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MLB Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson remembers Willie Mays at historic Rickwood Field: ‘He was pure baseball’

MLB Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson sat on the Fox Sports panel at the historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, on Thursday night in mourning, much like the rest of the baseball world is after the death of Willie Mays. 

Mays died peacefully on Tuesday afternoon at 93 years old, two days before this long-awaited game between the St. Louis Cardinals and his San Francisco Giants was to be played at the Negro Leagues field he competed at with the Birmingham Black Barons when he was just a kid looking to break into professional baseball. 

Fellow Hall of Famer Derek Jeter shared a text exchange that he had with Jackson to kick off the remembrance of Mays, who Jackson said was his “all-time favorite.”

“’He was at the very least one of the greatest of all-time,’” Jeter said Jackson texted him. “’We all wanted to be like Willie. When one played against him, you got caught up in watching Willie. He was pure baseball. My all-time favorite, love the guy. I wanted to be like Willie.’”

Jackson went further into his admiration for Mays, who he got to know well as a young ballplayer in MLB. 

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“‘You could see that the love of the game was in Willie Mays, Derek,” Jackson said. “‘The way he went about it when you saw him in spring training, I learned to wear my uniform the way that Willie Mays did. I didn’t have the long pants and the heels over the spikes. I learned by watching Willie Mays – he was the first guy to get his uniform tapered. Him and Mickey Mantle. 

“‘The way he showed the love of the game, the way he respected the game. Even when he had a complaint about what may had been going on with minorities or whatever, in his era, Derek, he didn’t speak about it. He loved the game so much that he refrained. But my admiration for him was how he went about it, and how he showed people like me following him how to play.'”

Both Mays and Jackson dealt with racism on their baseball journeys in Birmingham, as Jackson played his Double-A ball with the then-Kansas City A’s in Birmingham in 1967 before eventually making his big league debut that year. 

Willie Mays closeup

“When people ask me a question like that, coming back here is not easy,” Jackson said.

But Jackson, as well as everyone in “The Magic City” on Thursday night, understood the importance of shining a light on the Negro Leagues and Rickwood Field – the oldest ballpark in America. 

Before the game began, Mays’ son, Michael, told the crowd at Rickwood to cheer as loud as they could for his late father, who he said was listening. 

Reggie Jackson and Willie Mays

Those cheers eventually turned into a “Willie! Willie!” chant that lasted a while, as many former Negro Leagues players stood with the Giants and Cardinals on the field.

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