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A winner for baseball

A joyful, healing tribute brought long-overdue recognition to players from the Negro Leagues.

June 10, 2008

While the nation marveled at Barack Obama's presumptive capture of the Democratic Party's nomination for president last week and measured the country's racial progress against his achievement, the long march toward justice passed another milestone at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex in Florida. Before baseball's annual draft got underway, every team in the major leagues symbolically drafted a surviving member of the Negro Leagues. The 30 players chosen represent the hundreds of black and Latino players who were shut out of the majors in the 1920s, '30s and '40s because of their skin color.

They include John "Mule" Miles, whose 11 home runs in 11 games for the Chicago American Giants would be a record to this day had he hit them in the major leagues; Miles is now a Seattle Mariner. Emilio "Millito" Navarro, who was born in Puerto Rico and played shortstop for the Cuban Stars, joins the New York Yankees at age 102. And Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, who was a teammate of a teenage Hank Aaron on the Indianapolis Clowns and the first woman to pitch and win on a men's pro baseball team, is now on the Washington Nationals.

The ceremonial draft was the idea of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, a vice president of the San Diego Padres, and it was embraced by Commissioner Bud Selig and Jimmie Lee Solomon, executive vice president of baseball operations. Watching the ceremony, it was difficult to tell who was more pleased and proud, the execs or the old-timers. A few of the honorees walked tentatively or used canes, but others were clearly still spry as they posed in their team caps and held up their new jerseys. Photos of them as young athletes flashed on a screen, images from a time when they were lithe and fast and among the best of their generations -- outpitching, outrunning, outcatching the competition, but barred nonetheless from America's game. Their dedication defied reason. Rarely able to sleep in motels and hotels or eat in restaurants, they traveled the country playing ball for the love of the game and sleeping for weeks in team buses.

Thursday's draft was a joyful event, devoid of breast-beating on the part of baseball and bitterness on the part of the players. It served to remind that progress and healing sometimes come from momentous events -- a victorious campaign or landmark lawsuit -- but also from quieter gestures. The honorees said the event was one of the greatest moments of their lives, a day they thought would never come. As he waited to be drafted, one erstwhile infielder said it felt like being born again. Then it was his turn. From the podium came the announcement: "The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim select the shortstop from the Kansas City Monarchs, the 'California Comet,' Neale 'Bobo' Henderson!"

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