Why SF Giants’ Mike Yastrzemski ‘had to introduce myself’ to ex-Negro League player

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Barry Bonds. Ken Griffey Jr. Reggie Jackson. Derek Jeter. Jimmy Rollins. C.C. Sabathia. Adam Jones.

Some of baseball’s biggest living stars, all of African-American descent, were on hand under a golden southern sky Thursday evening for the Giants’ instant classic at Rickwood Field. Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz were there, too, as part of the pregame show for the nationally televised game.

For outfielder Mike Yastrzemski and many others in attendance, their presence was overshadowed by a man who played only four games in Major League Baseball.

“I just had to introduce myself,” said Yastrzemski, who tracked down Bill Greason and held a long conversation in front of home plate after the 99-year-old former Birmingham Black Baron threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the game honoring Willie Mays and past Negro Leagues legends.

Greason, a former teammate of Mays’ who went on to serve as a minister for more than 50 years, pitched for the Black Barons from 1948-51 and appeared in four games for the St. Louis Cardinals — the Giants’ opponent Thursday — in 1954.

He is the oldest living former Negro Leaguer and, after being handed the ceremonial baseball by Jeter, lobbed an overhand strike to Ron Teasley Jr., the son of one of the only remaining men to have played in the Negro League era, which ended in 1948.

Baseball is only part of Greason’s story, which is how Yastrzemski came to know him.

“Going to Iwo Jima, having a relationship with Willie, having the courage to do what he did here and go play in the big leagues for four games,” Yastrzemski said. “There’s a lot that is entwined in his story, and I encourage everybody to look it up and really dive into his life because it’s special.”

Prior to his playing career, Greason served in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he was one of its earliest Black members and eventually fought for the 66th Supply Platoon with the 34th Marine Depot Company in the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.

Upon retiring, he joined the congregation of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, where he endured the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing that took the lives of four Black girls, eventually following his faith to nearby Bethel Baptist, starting preaching in 1971 and continuing to this day.

Greason’s background made him the ideal subject for Heart and Armor, a veteran-focused foundation supported by Yastrzemski, who called him an “integral” piece of the group. They had spoken over Zoom a handful of times but never met in person.

“I just had to take that opportunity when I could and thank him for everything that he’s done and let him know what an honor it was to finally be shaking his hand,” Yastrzemski said. “The ceremony, getting to meet all the old players, getting to meet Reverend Greason, getting to step out on that field. All of it was special. Hopefully we’ll be able to do more games here and really kind of make this a fun thing and a fun tradition.”

The star power and pageantry on display throughout the evening led manager Bob Melvin to compare the game to a “playoff-type feel,” and Yastrzemski said “it felt like we went back in time, like 70 years ago…You guys could feel it tonight. The buzz was different. The aura was different.”

At the core of every pro ballplayer is a kid who developed a love for the game imitating his idols in the backyard. At times, yes, even big leaguers are susceptible to being starstruck. So, when Matt Chapman spotted Jeter on the third-base foul line, he couldn’t pass up his opportunity to introduce himself.

“He was my idol growing up,” Chapman said. “He said he knew who I was and said he followed everything that I do. That was pretty cool. I just told him that all I used to do was beg my dad to throw me ground balls so I could practice Jeter throws. And he said, ‘Now you’re making me feel old.’”

If Jeter felt old, imagine how Melvin felt bounding out of the dugout to say hello. Now 49 and a decade into retirement, Jeter was a 20-year-old top prospect in Triple-A during Melvin’s brief tenure in the Yankees’ organization during the strike-shortened 1994 season.

“It just had that feel,” Melvin said of the atmosphere. “Look, this is a one-of-a-kind type of place to play. You look around and kind of feel what transpired here long ago. Players that played on this field. You just don’t get to experience something like this in the middle of the season much. It would’ve been nice to win the game, but it was pretty cool.”

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Before the game, Melvin shared with his team a few stories of his interactions with Mays, including his timid introduction upon learning after arriving in 1986 that the first-ballot Hall of Famer had a locker next to his at Candlestick Park. With its notorious winds, Melvin asked Mays how he hit 660 home runs. Well, when the wind blew in from left, Mays said, he would simply hit them out to right.

Was it Mays, then, using the Giants’ current center fielder as a medium from the afterlife, when Heliot Ramos launched an opposite-field shot that temporarily tied the score at 3?

“Ramos took that to heart,” Yastrzemski said. “That was Willie speaking through him, I guess.”

Coming to bat for their final time down 6-5, the Giants put the potential tying and go-ahead runs on base. But with Trenton Books on second and Patrick Bailey on first, Chapman struck out swinging to end the game.

“It was all great, (except) I wish we won,” Chapman said. “It sucks how it ended. We really wanted to win that one for Willie.”

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