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Recently I wrote an article about Minnie Minoso, one of the first players to play in MLB after having played in the Negro Leagues. In honor of Jackie Robinson, and the movie “42”, I will write a number of other pieces about players who starred in the Negro Leagues, never having the opportunity to compete against elite white ballplayers. Without a doubt, the most influential black baseball player of all time who played his entire career in Negro League ball was Buck O’Neil.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Negro Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Missouri. I was enraptured for several hours, observing the exhibits, reading about its history, and being introduced to the legendary exploits — some of which approached mythological stature — of the stars of that league. Indeed, of some I had never heard, even though I have been a lifetime fan of the game. I read about Oscar Charleston, one of the greatest ballplayers in history, described as a combination of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. I marveled at the exploits of Josh Gibson; some said he was the black Babe Ruth while others stated that Babe Ruth was the white Josh Gibson. There was Satchel Paige, of course, who likely won over 2000 games in his career, almost four times as many as Cy Young. Then there was Cool Papa Bell who, legend has it, ran so fast that he made an out after being hit by his own line drive as he was heading into 2nd base. This remarkable memorial to the Negro Leagues was the inspiration of Buck O’Neil.

In 1994, the epic documentary “Baseball”, a superb history of the National Pastime directed by Ken Burns, was shown in a nine-part series on PBS. One of the stars of the show was Buck O’Neil, who served as both commentator and raconteur regarding the Negro Leagues, and, henceforward, would be regarded as the nation’s spokesman for black baseball. Buck had been talking about the joys and sorrows of the Negro League for over a generation, but most of America did not want, or were not ready, to hear about them.

Buck began his playing career in the 1930’s. He initially played for the Zulu Cannibal Giants, whose white owner made his players wear straw skirts instead of normal uniforms. Buck joined the Kansas City Monarchs in 1938. The Monarchs were perhaps the premier team in the Negro Leagues, featuring Satch and Cool Papa Bell, amongst others. As a first baseman, he helped lead them to four straight championships from 1939 – 1942. O’Neil led the Negro Leagues in Batting Average at least once, and possibly twice, hitting .345 in 1940 and .358 in 1947 (statistics were not a focal point of the Negro Leagues). Later on in his career, he led the Monarchs to five pennants and two World Series titles as their manager. In 1962 he became the first black coach in the major leagues. Prior to being a coach, he was an excellent scout, signing Joe Carter, Oscar Gamble, Lee Smith, and future Hall of Famer Lou Brock to contracts.

Buck O’Neil’s Greatest day in Baseball

It was Easter Sunday, 1945, Memphis, Tenn. Buck at the time played First base for the Kansas City Monarchs. In a match against the Memphis Red Sox, during his first at bat, he hit a double. Second at bat; a single. He followed that up with a home run. His fourth time up to the plate, Buck hit a deep fly ball to right field which the right fielder was unable to handle. Buck reached 3rd base with ease. The third base coach frantically waved Buck home. He would undoubtedly have scored with an inside-the-park home run. However, Buck stayed put. For you see, Buck had never hit for the cycle. Following that display of prowess, Buck went back to his hotel, accompanied by his friend Dizzy Dismukes. Later on in the evening, Diz comes up to his room, and states, “Buck, there are some people downstairs whom I would like you to meet.” They happened to be a group of teachers from a local school. Coming downstairs, Buck noticed a cute gal amongst the bunch and with no hesitation walked up to the teacher and stated “My name is Buck O’Neil, what’s yours”? That gal was Ora. They were later married, and stayed together 51 years.

That was my greatest day.” I hit for the cycle, and met my Ora.”*

O’Neil was appointed as a member of the veterans committee of the Hall of Fame in 1981. It was mainly because of his efforts that forgotten Negro Stars were inducted into Cooperstown. In February of 2006 a Hall of Fame Committee named 17 former players and executives of the Negro Leagues as worthy of induction, but Buck was not one of them. This stunning omission was immediately challenged by sportswriters, former ballplayers, and politicians. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, stated that the vote had left the Kansas City Community in tears. In a prepared text of remarks made on the House floor Cleaver said:

“Buck O’Neil is a man who has done more than anyone to popularize and keep alive the history of the Negro leagues. The fact that he was not voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame is a wrong that only Major League Baseball can make right. This humble man who has never slighted anyone has been slighted — apparently by a single vote — by a group who looked shortsightedly at his batting average, but not at what he has done for the game of baseball.”

Sen. Jim Talent, Mo, stated: “Buck O’Neil is one of baseball’s greatest ambassadors, and I believe there is no one who meets the criteria for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame more than him.”

The morning of the vote, O’Neil, then 94 years of age, nervously waited with friends and reporters, all of whom expected Buck to receive the greatest honor of his life. A museum official took the call from the committee and turned around with tears in his eyes saying, “Buck, we didn’t get enough votes.”  With typical grace and class, Buck responded by stating, “God’s been good to me. They didn’t think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That’s the way they thought about it, and that’s the way it is, so we’re going to live with that. Shed no tears for Buck.”

In July of that year, Buck spoke at the induction ceremonies for the 17 individuals chosen for baseball immortality. Ironically, it is likely that none of them would have ever been given a thought if not for the efforts of Buck. Although his speech was warm and gracious, those close to him believed that he left Cooperstown with a broken heart. In October of that year Buck O’Neill passed away. Commissioner Bud Selig called for a moment of silence in honor of this great man before each ballgame scheduled that day.

Those who choose Hall of Fame candidates appear to have a difficult time with individuals whose credentials are multi-faceted. But, even so, it is beyond puzzling how they could have neglected to select O’Neil. He was a gifted player. Bill James compares him to Mickey Vernon and Mark Grace. It is likely that he would fall short of the accepted criteria if judged on his ball playing ability alone, but considering his excellent managerial and scouting skills, as well as his profoundly powerful voice as the Ambassador of the Negro Leagues, one can only guess at what was on the minds of those who chose to exclude this Giant of a Man. Reggie Jackson perhaps said it best:

What a fabulous human being. He was a blessing for all of us. I believe that people like Buck and Rachel Robinson and Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa are angels that walk on earth to give us all a greater understanding of what it means to be human. I’m not sad for him. He had a long, full life, and I hope I’m as lucky, but I’m sad for us.”

 

*Adapted from “The Soul of Baseball – A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America” by Joe Posnanski

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @royce!: Thanks! Haven’t checked it out, but I certainly will in the very near future!

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @royce!: BTW, if you liked this book by Ed Achorn, take some time to read his book about “Old Hoss” Radbourne, “fifty nine in ’84” Quite well done.

  1. paddyman says:
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    These historical pieces are my favorites on razzball. As an immigrant, it’s lovely to hear about characters that made this game what it is. Really nice piece. Thanks.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @paddyman: You are most welcome. To check out any articles of mine that you may have missed, scroll down to the bottom until you find authors. There is a collection currently of 19 total pieces. Thanks!

  2. George Lutes says:
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    Another nice piece Paulie. I’ve enjoyed every baseball piece I’ve read of yours.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @George Lutes: Thanks, George! I would say that you have good taste, but that wouldn’t be modest:)

  3. Anthony says:
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    Long term pick a player..Butler or Hosmer? H2h most categories with ops added! Thanks man!

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Anthony: I have pretty much had it with Hosmer. Butler would be the choice. But you might be better off questioning one of our brilliant fantasy experts. I am a Razzball raconteur, and haven’t finished in the 1st Division of my
      RCL in 2 years. Then again, the ECFBL has been the best league in the RCL for two years, so maybe I know more then I think I know. Get a hold of yourself, Paulie!

  4. gambz says:
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    It is also MLB’s shame that there are white players — two in particular, and I just know Paulie is rolling his eyes right about now — who are also barred from the HOF. I am boycotting Cooperstown until this injustice is righted.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @gambz: Could those two be Rose and Shoeless Joe? Actually, there are a lot more then two white guys; Heinie Zimmerman would be one who would have a great shot at being admitted; Hal Chance, perhaps the biggest cheat in the history of the game, would be another. Of course, we know that Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker made a great deal of money with “insider information” on fixed games, and Kenishaw Mountain Landis chose not to do anything, and these two, the former, a virulent racist who almost single-handedly kept the “Gentleman Agreement” to keep blacks out of the game, and the latter, who knew about the Series fix but didn’t say anything because he was afraid of losing his top players, are both in the Hall. A travesty? Of course, but the Hall is a political body. You won’t find any of this info on their plaques. BTW, Shoeless Joe very likely attempted to go directly with his money to Comiskey, report the fix, and hand him his share of the money, but Comiskey, knowing of this, refused to see him. Yeah, I’m thinking about doing a piece on Shoeless Joe, and maybe include Pete in the article.

  5. gambz says:
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    BTW, excellent piece.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @gambz: Thank you, sir! BTW, there are probably 40 guys in the Hall who shouldn’t be, and about the same number not in the Hall that should be. Buck, of course, is one of the more obvious. Last year, they fixed up one of their mistakes by inducting Ron Santo, a top five 3rd baseman of all time

  6. Schmohawks Bob says:
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    I also went to the Negro Hall of Fame in connection with an event and had the great privilege to meet Buck there. It was a memorable evening. Thanks for your efforts here.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Schmohawks Bob: Terrific experience. Thanks!

  7. AL KOHOLIC says:
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    wow you keep out doing yourself,awesome job Paulie,thanks for all the hard work and research

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @AL KOHOLIC: Thanks, Kelly; I plan to keep them coming out! BTW, you got a closer to spare:)

  8. Great stuff Paulie. Buck was a wonderful baseball spokesman. You should also check out Joe Posnanski’s book about him, good read.

    Interestingly, baseball-reference.com now has many years of Negro League baseball statistics. They haven’t uncovered 100% of the data from the Negro League’s, but a lot. Purely from a statistical view, Buck was definitely a cut below the greats of the time. Purely based upon ‘on the field’ play, i can’t argue he doesn’t make the HOF.

    He was precious to the game though. Too many people use the word ambassador lightly, but not here. Buck was great for baseball. He should be honored in the Pioneer Contributor category in my opinion.

  9. Paulie Allnuts

    Paulie Allnuts says:
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    Thanks, Lou. I quoted Posnaski in the article. He wrote a terrific book on O’Neil. A great story on how he convinced Billy Williams to come back to the game after he couldn’t take the chronic racism. He certainly was a terrifc ambassador, and a wonderful human being.

  10. LA Sound Guy says:
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    I remember crying like a school girl during the Burns Baseball episode on the 1940s. I also remember instantly thinking, “Buck O’Neil is now one of my favorite human beings”. Thanks for your article, Paulie.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @LA Sound Guy: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the piece, and my sentiments exactly.

  11. Peteneb says:
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    Loved the article! Is it not possible for this wrong to be righted?

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Peteneb: Sure, I believe that the Veteran’s Committee can right the wrong. At least I think that’s the case. Good question, though.

  12. RollieFingerBang says:
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    This was a beautiful piece. Really well written. Thanks Paulie.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @RollieFingerBang: Thank you, Rollie! My pleasure

  13. Babs says:
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    Excellent article Paulie! Razzball has a sentimental side too, and I kinda like it

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Babs: Well, many of my articles are about the tragic, the humerus, the epic, the outrageous. Every once in awhile I throw in a bit of sentimentality… Thanks!

  14. Susie Blackledge says:
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    I think Buck was too good for the Hall of Fame

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Susie Blackledge: That’s a good point, Sue. The Hall is filled with some of the worst of scoundrels!

  15. skinny malinky says:
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    Buck O’Neill is one of my heroes. His autobiography, “I Was Born Right On Time,” is great, but Posnanski’s book is even better. One of the few books that has made shed manly tears.

    My dad lives in KC, and maybe 10 years ago I visited the Negro League Museum. It’s great. That night, we went to a BBQ restaurant and Buck was there with his family. I’ll always regret not shaking his hand that night.

    Seriously, if you want a great read about a man who was a huge figure in baseball, read Posnanski’s book. It’s fantastic.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @skinny malinky: Yes it is, I have read Posnaski’s book twice, and am not ashamed to admit that at times I shed a few tears. There was also a great deal of wit and humor; the famous “Nancy” story is funny as all get out!

  16. the rat bastard says:
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    Pablo….one of your best….almost shed a tear….but I cant admit that in public and ruin my rep.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @the rat bastard: Thanks! Imagine a Rat Bastard shedding a tear! Unhears of!

  17. Chris says:
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    Enjoyed the article, Paulie.

    Really nice to have these historical side pieces on Razzball.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Chris: Thanks, Chris. I am, I believe, the only non-fantasy writer who regularly posts on Razzball, which is a pleasure and an honor. It is not work when you enjoy doing the work.

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