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Baseball legend, Birmingham native Willie Mays dies at 93

Willie Mays, regarded by many as the greatest baseball player to ever live, died Tuesday, the San Francisco Giants announced. The Hall of Famer was 93.

Mays was born in 1931 in Westfield, an unincorporated mining town outside of Birmingham. He began his professional career while attending Fairfield High School, joining the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. At just 17 years old, Mays became one of the Negro Leagues’ premier players almost immediately.

“The first big thing I ever put my mind to was to play at Rickwood Field. It wasn’t a dream. It was something I was going to do,” Mays recently wrote. “I was going to work hard to be one of the Birmingham Black Barons and play ball at Rickwood Field. That’s what I did. It was my start. My first job. You never forget that. Rickwood Field is where I played my first home game, and playing there was IT — everything I wanted.”

By 1951, Mays had joined the MLB’s Giants, with whom he would remain for the next two decades. During his storied career, the “Say Hey Kid” racked up 24 All-Star selections, 2 MVP awards, and 12 Gold Gloves, a list of accolades that made him a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Mays, who this week announced he would not be able to attend Thursday’s MLB game at Rickwood Field, passed away surrounded by his family in Palo Alto, Calif.

“My father has passed away peacefully and among loved ones,” said Willie’s son Michael Mays. “I want to thank you all from the bottom of my broken heart for the unwavering love you have shown him over the years. You have been his life’s blood.”

As the news of Mays’ death broke, tributes poured in from across the country.

“Willie Mays wasn’t just a singular athlete, blessed with an unmatched combination of grace, skill and power. He was also a wonderfully warm and generous person – and an inspiration to an entire generation,” wrote former president Barack Obama. “I’m lucky to have spent time with him over the years, and Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to his family.”

U.S. Rep. Terry Sewell cited his “profound” loss.

“Today, the world has lost a baseball legend and we in Birmingham have lost a hometown hero,” Sewell (D-Birmingham) said. “An expert at his craft and a pioneer in his own right, Willie Mays leaves behind a legacy of unmatched skill, courage, determination, and humility. His extraordinary career broke down barriers for generations of Black athletes to follow in his footsteps, and his loss will be felt profoundly as we pay tribute the Negro Leagues at Rickwood Field.

“I am keeping his family, friends, and teammates close in my prayers.”

“This week, when the eyes of the world are on Birmingham and the proud legacy of the Negro Leagues, we lose one of the greatest players to ever pick up a bat,” wrote Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin. “In a sport filled with titans, few stood taller than Willie Mays.”

“My heartfelt condolences go out to Willie Mays’ family and loved ones,” wrote Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey. “A Fairfield native, his remarkable talent and contagious spirit reshaped baseball. His legacy as a trailblazer for African American athletes will continue to inspire generations. Truly, an Alabama legend.”

“Thursday’s game at historic Rickwood Field was designed to be a celebration of Willie Mays and his peers,” stated MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. “With sadness in our hearts, it will now also serve as a national remembrance of an American who will forever remain on the short list of the most impactful individuals our great game has ever known.”

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