettable career began. Bleich joined Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer in giving speeches in Mays’ honour, standing in front of a grand mural display of the former Giants centre-fielder.

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It’s an enchanting depiction of the electrifying “Say Hey Kid,” showing Mays beaming with his hands resting on his knees, his bevy of athletic accomplishments painted around him.

The artwork was created by artist Chuck Styles, who said he wanted to capture Mays’ humanity.

“I knew I wanted to showcase him in a way that everybody knew him for,” Styles said, “and that was his smile.”

Other tributes to Mays, born in Westfield, Ala., near Birmingham, poured in from all over the country on Wednesday, including from U.S. President Joe Biden.

“Like so many others in my neighbourhood and around the country, when I played Little League, I wanted to play centre field because of Willie Mays,” Biden said in a statement. “It was a rite of passage to practise his basket catches, daring steals, and command at the plate — only to be told by coaches to cut it out because no one can do what Willie Mays could do.”

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Mays, who began his professional career with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues in 1948, had been baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer and was considered the sport’s greatest living player.

He died two days before a game between the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals to honour the Negro Leagues at Rickwood Field in Birmingham.

“It’s actually even heavier today,” said Giants manager Bob Melvin, wearing a Mays T-shirt. “When you read all the articles and you read what everybody has to say about him, it kind of comes full circle in what he’s meant to our country. Even if you don’t know baseball, you know who Willie Mays is.”

Melvin said the Giants would wear patches with Mays’ No. 24 on their chest for Wednesday’s game against the Chicago Cubs.

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When the team travels to Birmingham for the commemorative game at Rickwood Field on Thursday, the Giants will open Oracle Park for fans to watch the game on the scoreboard, the team announced.

Images of Mays will appear on the scoreboard before and after the event, and a sculpture of his jersey number will be placed in centre field to honour him.

Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said Thursday’s game becomes even more poignant after Mays’ death.

“Being there with everything that is going on will be definitely meaningful. You have an icon of the sport in the city where it all started, so I think bringing light to all of it will be a pretty cool moment down there,” Marmol said.

The 37-year-old manager said he never met Mays, but it was interesting to hear stories from former Giants like Brandon Crawford about him.

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“I will do more of that today. It will be fun to hear people’s stories,” Marmol said. “I am curious to ask around to those who have.”

Cardinals assistant coach Willie McGee said he had several conversations with Mays when he played for the Giants from 1991-94.

“Willie was the best, man, the greatest I have ever seen,” McGee said. “He had all six tools. His aggressiveness, his baserunning. That is what separated him, for me, his aggressiveness and his instincts from other five-tool guys.”

When asked if Mays ever gave him any advice, McGee chuckled.

“All the time — but I don’t remember none of it,” he said.

— AP sports writer Andrew Seligman in Chicago and Associated Press writer Terry Spencer in Miami contributed to this report.

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