John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil

By Jay Berman

When former Negro Leagues star Ted “Double-Duty” Radcliffe died at the age of 103 in August 2005, one of the speakers at his Chicago funeral was Buck O’Neil.

Buck O’Neil

When he saw mourners crying at the service of his old friend and former teammate, O’Neil told them, as Joe Posnanski described in his wonderful book, “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil s America;”

“This is not a sad occasion. No sorrow when a man lives a full life. Don’t cry. Save your sadness for when they’re taken young, before their time.

“Man lives to 103, rejoice. Got to do everything, feel everything there is to feel in this world. Don’t want to live forever.”

O’Neil could just as easily have been talking about his own life. Fourteen months later, on Oct. 6, 2006, O’Neil died in a Kansas City hospital weeks before what would have been his 95th birthday.

He spent seven decades in baseball as a player, manager, coach and scout. Repeating what he said at his friend’s funeral, he “got to do everything.”

Well, not everything. He never got to see himself inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Lifetime Achievement?

in October 2007 the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced the establishment of the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, to be awarded roughly once every three years.

Actually, the Hall of Fame awarded itself a fig leaf to cover its embarrassment over the lack of recognition of Buck O’Neil by the veterans committee voters. The Lifetime Achievement Award is not even a tacit admission that Buck O’Neil deserved equal recognition to the other Hall of Fame members.

The Hall of Fame board passed the Buck (so to speak) instead of accepting that O’Neil’s unique career is valued as highly as that of, say, the milquetoast administrator Will Harridge or the rabid racist Cap Anson.

Nothing has changed; Buck O’Neil is not in the Hall of Fame.

Ford Frick, a far less beloved or talented figure, has an honorary award (for best sportswriter) and a Hall of Fame plaque. Why doesn’t Buck?

And just as there is no question that the ugliest chapter in the history of major league baseball is its exclusion of black players from the game until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, it could just as easily be argued that the biggest mistake baseball’s Hall of Fame has ever made is to deny O’Neil a place in its membership.

It’s too late for O’Neil to know about it, but it’s not too late to right the error.

As a player, he was a good-fielding first baseman who had four .300-plus seasons with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League between 1938 and 1955, including batting titles in 1940 (.345) and 1946 (.350). He compiled a lifetime average of .288.

As manager of the Monarchs from 1948 until 1955, he won five pennants. He played in four East-West All-Star games and two Negro League World Series. More than a few managers in the Hall of Fame never won five pennants, just as there are more than a few players with batting averages under O’Neil’s .288.

With the color barrier finally broken, but too late to help him as a player, he became a scout for the Chicago Cubs in 1956, signing future Hall of Famer Lou Brock to his first contract. He also scouted and signed Joe Carter, Lee Smith and Oscar Gamble, among many others.

In 1962, the Cubs made him the first black coach in the majors. He became a scout for the Kansas City Royals in 1988 to spend more time in his adopted hometown.

Many people heard of him for the first time when he was narrator on Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on baseball in 1994. O’Neil liked to joke about that, saying Burns made him an overnight success at 82.

He was one of 39 black players and executives from the Negro League and pre-Negro League era considered for membership by a panel of researchers and historians in 2006, but he was not among the 17 who were selected and inducted into the hall in July of that year, along with former closer Bruce Sutter.

The voting was conducted by secret ballot, but news stories suggested shortly before O’Neil’s death that he missed the required 75 percent by one vote.

When he learned he had not been among those chosen, he addressed about 200 friends who had gathered to celebrate his induction, assuming he would be chosen. He told the crowd:

“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. Now, if I’m a Hall of Famer for you, that’s all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don’t weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful.”

In “I Was Right on Time,” his 1996 autobiography, O’Neil explained his philosophy on life. In part, he wrote “…Love what you do in life…Doesn’t matter how much money you make…Love what you do. Take pride in it, take joy in it, and you’ll live longer. And if you don’t love it…then find something to do that you will love.

“I never stopped loving baseball, and I’ve been in it now for over 60 years.”

It’s simplistic to argue that the game he loved for so long has turned its back on him, but what can’t be argued is that, as player, coach, manager, scout, executive — as chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City — he never turned his back on the game.

Ken Burns, in his foreword for O’Neil’s autobiography, wrote: “John Jordan O’Neil is a hero…in the human sense of a man we all should look to and strive to be more like.” In O’Neil’s book, Burns said, “…you will…cherish the wisdom of this holy man who is a gift to us all.”

[For more information, see the Induct Buck O’Neil to the Hall of Fame blog and the Buck O’Neil blog.]

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