BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Bill Greason, a former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher and the oldest-living Negro Leagues player, embraced special honors in Thursday’s game at Rickwood Field.

At 99 years old, Greason had the opportunity to throw a ceremonial first pitch and join the MLB on FOX broadcast during the game, which served as a tribute to the Negro Leagues.

Rickwood Field was a former home ballpark for Greason, who pitched one season in the Negro Leagues with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. He reached the MLB level with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954, making his mark as the franchise’s first Black pitcher.

“It’s a tremendous blessing to be here,” said Greason on his return to Rickwood Field during the MLB on FOX broadcast. “To see this team play here is good because it was not like that when I went to the Cardinals.”

Greason’s legacy extends far beyond the baseball diamond. As one of the first Black U.S. Marines, Greason served during World War II and survived the Battle of Iwo Jima. Two of his best friends were killed in combat, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.


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Greason returned from his service in 1946 and went on to play two seasons with a semi-pro football team known as the Atlanta All-Stars before his run in professional baseball. As he worked toward an opportunity with the Cardinals, Greason also served as a mentor for then-rising star Bob Gibson in the minor leagues.

He also served as a mentor for another MLB Hall-of-Famer. That being Willie Mays, who was also honored during the game but died just two days before it.

Former Negro Leagues player Bill Greason throws out the first pitch before the start of a baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants at Rickwood Field, Thursday, June 20, 2024, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

“He was a determined young man,” said Greason on Mays. “He had the gifts, the talent. He was such good conditioning to those who were older than he was. It was a tremendous blessing, and we turned out to be real close, like brothers.”

Greason acknowledged many challenges around segregation and how it shaped his perspective of life in baseball and beyond.

“Once you make up your mind and see what’s going on, you know you can’t change it, so you adapt to it and make the best of it. That’s what we did” said Greason. “We didn’t allow segregation to stop us from playing, from using our talents and gifts for what we were there for. It was a tremendous blessing to have a gift from God to be recognized as such.”

Greason grew up in Atlanta as a neighbor of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. Aside from sports, Greason’s civil rights activism is well-documented through military and faith. He became a pastor of Bethel Baptist Church¬†in 1971 and has served as a minister for more than half a century.

“I was taught from a young age to know who you are, not worry about other people, but if you can help them, just remember who you are and try to do the best you could. I had somebody I had to represent. That was my mother. It was a gift from God for what I was able to do. I just thank God that things worked out the way that they did.”

Greason married his wife Willie Otis Underwood in 1953 and the two stayed together until her death in 2018. Two daughters, two grandchildren and six great-grandchildren carry on his family legacy.

The Cardinals won Thursday’s Rickwood Field game over the San Francisco Giants by a score of 6-5. The Cardinals return to Busch Stadium for two more games with the Giants on Saturday and Sunday to close out the series.