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Padres pay homage to Negro Leagues

Padres pay homage to Negro Leagues

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SAN DIEGO -- All this week, the Padres have been celebrating their fourth annual "Salute to the Negro Leagues."

A number of events, such as a traveling display about the Negro Leagues at PETCO Park, Q&As in San Diego libraries and Saturday afternoon's luncheon called "Salute to the Negro Leagues: Connecting Continents, Cultures and Communities," have taken place to honor the baseball legends of yesteryear.

There were good memories to be shared at the luncheon, which was meant to teach people about black and Latino baseball players in the early 20th century.

"Each year, we try to outdo ourselves," said Dave Winfield, a former Major Leaguer and Hall of Famer, who was the moderator for the luncheon. "We know these men have been around for a long time. Many have been overlooked; history hasn't been written to include all of them or the Latin American influence and participation in the Negro Leagues -- and the Negro Leagues down in Latin America, as well."

The event, presented by Sony, was one to remember. It honored a slew of former Negro Leagues players and one umpire. They were: Neale "Bo Bo" Henderson, Monte Irvin, Enrique Maroto, Walter McCoy, Bob Motley (the only living Negro League umpire), Don Newcombe, Jim Robinson, Luis Tiant and Armando Vazquez.

Over 50 people, family and friends of the honored guests, came to the event at PETCO Park's Auditorium. About a dozen tables were decorated with plastic placemats that had vintage photos from the Negro Leagues. Plasma television screens continually played documentaries about the league, while vintage uniforms from teams of the past were placed on the stage. If no one knew about a team called the "Cienfuegos," they did after Saturday.

The luncheon started late, but these former Negro League greats were in no hurry to leave, especially Irvin, who autographed baseballs and programs.

From his wheelchair, Irvin told stories about his days as a Newark Eagle from 1937-48. Back then, tickets to a ballgame were $5 compared to what they currently cost baseball fans.

A few of the honorees got up on stage and answered questions about their years in the Negro Leagues, while at the same time they were educating everyone to a part of history that is hardly spoken about nowadays.

Tiant, one of baseball's first Latino stars, spoke about his two favorite moments in baseball.

"One was my first game in the Major Leagues when I was pitching against the Yankees in 1964. I threw a shutout," Tiant said to a burst of applause. "My second was in 1975 in the World Series [for the Boston Red Sox]. My ma and pa came from Cuba, and I didn't see my father for 17 years. And my father didn't know my wife."

Tiant grew emotional as he reminisced. He paused, and then said, "He never saw my kid. And I never thought I was going to see them again after I left in 1961. That was one of my best moments in baseball."

Don Newcombe, who played like Irvin with the Newark Eagles and also made it to the big leagues with the Los Angeles Dodgers, said his most memorable moment came when he pitched against Joe DiMaggio.

"I started against the Yankees in Yankee Stadium," Newcombe said. "Yankees won the game, 1-0, but in that game, I got the chance to do something that nobody else ever did -- then or in his career. I got the chance to strike Joe DiMaggio out four times in a row.

"I got to be good friends with Joe. I asked him, 'Mr. D -- I called him Mr. D very respectfully -- did anybody strike you out four times in your career? He said, 'Nobody but you, and don't you talk about it too much.'"

The Negro National League was formed in 1920. It soon included teams across Latin America and Canada. Latino players, who were also fighting racism and obstacles like their black brethren, joined these leagues because they were welcomed.

Finally, in 1945, Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player in the Majors, was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"Jackie opened the door, actually kicked it open," said Adrian Burgos Jr., author of "Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line."

"But there are other men who have remained steadfast to make sure that that door was never closed," Burgos said.

Some of these men Burgos spoke of were in the auditorium.

Integration into Major League Baseball was not an easy task. Tiant knows this all too well.

"They used to take me in the middle of the group, and they wanted to listen to me talk," Tiant said. "They were making jokes and laughing at me, about the way I speak English. I used to go to my room and cry, because I hear what people said to me and names they called me in the ballpark."

Tiant, whose father was also a member of the Negro Leagues, persisted, and in the end, he triumphed over discrimination.

"I didn't want anybody to take that dream from me," Tiant said. "Nothing ever keeps me down."

The luncheon was a reminder of how diverse baseball is and continues to be. Baseball has become a global sport, especially now as it reaches into the Far East.

There is no irony that Tiant's old team, the Red Sox, are taking on the Padres at PETCO Park for a three-game Interleague series. Tiant, who wore his 2004 World Series ring, will be honored along with eight other honorees, in a special pregame ceremony on the field on Sunday. Each will be presented with a trophy for their contributions to the Negro Leagues and baseball.

Motley is the only candidate to be recognized for his 12 years of service as an umpire in the Negro Leagues.

And why shouldn't he? Motley never called a game without looking sharp -- white dress shirt, black bow tie, suit and polished shoes.

"I was an umpire when all these guys played in the Negro League," Motley said. "I traveled from city to city, and I rode in the bus with all the ballplayers back in those days. They taught us to dress clean. For every game, we look like we was going to a concert or something."

Elizabeth M. Botello is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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