Black baseball and Birmingham remembered

Fred Jeter | 6/27/2024, 6 p.m.
When Wilie Mays broke into pro baseball in 1948 with the Birmingham Black Barons, his teammates at Rickwood Field included …
Bill Greason, 99, and Willie Mays in 2011. The duo were teammates on the Birmingham Black Barons. Photo by AP Photo Michael Dyer

When Wilie Mays broke into pro baseball in 1948 with the Birmingham Black Barons, his teammates at Rickwood Field included pitcher Bill Greason.

Mays would go on to rank among the greatest and most scintillating players in the sports’ history as the slugging, base-stealing, fly shagging, power-armed centerfielder for the New York and San Francisco Giants.

When Mays died last week at age 93, he was the oldest living Hall of Famer (inducted in 1979).

But don’t forget Bill Greason, also known as Rev. Greason.

Following a stint in the Negro Leagues with Birmingham, the Nashville Black Vols and Asheville Blues, Greason broke into the big leagues in 1954 with the St. Louis Cardinals, becoming the organization’s first Black pitcher.

Now 99, Atlanta-born Greason (as a neighbor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) is the oldest living Negro League alumnus and resides in his adopted home city of Birmingham.

The 1948 season – first since Jackie Robinson broke the color line with Brooklyn – was the final season of the traditional American-National Negro League World Series. The Black Barons reached the 1948 World Series and lost to the Homestead Grays, four games to one. However, the winning pitcher in the Barons’ lone victory (by 4-3 in Game 3) was right-handed hurler Gleason.

Mays was just 17 at the time, still a schoolboy and only played home games for Birmingham that season. Mays joined the team for Games 2, 3 and 5 at famed Rickwood Field.

Sure enough, Mays (then a senior at Fairfield Industrial High School in Westfield) drove in the winning run in Game 3 at Rickwood with a walk-off, two out single up the middle in the ninth inning.

Rickwood, the oldest pro ballpark in America, was back in the news on June 20 with the San Francisco Giants (Mays’ team) playing the St. Louis Cards (Greason’s big league team).

The game was in conjunction with Juneteenth and served as a tribute to the long-ago Negro Leagues. Dressed in a Negro Leagues uniform, Greason threw out the ceremonial first pitch in front of a cheering full house.

Mays and Greason were among the last to graduate from the Negro Leagues to the big leagues. Both were among the initial Black players for their major league franchises, led exemplary lives and became a treasure chest of memories.

But don’t forget, the coincidences all started in Birmingham at Rickwood Field.