John "Mules" Miles now, showing he is still fit and active at age 86.
John "Mules" Miles swings his bat, showing he is still fit and active at age 86. Miles played for the Chicago American Giants as a member of the Negro National League in 1946.

(FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas) - Embracing Black History Month's theme this year, "The Quest for Black Citizenship in the Americas," John "Mules" Miles, a native San Antonian is modest about his inclusion into history.

Miles, 86, stands 6 foot 3 inches, speaks softly but quickly, grew up on the east side of San Antonio, and still remembers when he had to pay a poll tax to vote.

In the South, during the 40's blacks were still forced to endure racial segregation. In the North, conditions were not much better; blacks faced wide spread discrimination that hampered their hopes of equal treatment.

Miles didn't know it at the time, but he has come to realize that back then he was standing on the cusp of desegregation, on a journey, walking along two paths heading towards true citizenship for blacks in America.

Miles' journey began with the love of baseball; his grandfather who loved the sport inspired him to play ball. He played basketball and baseball in high school. "He also wanted to play football, but his mother wouldn't let him. " She didn't want me to play football because she said I would get hurt."

After graduating from high school, Miles played basketball at St. Phillips College, "But baseball was my number one thing," said Miles. But his dream of becoming a baseball player did not come to full fruition until later in life because another opportunity came knocking at his door.

Miles worked at Kelly Field as a "helper." Because segregation was still practiced in Texas, he wasn't allowed to hold a technical job because those jobs were reserved for whites.

However, in 1942, under a new program to provide civilian mechanics to support the Tuskegee Airmen 99th Pursuit Squadron, Miles was one of 50 blacks selected to go to Alabama to train and provide ongoing support for the squadron at the air depot at Tuskegee Air Field.

"We had it hard at Tuskegee; buildings weren't completed when we got there, it was hard, but we made it, I wasn't complaining, because at Tuskegee, I learned a trade, I learned how to work with my hands - to do something," said Miles.

When Miles returned home from Tuskegee in 1945, his desire to play baseball was stronger than ever. However, in those days, black players were not able to play on major league baseball teams. Years earlier, in 1867, the National Association of Ball Players voted not to accept teams with black athletes. Therefore, black players were prohibited from playing with whites in professional baseball.

Because of segregation, Miles was only able to play in the Negro National League. So in 1946, he took leave from Kelly Field and went to Jackson, Mississippi, tried out and was signed with the Chicago American Giants, as a third baseman and outfielder.

It wasn't until 1946 that blacks were allowed to play in the National League. Miles remembers the night that it all began. His team was playing against Jackie Robinson's team, the Kansas City Monarchs. Everyone on both teams was told that there were scouts in the stands looking for a player to play in the major leagues.

Later he heard that Robinson was picked, and it was not long after that he heard that he had signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"Jackie took a lot of abuse, people did not know the pressure Jackie was under playing in a white league. He did a great thing; he was instrumental in integrating baseball. Jackie was all right, he could run and hit and he had the right attitude. Now my kids and grandkids can play because of Jackie," said Miles.

Miles had an outstanding career with the Chicago American Giants, hitting 11 home runs in 11 games in 1947. Earning him his nickname "Mule" given to him by his manager because he said he hit has hard as a mule.

In 1947, Miles had one of the most productive seasons in the Negro Leagues, batting .250; in 1948 Miles hit 27 home runs. Miles stayed with the Giants until 1949.

"I'll tell everyone, I was proud to be part of it, said Miles. It was nice playing in the Negro League. I have no regrets about it, we had a lot of fun, and I met a lot of guys. We couldn't play the whites but we still had lots of fun."

Miles returned to Kelly Field and in 1951, he took a leave of absence from work, and tried out for the Laredo Apaches. He was signed, making him the first African-American player in the South Texas League, and after a short stint there, he went back to work at Kelly Field where he retired in 1971.

While on this journey and quest for true citizenship in America, in 2008, Miles' two, somewhat, parallel paths converged last year with two pinnacle events happening in his life.

Miles was "drafted" by the Seattle Mariners in the Negro Leagues Player Draft June 5 held prior to the Major League draft at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

On this momentous occasion, each major league club drafted a surviving former Negro Leagues player, who represented every player who did not have the opportunity to play baseball.

"It was an honor being accepted by a major league team, and I am proud to be part of the Seattle Mariners," said Miles.

On Nov. 4, 2008, Miles witnessed something that he thought he would ever see in his lifetime, the election of a black president. "That was the most important thing that I have seen in my life," said Miles. He was also invited to Washington D.C. along with other Tuskegee Airmen to witness the inauguration in person.

"When I saw Obama take the oath at the inauguration, I thought of the words of Martin Luther King, said Miles, reciting King's speech,'..., When all of God's children, black men, white men, Jews, Gentiles, Protestants, and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.' chills ran down my spine, it was awesome, we've come a long way."

In 1982, Miles received a certificate of recognition for Outstanding Contribution to the History of black Americans from Lackland Air Force Base. He also received the Tuskegee Airmen Heritage Award: Tuskegee Ground Support Maintenance Crew in 1995. In 2000, Miles was inducted into the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame at the African American Museum in Dallas, Texas and in 2003; he was inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame.

Nowadays, Miles travels to autograph shows to help raise money for other Negro League players without pensions (King NLBPA) and plays golf regularly. This month Miles was inducted in the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame in Houston, Texas.

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Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16