In case you missed the news, Ernie Banks is going to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Which made me wonder how a baseball player gets selected for this rare honor, and who might be next. Here's the official criteria:
The Medal may be awarded by the President as provided in this order to any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to (1), the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
Here's the list of baseball players who have received The Medal, along with their ages at the time:
1977 - Joe DiMaggio (62)
1984 - Jackie Robinson (p)
1991 - Ted Williams (72)
2002 - Hank Aaron (68)
2003 - Roberto Clemente (p)
2005 - Frank Robinson (69)
2006 - Buck O'Neil (94)
2011 - Stan Musial (90)
2013 - Ernie Banks (82)
With the possible exception of Williams -- who did fly combat missions during the Korean War -- all the baseball players have presumably qualified under that third criterion: "cultural or other significant public or private endeavor" ... which pretty much covers anybody famous. You'll notice that the pace has really picked up in the last decade or so.
A couple of other obvious things about the winners: They've generally been old, and they've generally been of color. Until the 21st century, there were only three baseball-playing honorees ... and none of those three were both black and alive. But Banks will be the sixth honoree in this century, and the fourth living African-American. Now, this is partly because so many of the greatest players of the last half-century were African-American ... but still, isn't it difficult to imagine Mike Schmidt or Johnny Bench or Tom Seaver winning this award? They just don't seem to have the requisite gravitas. Although that might change over the next decade or two.
The most obvious candidate is Willie Mays, who's probably our greatest living player. But there's one more thing ... O'Neil and Musial and Banks have been well-loved late in their lives, as "ambassadors" of sorts. But Mays doesn't really have that reputation, does he?
Other candidates who come to mind: Yogi Berra, Sandy Koufax, and Bob Gibson. In retrospect, I'm surprised that Bob Feller didn't receive the Medal of Freedom, considering that he a) spent most of World War II in the Navy and saw real combat, and b) lived forever. He was an ambassador of sorts, but on the other hand he was hardly diplomatic; there's no telling what he might have said in the Rose Garden, especially if a Democrat was occupying the Oval Office.
Anyway, my money's on Berra, and frankly I'm surprised this hasn't happened already. More than almost any baseball player since Babe Ruth, Yogi's become an intrinsic part of the culture.