By Chuck Todd, Chief White House correspondent and political director
There may be no other sport that has culturally meant more to the civil rights movement than baseball, something I was reminded of today when talking with Willie Mays on Air Force One.
Any baseball fan over the age of 50 knows this link between race and baseball instinctively; and true baseball afficianados under 50 learn this as they study the game's history -- and yet sometimes we take it for granted.
But to listen to Mays -- a man all of us in the president's traveling press corps were begging for autographs for earlier today -- describe his emotions on Election Night 2008, you couldn't help but think about the era he played in and what his great play on the field and his disciplined demeanor off the field did for African Americans both then and now.
Mays said he cried when Obama was declared the winner that November night and he said he stayed up as Election night turned into the next morning because he was too excited to sleep.
"I dreamed about this day," he said. "That someone of my race" might become president. Then he added that seeing Obama get elected made everything he went through "worth it."
And what did he go through? Some of us will never really know. Read the David Halberstam's book, "October 1964" and you'll get a taste of it. Listen to Hank Aaron talk about the death threats he received when he was on the verge of breaking Babe Ruth's homerun record, and you'll get a better sense of what Mays meant when he told us on Air Force One, simply, that it was "worth it."
During the entire Michael Jackson extravaganza, Rev. Al Sharpton desperately tried to link Jackson's ability to attract white fans to Barack Obama's successful election.
But as Pres. Obama noted in an interview with NBC, there were a lot of African-Americans who came before Michael, who were the true trailblazers. And no group of men may have done more to pave the way for the civil rights era to have success in the '60s than these baseball giants of the 50s. From Jackie Robinson to Hank Aaron to Willie Mays and countless others (Newcombe, Gibson, Paige, Banks, you name them, and I wish I could), these men endured a great deal.
And that came rushing back to me when Mays described his emotions about Obama. These aging baseball heroes are now treated like baseball gods, that was clear by the giddiness that myself and other members of the traveling press corps were showing today. But there was a time when they weren't even as they were doing amazing feats on the field.
Mays is living a good life now, as is Aaron and their stock with baseball fans keeps going up with every new steroid scandal. They didn't get the appreciation then that they deserved, but thanks to steroids, they are getting their due now. It must make them shake their heads in disbelief that old white guy baseball fans wish we could have true baseball heroes like these trailblazing black men. Then again, Mays' disbelief dissipated even more, it appears, that November night in Chicago.