SABR

Millito Navarro

This article was written by Joseph Gerard.

Emilio “Millito” Navarro was one of the patriarchs of baseball in Puerto Rico. The diminutive infielder stood only 5-feet-5 inches tall and weighed only 160 pounds, but he was renowned for his hitting ability, blazing speed, and soft hands (mainly at second base, but also at shortstop and third). After starting in semipro ball at home, Navarro played in Venezuela during the 1920s. He then became the first Puerto Rican to play in the American Negro Leagues as a member of the Cuban Stars of the Eastern Colored League in 1928 and the short-lived American Negro League in 1929. He played in the Dominican Republic as well, spent more time in Venezuela, and then returned to Puerto Rico in the 1930s. There he helped found the Ponce Leones of the Liga de Béisbol Semiprofesional de Puerto Rico (LBSPR). He starred for the Leones for four years, and then coached the team until 1946. In 1992 he was elected to the Puerto Rican Baseball Hall of Fame.

In many ways Navarro became a more celebrated figure when – after the passing of Si Simmons in 2006 – he became the oldest living former professional baseball player. He reached the age of 105, and his longevity allowed him to contribute an oral history of an entire era of baseball, recounting the exploits of the many extraordinary players he encountered in his travels.

Emilio Navarro Soto was born on September 26, 1905, in Patillas, a town on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico, to Victoriano “Botello” Navarro Maurás and Josefa “Pepa” Soto Rivera. His father, a well-known shoemaker, died when he was 5 years old. His mother, a cook, moved Millito, his brother Pedro, and sister, Manuela, to Ponce, where she had family who could assist in the care of her children. There was also another brother named Luis; later, Doña Pepa remarried and had another son and daughter.1

At the age of 8, Millito learned the rudiments of baseball and was immediately smitten with the game. His first recollection of seeing a professional game happened at about this time. “The first professionals that I saw were a team of Puerto Ricans,” he said. “They did not belong to a league but were independent and played by invitation. My hero was Willie Thompson, a man from the Fiji Islands who played here in Puerto Rico.”2

From the age of 12, Millito pitched in to assist with the family finances by working at odd jobs like selling peanuts, delivering newspapers, shining shoes, and selling dulce de coco (a coconut sweet) from a bowl that he balanced on his head. “I worked, worked, worked a lot, and then worked some more,” he said.3 Navarro attended Castillo Public School in Ponce, and he loved to watch its baseball team play. “The school I attended used to compete with other schools, but I had no money so I used to sneak in. Mr. Gordian, the team’s coach, asked me to replace a player. I produced two hits, stole second base and then third. I was named a member of the team and was given a uniform.” 4

Navarro was a brilliant track star in high school, setting records in the long jump and hurdles. He was offered a scholarship to attend college at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez, but baseball was his first love, and he began to play semiprofessionally in 1922, at the tender age of 17, for the Ponce Leones of the Liga Insular. He played games on Saturdays and Sundays, and was paid $25 per week. The money also played a role in his decision to bypass a college education – he believed that it was more important to help his mother financially, since she was unable to read or write.

Navarro went on to play professional baseball for six years, traveling first to Venezuela. In 1927 he played for Santa Marta del Guairá in the first professional baseball tournament held in that nation, tripling in his team’s victory against the Royal Criollos of Caracas.

In 1928 Navarro was approached by a Ponce teammate, Dominican pitcher Pedro Alejandro San, who had been offered a contract to play for promoter Alex Pómpez’s famous Cuban Stars of the Eastern Negro League. San suggested that Navarro accompany him on the long journey by boat to New York, in order to try out in front of Pómpez. Despite having no promise of a contract, Millito was confident enough in his abilities to take his teammate up on the offer. Upon arriving in the big city, Navarro said, “Those high buildings all around. I imagined I was in heaven.”5

Pómpez was impressed enough by Navarro to add him to the Cuban Stars roster in 1928, paying a salary of $100 per month and making Navarro the first Puerto Rican to play in the American Negro Leagues. “When I learned that the Cuban Stars wanted me to play, I was very emotional about that,” he said. “It was a dream for me.”6 In 1928 the Cuban Stars played in the Eastern Colored League, which was suffering through a period of instability before finally disbanding altogether in June. Navarro had 84 plate appearances and batted .229. He played alongside three outstanding Cubans, Alejandro Oms, Bernardo Baró, and a 19-year-old Ramón Bragaña.

That November (according to the dean of Dominican baseball writers, Emilio “Cuqui” Córdova), Navarro played in the Dominican Republic for the first time. In that nation, he was always a member of the Escogido Leones. In the President Vásquez Cup tournament between Escogido and archrival Licey, Escogido used three Puerto Rican reinforcements – Marcelino Blondet (a pitcher known as “Moncho El Brujo”), Navarro, and first baseman Guillermo Angulo – and beat Licey (which used an all-native squad) in nine games. Navarro stayed on in the Dominican Republic to play second base for the Leones in their subsequent season, which began in March 1929. He finished eighth among batters with a .323 average.7

For the summer of 1929, the Stars joined four other teams from their former league as well as the previously independent Homestead Grays to form the fledgling American Negro League. Along with Guillermo Angulo, Navarro sailed from Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic on June 19,, 1929, arriving in New York six days later. He immediately rejoined the Cuban Stars but had only 49 plate appearances during the rest of the season, batting.289. The league managed to finish its season, but did not return in 1930.

Navarro appreciated the treatment he received from Pómpez. His salary was increased to $125 a month in 1929, and was supplemented by many nights out on the town. Pómpez took an interest in Navarro and rarely left him alone, preferring to take the young man around the city with him on his off-days.

But after two years of dealing with the harsh realities of race on the mainland in the late 1920s, as well as the language barrier, Navarro was eager to return to Puerto Rico, turning down an offer to play in Cuba in 1930. Instead he returned to the Dominican Republic in 1930 to play for Escogido, and then ventured to Venezuela for the following two seasons, where he played for Santa Marta de la Guairá, Magallanes, and University Caracas – managing the latter – of the Asociación del Béisbol Venezolano.

In September of 1933 Navarro traveled with the Ponce club to the Dominican Republic to engage the Escogido Leones in a series of games, and played the following February for Escogido in the Trujillo Cup – an annual tournament named in honor of the Dominican dictator – against a powerful Concordia team from Venezuela that featured Josh Gibson, Luis Aparicio, Sr., Tetelo Vargas, and Rap Dixon. The Leones stunned the visitors by winning both games of a doubleheader, but the Concordia team won the cup with a 6-3 record.

Navarro returned to Puerto Rico and helped transform the Ponce Leones into a charter member of the LBSPR in 1938. The LBSPR was founded as a semiprofessional league in October of 1938, and became an official professional league (the LBPPR) before the 1941-42 season. Navarro was one of the finest infielders in the league from its inception into the early ’40s, when a knee injury forced manager George Scales to move him to the outfield. He also briefly served as the manager in 1938 after the resignation of Agustín Daviú. In the 1940-41 season, Navarro hit .311, and the following year, at 36 years of age, he led his team to a 30-13 finish and the league championship. The Leones featured native star Francisco “Pancho” Coímbre, as well as several veterans of the Negro Leagues, including Hall of Famer Ray Brown, Sam Bankhead, Howard Easterling, Barney Morris, Max Manning, and Scales.

Navarro retired as a player before the 1942-43 campaign, but served as a coach under Scales, as the team repeated as champions. The 1943-44 Ponce Leones were one of the greatest teams in the history of Puerto Rican baseball, compiling a record of 37-7 and winning the LBPPR championship by 15 games. Once again managed by Scales and coached by Navarro, holdovers on the roster included another local star, pitcher Tomás Quiñones, in addition to Coímbre and Sam Bankhead.

During his playing days, Navarro also served as an athletic instructor and coach for the public school system in Ponce from 1935 until 1944. After four years as a coach with the Leones, he retired from baseball and spent the next ten years serving as administrator of Francisco “Paquito” Montaner Stadium, home of the Leones. Navarro considered this period to be challenging – he found it difficult to be in such close proximity to a ballpark after such a long career. Later, he opened a sporting goods store, and after that a gaming-machine distribution company named Shuffle Alley that as of 2014 was managed by his sons. Even at the age of 104, Millito was still putting in 30 hours a week at work. Experience Works, a provider of training and employment services for older workers, honored him as America's Outstanding Oldest Worker for 2010.8

Navarro’s legacy as a player has been somewhat minimized by the circumstances of his career. He played much of his first six years as a professional in Venezuela – where records from that time are virtually nonexistent – and spent only two seasons, at age 23 and 24, in the American Negro Leagues. By the time the LBPPR was formed, he was already 33 years old and played only four seasons, the last his only one as a professional. He finished his career in Puerto Rico with a batting average of .272.

Years after retiring as a player, Navarro said that the most treasured moment of his career came in 1939, when he was 34 years old. The winner of the National Baseball Congress tournament and the finest semipro team in the United States, the Duncan Cementers, came to Puerto Rico to play a series against the Guayama Venerables. Navarro was asked to join the Puerto Rican team, and in the ninth inning of the final and decisive game, he delivered a pinch-hit single to win the series. “It was very important to everyone in Puerto Rico,” he said. “It was a matter of national pride.”9

Navarro said the three greatest players he saw in the Negro Leagues were Cuban greats Martín Dihigo (whom he saw play all nine positions on the diamond in one game) and Alejandro Oms, as well as Dominican star Tetelo Vargas – Navarro’s roommate on the Cuban Stars. His recollections of his playing days helped establish broader reputations for an entire generation of great Latin ballplayers, including Vargas, Pancho Coímbre, and Perucho Cepeda.

Navarro married 18-year-old María Teresa Torres in 1935. Their marriage lasted for 51 years until she died in 1986 from breast cancer. They had four children, Emilio Jr., Eric, Edna, and Edgar. “He was an exquisite and excellent father,” said Eric. “He instilled us with honesty and above all respect for everybody.”10

Navarro was elected to the Puerto Rico Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992 (as part of its second class) and the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum in 2006. He had been inducted into the Puerto Rican Sports Hall of Fame in 1953.

In June 2008 Major League Baseball conducted a ceremonial draft to honor living ex-players from the Negro Leagues. The New York Yankees selected Navarro, and honored him on September 18 by flying him in from Puerto Rico for a ceremony prior to their game against the Chicago White Sox. Millito posed for photos with two Puerto Rican stars, Jorge Posada (then on the disabled list after shoulder surgery) and Iván Rodríguez. He threw out the first pitch (from a spot halfway to the mound), reaching Posada on the fly. He impressed the Yankee players with his physical dexterity. “I mean, 103, that’s ridiculous,” said Alex Rodriguez. “He was doing push-ups or something a few minutes ago.”11

Navarro was known for his cheerful nature and dapper dress. In an August 2010 interview with the Associated Press, he said he did not have any secrets to a long life but that he enjoyed dancing and the occasional glass of whiskey.12 Several months later, on April 27, 2011, he had a minor heart attack and entered St. Luke’s Hospital in Ponce. On April 30 he suffered a stroke and died soon afterward, surrounded by his family. Survivors included his four children, 11 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild. He was buried in Cementerio La Piedad in Ponce.

Navarro was remembered fondly by many people in baseball. Sean Gibson, great-grandson of Josh Gibson, said, “On April 30, we lost another piece of Negro League History. Millito Navarro was one of a few players living who played against my great-grandfather Josh Gibson. Millito lived for 105 years. I wish I had my great-grandfather that long.” 13

“He was a stellar baseball player in Latin America for the Negro Leagues,” said baseball historian Luis R. Mayoral. “In Puerto Rico, he was highly respected in relation to the game of baseball.”14

Emilio “Millito” Navarro left a rich legacy, not the least part of which was his abiding love for baseball, and the rewarding life it afforded him. “When I played, I met many people who loved me for my whole life,” he said. “So even though I didn’t have much money, I was always happy.”15

 

Sources

Burgos, Adrian, Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line (Berkeley, California: The University of California Press, 2007)

Crescioni Benítez, José, El Béisbol Profesional Boricua (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Aurora Comunicación Integral, 1997)

Freedman, Lew, Latino Baseball Legends: An Encyclopedia (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2010)

Hernandez, Lou, The Rise of the Latin-American Baseball Leagues, 1947-1961: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2011)

Holway, John, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues (Winter Park, Florida: Hastings House, 2001)

McNeill, William F., Black Baseball Out of Season: Pay for Play Outside of the Negro Leagues (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2007)

Riley, James A., The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1994).

Van Hyning, Thomas, Puerto Rico’s Winter League: A History of Major League Baseball’s Launching Pad (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1995)

Wilson, Nick, Early Latino Players in the United States: Major, Minor and Negro Leagues (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005)

Ancestry.com

Baseball-reference.com

pabellondelafamadeldeportepr.org/

 

Notes

1 “Muere Millito Navarro, primer pelotero boricua en las Ligas Negras,” Primera Hora (Guaynabo, Puerto Rico), April 30, 2011.

2 Nick Wilson, Early Latino Ballplayers in the United States.

3 Martha R. Alonso Hernandez,“Puerto Rico – At 104, “Millito” Navarro is America’s Outstanding Oldest Male Worker.” Latina Lista. Marisa Trevino, August 6, 2010. January 15, 2014.

4 Ibid.

5 Wilson.

6 Wilson.

7 Cuqui Córdova, “Murió en Ponce, Puerto Rico, el ex pelotero Millito Navarro, luego de 105 años de vida,” Listín Diario (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic), May 31, 2011

8 Seth Livingstone,“Former Negro Leaguer Millito Navarro still swinging the bat at age 104,” USA Today, July 28, 2010.

9 Wilson.

10 “Emilio Millito Navarro dies at 105,” Associated Press, May 1, 2011.

11 Lew Freedman, Latino Baseball Legends: An Encyclopedia.

12 “Emilio Millito Navarro dies at 105.

13 William Gerena-Rochet, “Memories of Millito Navarro and Those We Will Never Forget,Latino Sports, Julio Pabón, publisher, posted May 5, 2011. Accessed January 15, 2014.

14 Ibid.

15 Freedman.

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