WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays, sporting running shoes with his suit and tie, rose slowly from his chair and waved his baseball cap as President Barack Obama decorated him on Tuesday with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Mays, 84, one of the first black players in Major League Baseball and considered among the game’s all-time greats in a career spent mostly with the New York and San Francisco Giants, was among 17 people given the highest U.S. civilian honor.
“It’s because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for president,” Obama said during the White House ceremony.
Obama clearly relished the celebration honoring accomplishments in sports, the arts and public service after spending much of his day in meetings with French President Francois Hollande over the fight against Islamic State.
Before giving singer/actress Barbra Streisand her medal, Obama noted her “chutzpah” as a young Jewish-American Broadway star and for selling more albums in the United States than any other woman.
“I‘m getting all verkempt just thinking about it,” he said, using the Yiddish expression for “choked up.”
Obama recounted how Grammy Award-winning Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan, and her producer/songwriter husband, Emilio Estefan, both honorees, first met.
“He was playing ‘Do the Hustle’ - on an accordion. She said she found this ‘sexy and brave.’ I mean, the brave part I understand,” Obama said.
Other winners from the arts included Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, conductor Itzhak Perlman and singer James Taylor.
Obama recounted how NASA pioneer Katherine Johnson, 97, graduated from college with math and French when she was only 18 and faced limited job options as a black woman.
Johnson became a mathematician at the space agency, calculating the flight path for the first space mission.
“She was even asked to double-check the computer’s math on John Glenn’s orbit around the earth. So if you think your job is pressure-packed, hers meant that forgetting to carry the one might send somebody floating off into the solar system,” Obama said.
Also honored were Bonnie Carroll for her work with military families, Maryland Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, former Indiana Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton and former Environmental Protection Agency head William Ruckelshaus.
Obama also gave medals to relatives of four honorees who have died: baseball catcher Yogi Berra, U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm, Indian treaty rights advocate Billy Frank Jr., and Japanese-American civil rights activist Minoru Yasui.
Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Peter Cooney