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