Kesley Colbert
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He was the Best I ever saw

Maybe it was karma. Or divine appointment. I do not believe luck had anything to do with it. And it was not Willie putting his “mark” on me one last time. He had everlasting and forever done that in the summer of 1954 and ’55 and ’56 and ’57….

I’m sitting in Seat 8, Row 7, Section EE of Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama. The game was part of Major League Baseball’s tribute to the oldest baseball park in America and the Negro League and its players who roamed this hallowed ground.

The minor league teams were wearing “throwback” uniforms representing the Montgomery Gray Sox and the Birmingham Black Barons of the old Negro Southern League. It was a bit surreal to a baseball lifer to be in this place, at this moment, with history ostensibly leaping out of the 114-year-old steel and concrete stadium with every pitch.

This game was a precursor to the major league game between the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals that will be played on this “Field of Dreams” two days later. It will get all the attention, hype, etc. And that is OK with me. But, on this night, I was enjoying all the wonderful attributes of the greatest game on earth.

I didn’t care who won. I wanted to see some “smoke’em-on-the-inside” pitching, “take-two-and-bang-it-off-the-right-centerfield-wall” hitting, a spectacular defensive play or two, and a head-first slide into third would be a nice bonus. I was in my element, living large and praying they would tie this game up and play ‘till three in the morning when the announcer interrupted my life – 

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have some sad news… the family of Willie Mays has announced his passing this evening… he was 93 years old… and widely acclaimed as one of the greatest baseball players of all time… ” 

Willie Mays was born in Westfield, Alabama, six miles from Rickwood Field. He played his first professional game for the aforementioned Black Barons in this stadium in May of 1948. He was 17 years old and still in high school.

When you could “hit it and go get it” like Willie, they find you pretty quickly.

Seven thousand, eight hundred, and sixty-six people, which was everyone in attendance on this warm evening at Rickwood Field, stood up and gave Willie Mays an ovation that was long and heartfelt. It was only fitting. And most appropriate. Before we sat back down, I was 236 miles and 67 years away. I didn’t care if anyone noticed the tears… 

I was in that field between our house and Aunt Jessie’s. Our uniforms were blue jeans and T-shirts. We were choosing up sides and deciding who we were going “to be” for that particular game. You never played as Ricky Hale, Buddy Wiggleton, or Kesley Colbert. Who wanted to be those guys!

We stepped into the batter’s box as Stan “The Man” Musial. Willie “Say Hey” Mays. Ted “The Splendid Splinter” Williams. “Hammering” Hank Aaron…. I ran faster when I was Willie Mays. I covered more ground in centerfield. I mastered his hook slide into second base. His famous “basket catch,” which he did so easily and naturally, was a bit more difficult than it looked.

We all loved Willie Mays.

And you might wonder how that could be in the deep South in the segregated 1950s. Well, that was a no-brainer to us. We were 10 years old and stuff like that never crossed our minds. We wanted “to be” the best baseball player on earth. And believe me, in those days that was Willie Mays.

And it was not all about his remarkable baseball stats either. You can look them up. They will amaze you! But we loved Willie because it was so obvious that he enjoyed playing the game as much as we did. I would wear a cap that was a little tight, or too large, so when I rounded first base, it would fly off my head… just like Willie did it!

I saw him play in 1962 at the old Sportsman Park in St. Louis. It was a Sunday doubleheader. Willie got three hits in the first game, one in the second, and made a great running catch in the outfield. I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven!

Years later he was on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Johnny was explaining “How hard and remarkable it must be to play baseball at such a high level for such a long time.”

Willie kinda grinned and gave us an insight into his remarkable career, “When they throw it, I hit it. When they hit it, I catch it.”

I have never heard the game explained any better than that!

I was surprised when the announcer said he was 93. In our hearts, he was, and will always be, 21 years old… and flying around the bases. 

Major League Baseball wanted to showcase Rickwood Field and its prominent role in Minor League Baseball and especially the old Negro League. They wanted the world to know this was a special place…. hallowed ground to any true baseball fan.

I thought they had two options. They could spend five million dollars (which they did) to spruce up the ballpark, dig up the old field and replace it with a zillion tons of dirt, bring in a special blend of Bermuda grass from Georgia, put up temporary lighting, and install a new, modern scoreboard that was as big as all outdoors.

Or they could have just said, “Willie Mays once played here.”



Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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