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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Buck O'Neil...

Buck O’Neil died yesterday. He was ninety-four years old.

Sometimes, when someone wonderful dies I get this feeling that it's incumbent upon those of us who are still here to do better. It’s as if we are obligated to somehow strive, in our own ways, to replace the loss of their “goodness.” If that really is the case, all of us better get off our asses and start working hard at becoming better people.
Buck O’Neil is gone and that leaves a big void.

Mr. O’Neil was a ballplayer. He played with several Negro League teams, but made his mark between the chalk lines as a Kansas City Monarch. He went on to manage in the Negro Leagues. He then broke the coaching color barrier at the big league level as part of the Chicago Cubs staff. He was a scout. He was good at what he did every step of the way.

Then, in his 80s, Buck’s fame increased. He made a substantial contribution to Ken Burns’ baseball documentary and used that new attention to spread the word about the Negro Leagues, to make the Negro League Museum in Kansas City in reality, to espouse the virtues of baseball and to honor the great players who plied their trade out of the sights of white America. He also taught us all a great deal about being a good person.

Buck was tireless. There aren’t too many people in the Kansas City metro area, it seems, who didn’t bump into him somewhere. Everyone has a Buck O’Neil story. Mine involves a surprise meeting after he noticed how ratty my ballcap was and struck up a conversation that ended with me wearing a brand new reproduction Monarchs cap, courtesy of Buck.

He would greet people at the museum. He would speak at functions. He’d make appearances. He was an incredible ambassador for our area. Just this year, at the age of ninety-four, he was honored by a local independent league team. He signed a one-day contract, took to the field and dug into the batter’s box twice (both times, of course, he was intentionally walked), and became the oldest person to have ever accomplished that feat.

Buck did a lot for baseball, and he was a pivotal figure in the process that led to a special committee designed to better recognize Negro League players in the Hall of Fame. His relatively impressive, though not overwhelming stats, combined with his historical role as black coach, his successful years as a scout, his tireless promotion of the game, and his powerful impact on the public’s recognition of Negro League baseball, however, wasn’t enough to get him into the Cooperstown. Buck O’Neill “missed the cut” by a single vote, in what may be one of the Hall’s most shameful moments.

Everyone knew Buck was getting into the Hall of Fame. They were sure of it. When word came down that he wasn’t going to be inducted, there was a great deal of disappointment. None of that disappointment, however, came from Buck.

When those former opponents, teammates and other important figures had their special day at the Hall of Fame, Buck O’Neil was there, smiling. Smiling. The same way he smiled at a throng of supporters in Kansas City on the night he was supposed to receive the word he had made the Hall of Fame and told them to be happy for him and for the recognition the others were finally receiving. On their induction day, he took to the podium before the festivities began and addressed the crowd.

Wright Thompson explains what Buck did:

“On a day that should have been the pinnacle of a life dedicated to helping others, he showed up at the podium in Cooperstown anyway to help honor the Negro Leaguers who did make the cut, and he led the crowd in a song that will never be heard again:

‘The greatest thrill … in all my life … is loving you.’”

That kind of grace and humility wasn’t a surprise. This man, who had been denied admittance to high school in Florida because of the color of his skin and who never had the chance to play in the “big leagues” for the same reason never held a grudge.

Buck O’Neil said:

“And I tell you what, they always said to me: Buck, I know you hate people for what they did to you or what they did to your folks. I said no, man, I never learned to hate. I hate cancer. Cancer killed my mother. My wife died 10 years ago of cancer – I'm single, ladies. I hate AIDS. A good friend of mine died of AIDS three months ago. I hate AIDS. But I can't hate a human being because my God never made anything ugly. Now, you can be ugly if you want to, boy, but God didn't make you that way.”

Buck O’Neil had a lot to bitch about. He was screwed over as a child. He was robbed of opportunity as a young man. After his playing career was over, he was constantly walking uphill as he blazed new trails. He didn’t begin to get the recognition he deserved until he hit his 80s.

He didn’t complain. He chose to focus on the positive aspects of his past and to work for a better future. He didn’t become bitter. He didn’t play the martyr. When he said he never learned to hate, he meant it.

David Halberstam wrote of O’Neil:

“So O'Neil devoted the rest of his life to gaining for younger, more fortunate black men the opportunity that had been denied to him: to play major-league baseball. That did not bother him greatly, for Buck O'Neil was a man who felt he was rich within his own life. He knew that the world was changing and he believed, by and large, for the better. Ernie Banks thought O'Neil was not merely a great baseball man, but he could have been successful at anything he undertook -- medicine, law, or politics. Banks believed that O'Neil could spend an hour with you, and thanks to a lifetime of wide experience, he would not only know who you were at that moment but who you had been, what had formed you, and, even more important, who you were going to become.”

If you don’t know a lot about Buck O’Neil, take some time to do some more reading. I’ve included a few links to some articles, obituaries and a page devoted to a great project with which Buck was involved.

It’s going to be hard for the rest of us to pick up the slack now that Buck is gone.
New York Times on Buck O'Neil...
Major League Baseball on Buck O'Neil...
Joe Posnanski on Buck O'Neil...
Keith Olbermann on putting Buck in Hall of Fame...
Buck O'Neil's Hall of Education...