[9 October 2006]
I don’t have plans to visit the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. I’m sure it’s a great museum. One of my favorite players, Paul Molitor, was inducted into the Hall of Fame two years ago, and in a few years, my other favorite, Rickey Henderson, will almost surely be a first-ballot inductee. But between watching and re-watching Ken Burns’ Baseball, reading about icons from Duke Snider to Juan Marichal, and endless bantering with my friends over beers about the career stats of Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki, I know all I want to know about Major League Baseball.
But I don’t know enough about Negro League Baseball, and one of these days I will visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. When I do, my first stop will be the plaque for its co-founder and chairman, John J. “Buck” O’Neil, who died on October 6, 2006, at age 94, after being hospitalized in August and again in September because of fatigue-related symptoms. He is survived by his brother, Warren O’Neil.
Buck O’Neil was widely considered one of the last great ambassadors for baseball as a sport and American institution. Almost universally regarded as not only a great player and coach but a thoughtful oral historian of the sport for most of the last century, O’Neil made a lasting contribution with his work during the late 1980s that made the Negro League Baseball Museum a reality in 1990. In recent years he spoke for and represented the legacy of other famous Negro Leaguers like Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige, and Josh Gibson, who had all long since passed away.
O’Neil worked tirelessly to promote the history of Negro League Baseball, its teams, and its players. Baseball aficionados have long known of the accomplishments of Buck O’Neil, but it was his captivating interviews in Burns’ 1994 documentary that placed him in the wider public consciousness. He once said that Burns, who also wrote the foreword to O’Neil’s autobiography, had made him “an overnight sensation at 82.”
Born November 13, 1911 near Sarasota, Florida, he was barred as a teenager from attending local Sarasota High School, which was open to whites only. Growing up, he worked at various jobs, including shining shoes and harvesting celery, until he started playing baseball, first with a number of semipro “barnstorming” teams and later with the legendary Negro League Kansas City Monarchs.
A first baseman for the Monarchs, O’Neil finished his playing career with a batting average of .288. Twice he lead the Negro Leagues with averages of .345 in 1940 and .350 in 1946. He played for the Monarchs from 1938 to 1955 and managed the team from 1948 to 1955. His playing career was temporarily interrupted by service in the U.S. Navy during World War II from 1943 to 1945. He also played in the Cuban and Mexican leagues during several seasons.
O’Neil helped lead the Monarchs to a Negro League title in 1942, when the team swept the Homestead (Pennsylvania) Grays. Shortly thereafter, he met his wife Ora O’Neil, who died in 1994 after 51 years of marriage. The couple had no children.
The Chicago Cubs hired O’Neil in 1956 as a scout to find talented African American ballplayers in the South. In 1962 he became the first African American coach in Major League Baseball with the Cubs. He discovered and helped develop the careers of Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Ernie Banks. Returning to Kansas City in 1988 to finish his coaching career with the Kansas City Royals, O’Neil went on to help establish the Negro League Baseball Museum in 1990. In 1996, the museum moved into its current home in Kansas City’s historic district.
In February of this year, the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame convened a special committee of baseball historians and experts to elect a group of Negro League and pre–Negro League players into the Hall of Fame. Buck O’Neil, the most well-known living candidate for selection from that group, was denied induction to the Hall by one vote.
The funny thing about voting—for All-Stars, for MVP, for the Hall of Fame—is that what seems obvious to one voter is entirely disputable to another. For instance, Hank Aaron, who holds the most sacred major league record with 755 career home runs, went to 20 All-Star Games, and finished with a career .305 average, an MVP award and three Gold Gloves, wasn’t a unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame. Nine of the 415 voters in 1982 voted against him for the Hall. One wonders what those nine voters were looking for on Aaron’s résumé, or what they were looking at when they saw the complexion of his face.
I wonder what was holding up the one voter who could have swung the balloting in Buck O’Neil’s favor. Remember, Major League Baseball doesn’t just select players for the Hall. There’s a category for managers, umpires, executives and even sportswriters. Surely as founder of the Negro League Baseball Museum, a championship player and manager for the Monarchs, the first African American coach in Major League Baseball, and widely acknowledged ambassador for the sport until the time of his death, O’Neil merited induction to the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.
Despite the fact that notables such as former ESPN host and current MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann had publicly taken up the cause of getting him into the Hall, O’Neil died without seeing that dream realized. But unlike Olbermann, Ken Burns, or Joe Posnanski and Jason Whitlock, both of the Kansas City Star, who have rightly criticized O’Neil’s exclusion from the Hall, O’Neil never pled his own case. He never expressed frustration or regret, and always acknowledged how fortunate he had been to have made his living for more than three quarters of a century playing, coaching, and promoting the game of baseball.
Buck O’Neil’s own words are the most fitting tribute to his outstanding life. This past summer, after being passed over for membership in the Hall, he was asked to come to Cooperstown to speak on behalf of the Negro League inductees. He did, of course, and in his closing remarks stated elegantly, “I’ve done a lot of things I like doing, but I’d rather be right here, right now, representing these people that helped build a bridge across the chasm of prejudice.”
* * *David Swerdlick writes “Hot Pop” for Creative Loafing, Charlotte, North Carolina’s independent weekly newspaper.