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Baseball Giant Willie Mays Immortalized With Mural in Downtown Birmingham

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Willie Mays' smile was immortalized in downtown Birmingham on a mural commissioned by Major League Baseball and T-Mobile. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., For The Birmingham Times)

By Solomon Crenshaw Jr. | The Birmingham Times

For years to come, passersby and visitors and residents will get a chance to see the signature smile of baseball giant and Birmingham icon Willie Mays flashed from his rookie year all the way to the baseball Hall of Fame.

With Mays having passed away Tuesday night at the age of 93, that smile was immortalized in downtown Birmingham on a mural commissioned by Major League Baseball and T-Mobile.

The painting, near the intersection of First Avenue North and 18th Street, shows the legendary outfielder with his hands on his knees while grinning from ear to ear.

The mural dedication on Wednesday afternoon is one of many events tied to MLB at Rickwood Field, which is Major League Baseball’s recognition of the Negro Leagues from which Mays blossomed. The first of three games at the century-old ballpark – the Minor League contest between the Birmingham Barons and the Montgomery Biscuits on Tuesday – was interrupted with the jarring news that Mays had passed away.

The week of special events culminates Thursday when the San Francisco Giants, Mays’s former team, faces the St. Louis Cardinals.

Chuck Styles painted the mural of Willie May in downtown Birmingham. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., For The Birmingham Times)

Some have suggested that the passing of Mays, who had already announced he wasn’t traveling to the area where he grew up, was a bit of bad timing. Larry Baer, the president and chief executive officer of the San Francisco Giants, disagreed.

“Willie was a very spiritual person and I believe that Willie thought things were meant to be,” Baer said. “He was so excited about everybody coming to Birmingham and celebrating the history of the Negro Leagues that in some ways, … it’s all good. ‘I can leave the earth and be with you in spirit.’”

Mays always talked about those with whom he would unite like Monte Irvin of the New York Giants and Bobby Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, Baier said.

Jeff Bleich is the trustee of Willie Mays’ estate and chair of the board of the Hall of Famer’s foundation, the Say Hey Foundation. And for a quarter century, he called Mays his friend.

“I’m just heartbroken, but also just inspired by all the love that he generated in this world,” Bleich said. “It’s overwhelming to see the outpouring that his loss has provoked. I would just spend time with him three, four days a week. Just as a friend, I’m gonna miss him.”

Bleich said he felt a fullness and an emptiness with the passing of his friend.

“Even though he was 93 and you know that no one lives forever, it was a gut punch to lose him,” the foundation chairman said. “And yet, the more you see all the love he generated, the more it fills you back up. And that’s it. He always felt like that was his role, to fill other people with joy and excitement, enthusiasm and hope. He wanted to bring that. He loved making people smile and laugh with old stories. That’s who he was.”

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania artist Chuck Styles painted the mural that drew about 100 people to the empty lot on a hot afternoon. Once he landed Tuesday night, he learned that Mays had passed.

“My heart goes out to his family and all his supporters and fans, his colleagues … those that he’s inspired,” Styles said. “I just recently laid my grandfather to rest on Monday so hearing his passing automatically made me remember my own grandfather.

“…the one thing that we can just do is be thankful,” the artist said. “Be thankful that we got to experience a blessed person like Willie Mays who inspires so many other great baseball players and just Black people in general.

“Yeah, it’s with a heavy heart that we are here today but I’m just going to be thankful,” Styles said. “I wouldn’t be here standing here in Birmingham if it wasn’t for Willie Mays. I’m just thankful for the legacy that he’s left for all of us to follow.”

The mural was well received although a correction will be needed.

One of the pennants on the mural says Mays earned an MVP award in 1956. He actually won that award in 1965.

Mayor Randall Woodfin cited former President Barack Obama, who said Mays’ life laid the groundwork for him becoming the leader of a nation.

“With one bat, with one simple bat,” the mayor said, “he knocked down so many walls. Every Black athlete whoever has stepped up to the plate, literally and figuratively, in any sport – and I mean any sport – owes Willie Mays a debt of gratitude. He along with the members of the Negro Leagues and our own Black Barons, were pioneers, activists and, my favorite, real life superheroes. The entire state of Alabama is so proud for all of us to call him our own.”

Bleich said Mays was always on Team Birmingham, making it clear that the first posthumous gift from his foundation would go to the Birmingham/Fairfield area. The longtime friend read a note Mays penned when he realized he could not come for the MLB at Rickwood events.

“Birmingham, wish I could be with you all today,” he read. “This is where I’m from.”

And, thanks to the mural dedicated Wednesday, this is where he will always be.