MLB gets it right with draft of living Negro Leaguers
Just prior to baseball's annual amateur draft on Thursday, when more than $100 million will be spent on the country's best high school and college talent, Major League Baseball will do something it should have done decades ago. Sixty one years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Major League Baseball will stage a draft of living, former Negro League players. The 30 players who will be "drafted" have already been assigned to each of the 30 teams, and the players will receive a small stipend (believed to be about $5,000).
But it's not about the money. It's about recognizing the on-field achievements and historical relevance of 30 mostly forgotten Negro Leaguer stars.
Of course, this is little compared to what was lost. And it's certainly late. Yet it is still a terrific gesture by Major League Baseball to take the time to recognize 30 great professional ballplayers whose names aren't nearly as well known as many of the kids who will be drafted later that day.
"It's a wonderful thing,'' said Joe B. Scott, 87, who uses his middle initial because there was another Joe Scott in the Negro Leagues. "I just wish it could have been 60 years ago. I could play back then.''
Scott, a former outfielder/first baseman who played for the Chicago American Giants, Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Black Yankees (a moniker which by itself shows what a different time it was), is one of many old-time players from the Negro Leagues who remain mostly anonymous because they never got to play in the major leagues (one of the 30, Charley Pride, made his name as a country singer after his stint in the Negro Leagues with the Memphis Red Sox).
There's Neale "Bobo" Henderson, 77, a shortstop with Monarchs from 1949 to '53; Otha "Li'l Catch'' Bailey, a 5-foot-6 catcher of the Chattanooga Black Lookouts; Charley Pride's brother Mack "the Knife'' Pride, a pitcher with the Monarchs; Millito Navarro, an infielder with the Cuban stars who's believed to be the oldest living ballplayer at 102; and Mamie "Peanut'' Johnson of the Indianapolis Clowns, a rare female pitcher and utility second baseman for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1953 to '55, where she played with a teen-aged Hank Aaron before he was signed by the Boston Braves.
"I did pretty good for a girl,'' recalled Johnson Goodman. She said she was 33-7 in those three years but always understood that she wasn't about to follow her teammate Aaron to the big leagues.
"I had two strikes against me,'' said Johnson Goodman without bitterness. "First, I was a girl. And second, I was black.''
Now, she'll finally have her day.
Baseball can never make up for its past. But this small step, the brainchild of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, is a nice touch, even though it occurs decades after baseball's greatest travesty of all (way worse than steroids) robbed these great athletes of their chance at glory.
Winfield sounded like a little kid when he spoke about the endeavor, which was executed by Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president, baseball operations. "Some people think of negative things when they think of major league baseball. This is a positive,'' Winfield said. "They don't have anybody speaking for them. So let's embrace part of our family.''
It was Winfield's vision. And it is a dream for Scott. And for Henderson, and Johnson Goodman, too, who all believe they were good enough to play in the majors at the time. Scott said he hit against major league pitchers Bob Feller, Virgil Trucks and other stars in barnstorming exhibitions while playing for Satchel Paige's All-Stars and showed he belonged right with them.
"I hit all of them,'' Scott said. "I could play with anybody.''
"I was a helluva ballplayer,'' recalled Henderson, whose career ended soon after a motorcycle accident. "I could do it all -- run, hit. I just didn't get the breaks.''
Scott remembered being paid $750 a month for the Black Yankees but having to drive a truck back in Memphis in the offseason. Henderson said he doubted Scott was that well off. He recalled making $75 a week for the Monarchs and shining shoes when he wasn't playing.
Scott said he also remembered running across Jackie Robinson in spring training in 1946. Scott was with the Black Yankees at the time. Robinson was with Montreal, and a year away from breaking the color barrier.
"He wasn't the best ballplayer -- not by a long shot,'' Scott said. Rather, Scott ranked Negro League stars Willie Wells, Cool Papa Bell, Turkey Stearns and Alec Radcliffe ahead of Robinson, who made the Hall of Fame.
Henderson, who hit .343 in 1951 and said he was best-known for his head-first slide, decried some of the attitudes of today's players. 'They just don't listen,'' he said. "They don't hustle and bustle. There's too much clowning.''
Some might still suggest that Johnson Goodman's appearance as an Indianapolis Clown pitcher back then was part of a show. (The two other women in the league she recalled, Toni Stone and Connie Morgan, both played second base.) But she said that's not the case, and her career mark bears that out. Asked whether she was good enough to play in the majors, Johnson Goodman answered confidently and succinctly. "I was.''
But she doesn't go so far as to say she was in Aaron's league. "Oh yeah, he was better than me,'' Johnson Goodman said. "We had some ballplayers playing in the Negro Leagues that were better than the major leaguers.''
But, Johnson Goodman added, "I did pretty good for a girl.''
The Negro Leaguers who are in good enough health to travel to Orlando on Thursday will do so, and collect their small stipend. A bout with over-concerned legal eagles prevented MLB from presenting contracts to the 30 Negro Leaguers.
"I would do it for nothing,'' said Henderson.
Scott recalled that then baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis said back in 1937 that no black would ever make it to the majors. But Scott recalled thinking back then, "One day we're going to get there.''
Ten years later, that day -- baseball's best ever -- finally arrived when Robinson broke through. Sixty one years after that, Joe B. Scott and 29 other Negro Leaguers will have their own day.