Adventures in Baseball Archeology: the Negro Leagues, Latin American baseball, J-ball, the minors, the 19th century, and other hidden, overlooked, or unknown corners of baseball history...with occasional forays into other sports.
Though I haven’t done any sort of rigorous demographic study or anything like that, it has always been my impression that an awful lot of Negro league players died at surprisingly young ages, an impression I share with Dave Wyatt, for one.
How many men played for black baseball teams at the highest levels (NNL, ECL, and ANL, plus a few independents like the Homestead Grays) in the 1920s? I don’t know…a thousand? Fifteen hundred? Currently in the United States 1 in 3,300 people are aged 100 or over. So it seems, for whatever it’s worth, that the rate for the 1920s Negro leagues is rather high, compared to the general population.
Today is the 105th birthday of Emilio Navarro, “Millito,” who played shortstop for Pompez’s Cuban Stars in the late 1920s. This article and other sources say he’s the last known living veteran of the Negro American League. This, of course, is wrong, as Navarro never played in the NAL, which was founded in 1937 in the Midwest and lasted until 1960. There are probably dozens of NAL alums still alive today.
I think what is meant is the “American Negro League,” which operated for one season as the eastern Negro league in 1929. Navarro first played in the continental U.S. the previous season in 1928, and so the question arises as to whether he is the last man left alive who played in the ANL’s better-known predecessor, the Eastern Colored League, which fell apart during the 1928 season. As far as I can tell Navarro didn’t actually appear for the Cuban Stars while they were still members of the ECL. Pompez’s club, along with the Lincoln Giants, announced their withdrawal from the league on Friday, June 1, whereas Navarro’s first appearance with the Cubans was on June 18. Of course, Navarro appeared in a number of games against various former ECL teams later in 1928, but the league itself didn’t exist anymore.
Which leaves open the question of who the last veteran of the ECL was. My best guess now is SiSimmons, who pitched for the Lincoln Giants in the mid-1920s, and died in 2006 at the age of 109 (1900 census) or 111 (draft cards). On the other hand, Simmons was already 30 years old when he appeared in the ECL in 1926; probably more than half the league was younger than he was, including a number of guys in their late teens or early twenties. Considering the number of players who’ve never been fully identified, I think it’s just barely possible that an ECL veteran may still be hanging on somewhere.
(Incidentally, some sources indicate that Simmons appeared in one game as Navarro’s teammate on the 1929 Cubans, making him also one of the last veterans of the ANL.)