MLB to hold ceremonial draft of living Negro League players

Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winnfield came up with the notion to have a “draft” of living former Negro League stars during this year’s annual amateur baseball draft that takes place this weekend.

Beginning on Friday, June 6, Major League baseball will spend more than $100 million on the country’s best high school and college talent and at the same time pay homage to Negro League players who were before their time.

Prior to 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first black baseball player to sign a Major League contract, hundreds of negro leaguers who could have played in the majors were denied the chance because of “Jim Crow” laws at the time. Still, it was not until the late 50’s that a significant number of blacks were offered Major League contracts.

Country singer Charley Pride, Joe B.Scott and Emilio Navarro, at age 102 and believed to be the oldest living negro leaguer, are among the former Negro League players invited to attend this weekends’activities.

The event will take place in Buena Vista, Florida, prior to Major League holding this year’s draft.

Winnfield stated in Sports Illustrated that baseball can never make up for the past, but honoring these professional baseball greats is a small step and an appropriate gesture even though it occurs decades after pro baseball’s greatest travesty of all robbed these outstanding athletes of their chance at glory.”

“We are pleased to take this opportunity to recognize this proud part of our game’s past. Those who played in the Negro Leagues helped to pave the way,” said MLB Executive Vice-president Jimmie Lee Solomon in a press release.

The 70-year old Pride, a Grammy Award winning singer from Lambert, Miss., pitched for the Memphis Red Sox and the Birmingham Black Barons in the 1950s. He tried out for the Los Angeles Angels in 1961 and subsequently went to training camp with the Milwaukee Brewers. But, Pride never realized his dream of playing in the Majors.

Scott, 87, played first base for the Chicago Giants, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the New York Black Yankees, is one of the many old-time Negro League players who remain mostly anonymous because they never got to the big leagues.

Navarro, a shortstop, played for the Cuban All-Stars of the Eastern Colored League which played Negro League teams in the United States. He’s in the Puerto Rico Baseball and Sports Halls of Fame.

The 30 players who will be “drafted” are assigned to each of the 30 MLB teams, and each player will receive a signing stipend “bonus” of $5,000.

Scott played against young Robinson at the time and the likes of the great Satchel Paige, who died in 1982 at the age of 75, the late Josh Gipson, who signed a Major League contract in 1943, but was never allowed to play in the big leagues, and the late Cool Papa Bell, as well as a young Marshall Bridges.

“I could knock the cover off the ball and could play with the best of ‘em. We just didn’t get the breaks,” Scott said. He also said Robinson wasn’t the best ballplayer among the Negro league players…not by a long shot. “Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gipson were better than Robinson,” he said.

Bell was born in Starkville, Mississippi in 1903 and played center field in the Negro League with 8 different teams from 1922 to 1950. He’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame as well as the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. He was the fastest man in baseball during his era. Bell passed away at age 87 in 1991.

Bridges, born in Jackson in 1931, started playing in the Negro League as a 17-year older. He played with several Negro League teams including the Homestead Grays and the Memphis Red Sox.

Bridges broke into the Majors in 1959 with the St. Louis Cardinals and later played for Cincinnati, the world champions New York Yankees and the Washington Senators before being force out in 1965 for health reasons. He died at age 59 from cancer in 1990 at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

“A lot of people think of negative things when they think of Major League Baseball. This weekend of activities is a positive. They (negro leaguers) don’t have any one speaking for them… so we’re embracing part of our family,” Winnfield concluded.

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