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MLB game in Alabama takes on extra significance following Willie Mays' death

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Birmingham, Ala., hosts America's oldest professional baseball park. Last night, events honoring the Negro Leagues culminated with a major league game between the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals. Steve Futterman was there.

(APPLAUSE)

STEVE FUTTERMAN: For decades, Negro League players yearned for simply a chance to play in the big leagues. Last night at Rickwood Field, as a live band played, dozens of men in their 80s and 90s - some in wheelchairs, others struggling to walk - came onto the field in a gripping pre-game ceremony. One of them was 85-year-old Joseph Marbury, who played for the Indianapolis Clowns.

JOSEPH MARBURY: Oh, this is great. It is fitting and proper. It's long overdue.

FUTTERMAN: Did you think ever something like this would happen?

MARBURY: In my wildest dreams, I never thought anything like this would happen. I'm just so happy I got a chance to be a part of something like this before I died.

FUTTERMAN: When MLB first planned this last year, it was thought the centerpiece of the celebration would be hometown hero Willie Mays. He played his first professional game as a 17-year-old at Rickwood. His death on Tuesday added extra significance to the game. In a pre-game salute, Mays' son Michael spoke to the crowd.

MICHAEL MAYS: 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. So y'all ready? Stand to your feet. Let him hear you. He's listening. Make all the noise you can.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Willie, Willie, Willie, Willie, Willie...

FUTTERMAN: Last night's festivities didn't make up for the decades of racial denial. But fan Clif Wilson (ph), an African American who lives in Birmingham, said it helps.

CLIF WILSON: It just feels good. It's so due - right? - for the Negro League and their players to get their due - right? - to get their recognition, to get their flowers, to have people applaud.

FUTTERMAN: In the game itself, which somehow seemed insignificant compared to everything else, the Cardinals beat the Giants 6-5. Masyn Winn, one of two Black Cardinals to play in the game, was just happy being in the park with his stepfather, who taught him about the Negro Leagues.

MASYN WINN: For me to be able to be here, and for my stepdad to be able to be here and enjoy that moment with me, I mean, it was unbelievable.

FUTTERMAN: Did it give you some tingles when you went onto the field?

WINN: Oh, I got chills. I haven't really been nervous for a baseball game up until today. And, you know, I was taking deep breaths, just trying to calm myself down. It was amazing.

FUTTERMAN: It's the history, isn't it?

WINN: Oh, yeah, 100%.

FUTTERMAN: And there was even more history last night at Rickwood Field. For the first time in a major league game, all four umpires were African American.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Futterman in Birmingham, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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