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06/05/08 10:00 AM ET

Navarro an ageless ambassador

Yanks to draft first Puerto Rican to play in Negro Leagues

NEW YORK -- According to legend, Ponce de Leon was in search of the mystical "Fountain of Youth" when he discovered North America in 1513.

Presumably, this tranquil spring water would restore youthfulness to anyone who drank it. In fact, a southern coastal city in Puerto Rico is named for a descendant of this Spanish explorer.

Considering his hometown in Puerto Rico is Ponce, Emilio Navarro is quite possibly drinking this supernatural water.

At 102, Navarro is the oldest living professional baseball player and the first Puerto Rican to play in the Negro Leagues.

Known throughout his life by his distinctive nickname "Millito," he played shortstop and second base for the Cuban Stars in the Eastern Colored League from 1928-1929. He subsequently co-founded the Puerto Rican baseball team, the "Ponce Lions," for whom he played and coached.

After completing his playing career, he taught physical education in the public schools in Spanish and, surprisingly, in English. In 1992, he was elected to the Puerto Rican Hall of Fame and in 2004 the Puerto Rican Sports Hall of Fame.

Today, he can proudly proclaim his illustrious career is finally complete.

Congratulations, Millito Navarro, and welcome to the Major Leagues.

Last week, Major League Baseball announced that before the start of its 2008 First-Year Players Draft, the league would hold a "ceremonial" draft of former Negro League players. This historic event will serve as a fitting tribute to those men who never had the opportunity to play in the Majors.

Navarro, who was born Sept. 26, 1905, in Patillas, P.R., was one of those men.

In what has become an everyday occurrence in his life, he is again asked, "How are you feeling?"

Navarro, known for his great sense of humor, breaks out into his trademark smile.

"You know there's a saying: 'I eat to live, but I don't live to eat,'" he said, laughing.

For Navarro, receiving the belated call that told him he is being drafted by a Major League team more than 60 years after the end of his actual career brought him enormous happiness.

"My hairs stood up. How could it be possible for me at this stage of my life to be drafted by a Major League team?"
-- Emilio Navarro

"My hairs stood up," he said. "How could it be possible for me at this stage of my life to be drafted by a Major League team?"

That team will be the New York Yankees, a storied franchise that has epitomized baseball. Navarro can finally don the same pinstripes worn by a Hall of Fame player he knew from his barnstorming days in Puerto Rico -- the legendary Babe Ruth.

The baseball saga of Navarro, a man idolized not just in his hometown but throughout Puerto Rico, hasn't gone unnoticed in the literary world.

Daliana Muratti, an educator in Puerto Rico, who also is the daughter of a former ballplayer, spent close to two years traveling, researching and interviewing Navarro for a book.

Upon meeting Navarro for the first time, Muratti couldn't believe he was 100 years old. When contemplating what would be an appropriate title for her book, she said the answer was simple: "Millito Navarro, The Century of a Legend."

"When I got to know him, what impressed me the most was his mental and physical well-being," Muratti said. "He is truly a model for every senior citizen. When you think of someone who is 100 years old, your perception is that they're not socially active and in a bed. Millito was the complete opposite."

What Muratti also found fascinating about Navarro, who had a fourth-grade education, was that after his playing career ended, he turned to teaching.

"Not only were you impressed with his physical attributes," she said, "but amazingly, he passed the standardized tests for teaching physical education. He also taught his classes in both Spanish and English."

As Muratti was drafting her book, she said Navarro provided a few comical moments.

"He wanted to read my final drafts before publication," she said. "He would even correct certain facts, and I would politely tell him that's what I read in the newspaper from that era."

"Listen," Navarro told her, "the reporter was wrong."

He would go back and forth about how, as a child, he could vividly remember looking through a fence wanting to see a ballgame up close but not having any money to sit in the stands. When questioned about certain players who have been immortalized in baseball history, he could easily tell you who his favorite player was.

"Josh Gibson was a complete player, and Satchel Paige was one of the greatest pitchers ever," he said. "But my favorite player had to be Francisco 'Pancho' Coimbre. Pancho was an extraordinary player."

"Josh Gibson was a complete player, and Satchel Paige was one of the greatest pitchers ever. But my favorite player had to be Francisco 'Pancho' Coimbre. Pancho was an extraordinary player."
-- Emilio Navarro

He and Coimbre were close friends. Navarro said Coimbre's talent was so great that he could have been in the Hall of Fame.

"He was also an extraordinary batter who rarely struck out," Navarro said. "He was the type of player that when you needed a hit, he didn't let you down."

As Navarro prepares for the draft Thursday, he can see his selection as a celebration that marks the 80th anniversary of his inaugural season with the Cuban Stars.

In 1929, he played shortstop and was the leadoff hitter. His batting average was .337. Navarro still remembers playing in the United States, and one rather funny incident inside a New York City restaurant.

"I asked for a glass of water. Because New York is described as a 'melting pot' -- there are so many languages and cultures," he recalled. "So in English, I asked for a drink of water, and they didn't serve me.

"I said, 'Please, can I have a drink of water?'

"The waiter said, 'What?'

"My friend said, 'He wants a drink of water.'

"Well, the water came, so I asked the waiter, 'Didn't you hear me asking for water?' The waiter responded, 'I thought you said please give me a shower [laughter].' "

But those events are deep in Navarro's past, yet as memorable as events of yesterday. None, however, will be as fresh as the memory of joining 29 other Negro League players who will enter the world of organized baseball on Thursday, a world that had been closed to them during their playing days.

With the selection of these players in the "ceremonial" draft, will baseball officially be closing the books on the Negro League era?

On the contrary, said Adrian Burgos Jr., a history professor at the University of Illinois and one of the foremost experts on "black baseball," many more stories remain to be told, particularly about Latinos in the Negro Leagues.

Whether they were black, white or brown, Latinos were, until recently, the forgotten ballplayers of that period. Their stories are there to be told, through the eyes and the words of men like Navarro.

"To have the voice of someone who participated in the Negro Leagues at such an early period, you have a unique perspective," Burgos said. "In terms of longevity and memory, Millito Navarro is for Latinos what Buck O'Neil was for the African-American Negro Leaguers."

The symbolic signing of the ageless Navarro marks an overdue first step in remembering the contributions of these unforgettable players. They lived, despite their life circumstances, to play and played to live.

Danny Torres is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.