Navarro was great player, better man
First Puerto Rican to play in Negro Leagues dies at 105
When Emilio Navarro turned 102 in 2008, he celebrated like only "Millito" could.
As the story goes, the baseball legend bent over and touched his toes, stood up straight and clapped. He then spread his arms and declared himself fit for any woman looking for a spry young man.
A year later, he repeated the exercise for those unlucky enough to miss the performance on his previous birthday.
Navarro loved to make people laugh and people loved to laugh with him. He was a comedian at heart but he was also a pioneer, a school teacher, a proud Puerto Rican and baseball-lifer. Navarro, known in the sports world as "Millito," was a genuine jack-of-all-trades, but was a true one-of-a-kind.
He will be missed.
Navarro, 105, passed away on Saturday in Puerto Rico from complications caused by a heart attack. He was surrounded by his family at the time of his death. He was the oldest living professional ballplayer, but he was so much more.
Navarro was the American dream personified. He still represents the good life, even in death. "Millito" will be buried Monday in Puerto Rico following a viewing at Francisco Montaner Stadium in his beloved city of Ponce. Navarro was born on Sept. 26, 1905, in Patillas, Puerto Rico, but moved to Ponce as a child. He began playing baseball professionally at age 17.
"Sadly, people will only remember him because he lived so long, but they don't know what he did as a ballplayer," said Puerto Rican baseball historian Jorge Delgado Colon. "He gave us 105 years and we can't be selfish. He lived a great life and was an example for all of us. He lived how you should be as a human being: responsible, professional, kind, always smiling, loving. He had everything."
Navarro's first love was baseball. He was the first Puerto Rican to play in the Negro Leagues when he played shortstop and second base for the New York Cuban Stars in the Eastern Colored League from [1928-29]. Cuban Stars owner Alex Pompez signed Navarro at the urging of pitcher Pedro San -- the first player from the Dominican Republic to play in the Negro Leagues -- and the move paid off. Navarro hit .337 for the Cuban Stars. He would spend most of his career playing in leagues in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
"He broke through to a place where others were yet to go from Puerto Rico," said baseball historian and author Dr. Adrian Burgos Jr. "A decade before Hiram Bithorn played in the Major Leagues with the Cubs, Millito was playing professionally in the United States.
"He was around when Jackie Robinson broke the color line and lived for many years after that. He saw Roberto Clemente's entire life. He saw the first Puerto Rican manager (Florida's Edwin Rodriguez), and he shared the joy. He loved the game and he loved life."
Navarro's legacy remains intact. Decades ago, he co-founded the Puerto Rican baseball team the Ponce Lions, which still is in existence. In 1992, he was elected to the Puerto Rico Baseball Hall of Fame, and he was enshrined in the Puerto Rican Sports Hall of Fame in 2004. Before the start of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, Major League Baseball held a ceremonial draft of former Negro League players. The Yankees selected Navarro and honored him in a ceremony at Yankee Stadium.
"He had an ability to share the truth of the experience in the Negro Leagues without animosity, but with a reality of how it really was," Burgos said. "He was like [Negro League legend] Buck O'Neil in terms of having a wonderful spirit and showing folks how to deal with adversity. Nobody was ever going to take Millito's joy."
News of Navarro's passing brought sorrow throughout the Cubs' clubhouse on Sunday. Cubs catcher Geovany Soto, who is from San Juan, Puerto Rico, dropped his head when told of Navarro's death. A few moments later, the catcher stood up and beamed with pride, knowing that he and Navarro are from the same island.
"Everybody knows who he is," Soto said. "It's sad to hear the news, but he lived a good life, a long happy life. You hope to live that long and be as happy as he was. It's still a very sad day."
Navarro will forever be remembered as a baseball man. But many in Puerto Rico knew him as their teacher, literally. Navarro taught physical education in public school for a decade after his playing career ended. He was more than your average P.E. coach. Navarro served as a father-figure to some students, and was like a grandfather to others during his time in the classroom.
In that way, Navarro's influence was bigger than just baseball. In the many ways, he will live forever.
"When you met him, you got to know him because there was nothing fake about him," Burgos said. "He was very aware that he was blessed to live a long life, and he shared it with whoever wanted to be near him. Let any of us be so blessed as to live to 105."