Emilio “Millito” Navarro boarded a jet in San Juan on Wednesday morning, three months before his 103rd birthday.
He was bound for Orlando, Fla., bound for Major League Baseball’s amateur draft, bound for the New York Yankees, his favorite team.
And Robinson Cano had better break out of that slump.
“Now that I’ve been drafted,” Navarro said, “I’m ready right now to play second base. I might take his job.”
In Memphis, somebody ought to fetch one of those low-hanging, welt-raising switches, because Joe B. Scott is fixing to be a ballplayer again.
“I love baseball,” he said. “I used to get a whipping for playing it. My mother used to whip me on Thursdays and Sundays. Those were my whipping days because she knew I was on the ballfield. But I didn’t cry when she whipped me.”
He’ll be selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the draft. Held, of course, on a Thursday.
In San Diego, Neale “Bobo” Henderson packed for Orlando. He’ll be 78 in three weeks. Sadly, his wife, Annie, is ill and won’t accompany him. But he’s waited the better part of a lifetime for this, to be draft-day eligible, draft-day worthy, draft-day remembered. So he’ll leave Annie behind for a few days, report for duty 60 years coming, dust himself off again and get on with it. He’ll be drafted by the Los Angeles Angels.
Rogers Hornsby, a minor league manager and occasional scout in the 1940s, watched Henderson play a few games. Henderson said the Hall-of-Fame second baseman called him “The California Comet.”
“I was known for my head-first slides,” he said. “Rogers Hornsby really liked my head-first slides.”
Yes, he’ll dust himself off one more time.
Navarro, Scott, Henderson and 27 other former Negro Leaguers will be drafted in a pre-draft ceremony, a tribute formulated by Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield and embraced by Major League Baseball.
Aging men (and one woman, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson) who once were denied access to the big leagues but not the national pastime, who abided the rules of a narrow-minded era, who made do in a separate-and-not-equal game, smiled gently and accepted with true graciousness.
Navarro, the first Puerto Rican to play in the Negro Leagues, is the oldest living professional ballplayer. Scott played 20 years in the Negro Leagues, some of them alongside Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell. Henderson was a bat boy for the Kansas City Monarchs, wore No. 3 as a high schooler to honor Babe Ruth, and once met Ruth himself. A framed photo of that moment hangs in his home, Henderson’s team surrounding The Babe, Henderson shaking Ruth’s hand. Then he grew up to play for those Monarchs.
They have stories, lives that went on without the game, careers stunted by circumstance. Navarro ran a ballpark in Puerto Rico, then taught school. Scott drove a truck. Henderson evangelized on the game in neighborhoods like the ones in which he was raised.
“I’m not bitter,” Henderson said. “God has been good to me. I put all the prejudice aside.”
The shame of that time, it belongs to somebody else. It is not their burden.
“If that’s your door and it’s closed, I don’t have any regrets about that,” Scott said. “Let that door be closed. Nope, I don’t have no regrets myself.”
Winfield sat recently in a dining room just off Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. This was his dream, or close enough to it. In a career that spanned 22 seasons and resulted in some wall space in Cooperstown, Winfield came to know and admire many of the old Negro Leaguers. In 1982, his second season with the Yankees, Winfield’s phone rang in his Kansas City hotel room. It was Satchel Paige. He told Winfield he liked the way he played. He told him he wanted to get together. The Yankees were playing that day, however, and then leaving town.
“You know what,” Winfield told Paige, “it’s going to have to be the next time we come through, in September. We’re going to have lunch or dinner or whatever.”
Paige died three weeks later, on June 8.
“So,” Winfield said, “I never got to meet him in person. But, he called me. Sure did.”
As the years passed, and his own career ended, and the living roster of former Negro Leaguers grew thin, Winfield felt a rising urgency to do right by the ballplayers who’d come before him. He’d seen what a day at the ballpark ndash; the San Diego Padres, for whom he works as a vice president, honor the Negro Leagues annually – did for the spirits of men who believed they were forgotten, or never known. And in 2006 he was in San Diego when 17 Negro Leaguers were elected to the Hall of Fame, and Buck O’Neil was not. He drove back to Los Angeles in silence that day.
By the time he arrived home, he’d come up with a plan to draft Negro Leaguers, give them a new identity and a bond to today’s game.
“I kept thinking we should have done something for Buck,” Winfield said. “We should have made him a major leaguer. We should have made him a part of our roster, our family, our team. Because he had never been those things. He had been a Negro League player and manager, coach, scout, ambassador. Then he passed away later that year. So even though there’s not a lot of big names left, there’s a lot of good people.”
People such as Bobo Henderson and Joe Scott, “Prince” Joe Henry and Charley Pride, “Mule” Miles and ‘Li’l Catch’ Bailey. Maybe they would have been big leaguers, maybe they wouldn’t have. At the time, all they knew was that they couldn’t have.
“This is about letting them share,” Winfield said. “They’re on the fringes of the baseball family. Bring them in a little closer. Let them share in what the game has become. You have to build a platform and let people know that these guys are important. These guys were their heritage. Their connection to the sport is important. That’s what it’s about, why they’re still alive.
“The main thing is I’m happy that we’re doing something this year. You wait too long and there’d be nobody left. I think we have one chance to do something really good. It’ll be a great day.”
So, they readied themselves in San Juan and Memphis and San Diego, and they recalled people and events and laughter amid the darkness. They once bunked in high school gymnasiums and in preachers’ guestrooms, but when they awoke they got to play again, and the game was worth it. Now they’ll share a day with future major leaguers, among former major leaguers. They’ll be a part of it.
“Dave Winfield is an angel sent from heaven,” Henderson said. “That man has really worked hard for us. We are like Major League baseball players now. This is God’s work. I hear it’s supposed to rain, but He’s going to make sure it’s going to be a sunny day down in Orlando.”