Former Negro League Star Still Working At 104

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PONCE, Puerto Rico (AP) — Emilio Navarro swivels his hips several times, then bends down to touch his toes.

Not bad for someone who’s 104 years old. He doesn’t need a cane to get about and is known to go out dancing now and then. He doesn’t use glasses, either.

“And I don’t have many wrinkles,” he says in Spanish. He smiles, then allows in English: “Just a little bit.”

But the former professional baseball player isn’t being honored for his spryness. He is being honored as America’s Outstanding Oldest Male Worker for 2010 — Navarro still keeps the books and controls the finances at the game machine business he started.

Navarro, believed to be the last surviving player of the Negro American League, was chosen for the honor over dozens of candidates nominated in 30 U.S. states by Experience Works, the United States’ largest nonprofit training center for older workers.

Navarro, known affectionately as “Millito,” began working at age 12. He cleaned shoes, sold newspapers and hawked “dulce de coco,” a popular coconut treat in Puerto Rico, to help his mother financially.

“She didn’t know how to read or write,” he said.

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He didn’t particularly enjoy those jobs, but eventually his passion — baseball — gave him a living.

At 17, the 5-foot-5 Navarro signed with the Ponce Lions in Puerto Rico and went on to play for the New York Cuban Stars in one of the black leagues in the U.S. He later played in the Dominican Republic and in Venezuela.

Navarro then worked as a coach and athletic teacher at schools in Ponce and Caguas. He also managed a baseball stadium in Ponce for 10 years — the job that proved his least favorite.

“To be in that place and not be able to play …” he said, his voice trailing off. “I didn’t like it.”

Navarro later opened the game machine business, Shuffle Alley, which his sons now run. But Navarro still works, keeping the books in order and making financial decisions.

“My sons work for me now,” he said with a laugh, pretending to rake in cash with his hands. “I count it and I divide it into equal parts. And there’s a little bit for Millito, too.”

Navarro does not have any secrets to staying young. He just follows two rules: Help those who need it and show respect to everyone.

“That is very important,” he said.

One of his sons, Eric Navarro, 61, cleared his throat. “Love God above all things,” he reminded his father with a smile.

“Ah, yes,” the elder Navarro responded.

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As a guilty pleasure, Navarro enjoys a bit of whiskey now and then.

During a recent public appearance, Navarro stood for almost two hours while he posed for pictures with fans. Finally, he sat down exhausted and asked Jose Bibiloni, a coordinator with Experience Works, for a little whiskey.

Bibiloni brought water instead. “Did I ask for this? I didn’t ask for this,” Bibiloni recalled him saying.

Navarro lives alone in the house that he built for his family in the late 1950s. His wife died more than two decades ago at age 62 from breast cancer, and Navarro’s sons sometimes mention the benefits of a nursing home.

“He makes a face and we leave,” Eric Navarro said. “He defends his privacy.”

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Lillian Ruiz cooks for Navarro every day and cleans the house, arriving at 8 a.m. and leaving by 2 p.m.

“He likes to be alone,” she said. “He is very clean. He tidies his room every day.”

Navarro likes to sit on the balcony and sometimes asks Ruiz to bring a couple of $1 bills, which he floats down to a pleading homeless person below.

He also likes to dance and favors blondes if he goes out in search of some danzon, a Cuban dance that incorporates mambo.

Navarro, whose 105th birthday is September 26, got a pacemaker 15 years ago and has had new ones put in at least twice, his son said. He has high blood pressure, yet he doesn’t need glasses and walks easily.

“Dad is an exception,” his son said. “He has stretched the bubble gum.”

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