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AUTHOR: Don Southworth on 6/24/2024

Baseball is my religion and Willie Mays was/is its god.  Last year MLB announced the first game to honor Willie and the history of the Negro Leagues would be played on June 20, 2024 at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama.  My team, the San Francisco Giants, would be playing the St. Louis Cardinals at the oldest professional baseball park in the country and the place where Willie first played with the Birmingham Black Barons. I circled the day on my calendar and reached out too friends who I thought would like to join me.

Over the following months I discovered it was really difficult to get tickets and my friends’ calendars filled out with other events. The weekend before the game I emailed John Shea, a SF Chronicle reporter who co-authored a wonderful book with Willie, and asked him if 93 year-old Willie would be coming to the game. He said probably not but that I should come anyways.  I looked online and found a ticket for face value(!) which was still 35X what I paid for a ticket to my hometown Durham Bulls earlier in June, and left Tuesday morning for Birmingham. That night, as I watched the Giants game in my hotel room, it was announced that Willie Mays had died.

I cried some tears over the loss of Willie and the loss of a treasured part of my childhood and life. Some of the tears were of grief, but most were of gratitude; not only for Willie but for having the means and wisdom to go on this trip. I wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I had decided to not take the trip and Willie died while I was at home.

I spent the next two days in Birmingham meeting brother and sister pilgrims who went to Birmingham to honor the history of the Negro Leagues and the one and only Willie Mays. I drove to the neighborhood Willie grew up in, visited some of the iconic and tragic sights of the civil rights museum, and watched  a baseball game where the greatest of all time, began his professional life.  I also found John Shea, introduced myself, and thanked him for encouraging me to do something I might not have done without his nudge.

I’m fortunate to have enough resources, time and support to drive over 1,000 miles, spend over $1,000 and take four days to basically go to a baseball game. I’m sure many would think that is insanity. But it was a pilgrimage with memories that will never leave me. When I think of all the reasons to study, learn, and sometimes sacrifice to do our best to have financial security in our lives, few mean more than being able to follow the dreams of our hearts to be able to do something we must do.

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