MLB Bridges Gap Via Special Draft

By Justice B. Hill
Updated: May 31, 2008

NEW YORK — Dave Winfield doesn’t want credit for the idea, but he can hardly escape getting credit for it since everybody else says Winfield came up with it. And the idea is one that people across baseball are praising.

Winfield proposed having a “ceremonial” draft on June 5 for surviving players from the Negro Leagues. The draft would be a way for Major League Baseball to connect its past with its present, he said.

“You would truly bring the past into the present,” said Winfield, a Hall of Famer and vice president with the Padres. “You would change these people’s lives. You would change baseball history — American history.

“I thought it would be poignant, timely and appropriate, and I thought we could do it.”

So did people in the Commissioner’s Office. Winfield brought his initial idea to Commissioner Bud Selig and Jimmie Lee Solomon, baseball’s executive vice president.

The three of them tweaked it a bit before turning the idea into a plan that would accomplish what Winfield had hoped for: saluting those black and Latino ballplayers who had been excluded from the Majors because of their color.

As part of its 2008 First-Year Player Draft, each team will select a player whose career encompassed the Negro Leagues and other leagues. Participation in the Draft was voluntary, Winfield said, but all 30 clubs will participate as Major League Baseball keeps alive the legacy of “black baseball.”

BaseballChannel.TV will stream the Negro League Draft live at 1 p.m. ET, and the opening rounds of this year’s First-Year Player Draft will follow at 2 p.m. Both events will be held at The Milk House at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.

Fans are encouraged to attend. Admission is free, with seating available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Those in attendance will see firsthand what Winfield and Solomon called the continuation of baseball’s effort to fix a historical wrong.

Solomon cited other examples:

• The Commissioner’s Office provided the money for a research project that led to the induction of 17 Negro League ballplayers and executives into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

• Major League Baseball has partnered with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City on several projects, including fundraisers for educational programs.

• Baseball has organized the Civil Rights Game as a tribute to the role the sport has played as a social force in America.

Still, the game’s history of exclusion — the wrongs of segregation — often haunts baseball, Solomon said. What is adequate redress for its sordid past?

Solomon didn’t know, but for Major League Baseball to do nothing didn’t seem just, either.

“You’ve got to make peace with your past — to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘No more,’” Solomon said. “Here is evidence that we recognize that this class of people were not treated fairly.”

Winfield said he’d been weighing ways to honor Negro Leaguers for many years, and he took serious stock in finding the appropriate recognition in 2006.

He said the death that year of Buck O’Neil, the iconic chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and baseball’s greatest ambassador, proved the flashpoint.

O’Neil, Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and their Negro League contemporaries had done much for baseball, Winfield said. Baseball needed to do something for the survivors who played alongside these stars.

“The game has experienced a lot of success, and there were some people who just were not fully embraced by the family of Major League Baseball,” Winfield said. “I thought we should before they passed on.”

At the Disney sports complex, Negro Leaguers like Joe Scott, Neale “Bobo” Henderson, James “Red” Moore, Cecil “Minute Man” Kaiser, Emilio “Millito” Navarro, John “Mule” Miles and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, a female pitcher, will be drafted.

The spotlight will be on all 30 players as ballclubs extend an official invitation to each of them to join baseball’s family. All of them have been invited to the event itself.

“It’s good to embrace these people as much as you can by the family of baseball,” Winfield said. “I think it will be a great day.”

Winfield hopes, however, the spotlight will remain on these players for more than one “great” day. He’d like each team to welcome these Negro Leaguers beyond the Draft. He’d like to see these former ballplayers involved in meaningful ways with the teams that draft them.

“It’s not just a promotional day,” Winfield said. “The event has historical implications that border in importance on rivaling the induction of the 17 Negro Leaguers into the Hall in 2006.”