Former major leaguer and Negro Leagues ballplayer Ernie Banks, basketball legend and Emporia, Kan., native Dean Smith and former President Bill Clinton were three of 16 recipients on Wednesday of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
President Obama bestowed the awards, the nation’s highest civialian honor, to Banks, Smith and other living recipients in a special ceremony in the East Room of the White House, saying, “Today, we salute fierce competitors who became true champions.”
Banks, 82, became the fourth Negro Leagues player to win the award, joining Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, and the man who signed Banks to his first contracts with the Kansas City Monarchs and, later, the Chicago Cubs — Buck O’Neil. Banks played 19 years for the Chicago Cubs, becoming known as “Mr. Cub.”
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick said O’Neil’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded posthumously in December 2006 to Buck’s brother by President George W. Bush, remains on display at the museum.
“His family actually donated it back to the museum so we could display it,” Kendrick said.
The fact that three of the four Negro Leagues recipients of the medal have Kansas City ties, Kendrick said, makes their awards even more special.
“They had a really significant relationship,” Kendrick said of O’Neil and Banks. “Both Ernie and Lou Brock were like sons to Buck.”
Smith, 82, played at KU in the late 1940s and early 1950s, then began his coaching career as an assistant with the Jayhawks. But he is best known for coaching the North Carolina men’s basketball team from 1961-97, winning 879 games and two national titles and leading the Tar Heels to 11 Final Fours.
Smith was unable to attend Wednesday’s ceremony because of health reasons. His medal was accepted by his wife, Linnea Smith.
Also receiving the award on Wednesday were entertainer Oprah Winfrey, former Washington Post editor Benjamin C. Bradlee, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, former senator Richard G. Lugar, country musician Loretta Lynn, scientist Mario Molina, jazz musician Arturo Sandoval, feminist/activist Gloria Steinem, civil rights leader Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian and former federal judge Patricia Wald.
Honored posthumously were former senator and World War II veteran Daniel K. Inouye, Sally K. Ride, the first U.S. woman astronaut to travel into space, and African American civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.
The modern version of the Presidential Medal of Freedom was established by President John F. Kennedy shortly before his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.
The nation will honor the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death on Friday; Wednesday’s ceremony was part of the leadup to those observances.