Commentary

Negro Leagues players will be recognized at draft

Originally Published: June 4, 2008
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

There will be two baseball drafts on Thursday. The Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft will begin the professional careers of some of the game's future stars. The second draft will recognize some of those who might have been stars, but never got the chance.

Prior to the Major League draft at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Major League Baseball will hold a special Negro Leagues Player Draft. Each Major League club will "draft" surviving former Negro Leagues players, who will represent every player who did not have the opportunity to play baseball in the major leagues.

All of these former [Negro Leagues] players have interesting stories to tell. They didn't have the opportunity. Now they will.

--Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive VP for baseball operations

"Commissioner [Bud] Selig has really made a point the last two years to commemorate the Negro Leagues, its history, its legacy," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president for baseball operations. "He has helped get Negro League players inducted in the Hall of Fame, he has established an unqualified pension plan and has helped organize various celebrations by the clubs. This was all done around the Jackie Robinson celebration because baseball truly became the national pastime when Jackie Robinson came in. And a big part of Jackie's celebration is the history of the Negro Leagues."

The idea for the draft came from a collaboration of ideas from, among others, Selig, Solomon and Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, a vice president/senior adviser for the Padres.

"Some of these players are in their 100s, 90s, 80s -- they're not going to be with us for a long time, so this was an opportunity to pay tribute to them … they should be there," Solomon said. "Some of them are so excited, they're speechless. Others are so excited, they can't stop talking. There is a tremendous outpouring of emotion. They don't know how glitzy this is going to be, seeing their faces up there on the big screen. It will be a great day for them."

Pitcher Mamie "Peanut" Johnson (she was only 5-foot-4 and 120 pounds, hence the nickname) will be drafted by the Washington Nationals. She won 33 games for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1953 to '55, making her the first woman to win a game in a men's professional baseball league. She was once a teammate of Hank Aaron, and was included in the first group of eight players inducted into the Negro Leagues Wall of Fame at County Stadium in Milwaukee in 1997.

Country and western singer Charley Pride will be drafted by the Texas Rangers. He pitched for the Memphis Black Sox and the Birmingham Black Barons during the 1950s. In 1956, he pitched for a Negro Leagues All-Star team against a team of African-American Major League stars, including Aaron, Willie Mays and Ernie Banks. Pride struck out 12, and took a 1-0 lead into the ninth inning, but the major leaguers scored two runs in the inning. After making it big in the music industry, Pride went to spring training several years with the Rangers. He once served as the "designated pinch hitter'' in a spring training game, and went 1-for-2.

Pride's brother, Mack (Mack The Knife) Pride Jr., a pitcher for the Memphis Red Sox and Kansas City Monarchs, will be drafted by the Rockies. Infielder Emilio "Millito" Navarro, who played for the Cuban Stars, will be taken by the Yankees. He is 102 years old, and is believed to be the oldest living professional baseball player. Pitcher Walter McCoy will be drafted by the Padres. He played for the Chicago American Giants and the Kansas City Monarchs, and set a league pitching record by winning 11 consecutive games, two of which came against Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford of the New York Yankees.

"All of these former players have interesting stories to tell," Solomon said. "They didn't have the opportunity. Now they will."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.