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Remembering Buck O’Neil, Seven Years Later

Feb 27, 2013, 5:16 PM EDT

Soul of Baseball

Seven years ago today, I was sitting in a conference room above the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City with my friend Buck O’Neil. It was the day that the Negro Leagues Special Committee was announcing who it had elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame … and it was widely assumed that Buck O’Neil would be one of those elected.

Maybe it should not have been widely assumed. The Hall of Fame case for Buck O’Neil is not a one-sentence exclamation. It is not “3,000 hits!” or “300 wins!” or “Hit in 56 straight games!” It is not simple or blunt or in-your-face. Buck’s case, like Buck’s life, is a patchwork quilt – he was a very good player (Negro Leagues batting champion in 1946), a very good manager (managed the dominant Kansas City Monarchs), a legendary scout (scouts, so far, are not elected to the Hall of Fame), the first black coach in the Major Leagues (for the Chicago Cubs), a joyous presence in the game (Ernie Banks said he learned “Let’s play two” from Buck O’Neil), the leading force in building the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, an unmatched baseball storyteller and a tireless champion of the Negro Leagues and the game of baseball. It is a Hall of Fame case that, from above, seems breathtakingly simple and powerful and undeniable – he profoundly impacted the game of baseball like few who ever lived. The game, without him, would be so much less.

You have to see the whole thing, though.

Point is, most people seemed to think Buck was going to be elected, and, yes, Buck too thought he was going to be elected. He sat in the conference room waiting for the good word, and reporters waited at the museum for Buck to come out and regale them with stories. When word came through that seventeen people – all of them long dead – had been elected, but Buck had not, I was looking right in his eyes. His face showed no emotion at all.

“Oh well,” he said, a little bit too quickly. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

At the time, I was working on my book, “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.” I had been traveling the country with Buck for a year and watching how people responded to him, watching how much joy he passed on, watching how he simply let go of his bitterness, all of it, let it go and replaced it with good feelings and hope.

I admit, I was like most others. I thought, for sure, he was going to the Hall of Fame. Heck, I’d been told by someone who would know that one of the big reasons the Negro Leagues Special Committee had been put together was to honor Buck. I had expected this moment to would be the big ending for the book. I could imagine the movie scene (with Morgan Freeman as Buck). Sweeping music plays, and Buck gets the word that after all these years – after living a baseball life on the margins – he was going to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

And instead, Buck sat there and tried hard not to look disappointed. He was hurt. I know that. But he was not going to show that. This was a grandson of a slave, a man who was not allowed to attend Sarasota High School because of the color of his skin, a man who could not play in the Major Leagues, a man who never got to manage in the Major Leagues, a man who – even as Cubs coach – never got to coach at either first or third base. This was a man who had seen some of the worst of 20th Century America, who wore a grass skirt and put on war paint just so he could play ball, a man who told me that once his wife was in a department store, and she touched a hat. They made her buy it. That was the rule – if a black woman touched a hat, she had to buy it.

“So degrading,” he said. “So degrading.”

He had never let any of that make him hate … or lose faith … or give up hope on people. What was the Hall of Fame compared to those things?

“Let me ask you something,” he said after a long silence. “Who do you think will speak for the 17?”

“What do you mean?”

“At Cooperstown,” he said. “Who will speak on behalf of the 17 who go into the Hall of Fame?”

“I don’t know Buck. What difference does it make?”

“Well,” Buck said. “Do you think they’ll ask me?”

I looked at him then to see if he was serious. He was serious. It didn’t make sense at first.. I was angry for him. I was hurt for him. I was furious at the committee for not seeing Buck O’Neil from a high enough elevation. I was furious at the Hall of Fame and all of us for building up his hopes. In the moment, I honestly did not care who spoke for the 17 who were elected.

“You would do that?” I asked Buck. He smiled a little bit.

“Son,” he said. “What’s my life been all about?”

And he did speak for them. It was his last national public appearance … he spoke in front of the Hall of Fame on behalf of 17 people who had made the Negro Leagues robust and alive. And then, he led everyone who had gathered in Cooperstown in song. His favorite song.

The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you.

The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you.

The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you.

The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you.

That was the better ending, of course.  He died about two and a half months later. The last time I saw him in the hospital, he told me that he felt loved. Well, sure, he was loved.

  1. cur68 - Feb 27, 2013 at 5:32 PM

    I’m pleased to say I really liked the NLBM. The whole museum is a better tribute to Mr. O’Neil than that HOF induction might have been.

    • El Bravo - Feb 27, 2013 at 5:43 PM

      But is it as good as KC BBQ?

      • cur68 - Feb 27, 2013 at 5:55 PM

        How good was it? When we were there, then Red Sox Darnell McDonald and (I think) Ryan Sweeney were getting a guided tour and having a great time. I’d say, yeah, its that good. After, if you don’t get lost or really terrible directions, you can compare the barbecue. It’ll be worth it. Then, you can go see the Royals get clobbered for cheap. Kaufman is lovely and, should it be the Sox again, watching David Ortiz line balls into the visitors bullpen is more than worth it.

    • fanofevilempire - Feb 27, 2013 at 7:46 PM

      what they need is a committee to review the idiots on the Veterans Committee.

      two good reads today Joe, keep it up.

  2. paperlions - Feb 27, 2013 at 5:45 PM

    Damn it Joe, if you are going to post things that make grown men cry, couldn’t you at least do it after the work day?

    • joecool16280 - Feb 27, 2013 at 5:55 PM

      Got me too.

      • stex52 - Feb 27, 2013 at 6:55 PM

        Make it one more.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Feb 27, 2013 at 7:34 PM

      It’s the words:

      His favorite song.

      The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you.

      I know it’s coming, having read Soul of Baseball numerous times, yet I can’t stop the waterworks.

      • paperlions - Feb 27, 2013 at 8:23 PM

        I’ve only read Soul of Baseball once, it took me longer than it should have….I’m not sure how to express why….but after pretty much every chapter, I just felt like I needed time to appreciate the story and the man it was about…each story just wore me out.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Feb 27, 2013 at 10:17 PM

        For me, it was the lingering question in the back of my head.

        How could this man, who went through so many bad things, be so happy all the time?

    • stex52 - Feb 27, 2013 at 9:01 PM

      As I try to age with dignity (what other choice do we have?), one thing that brings a little joy is the glimpse of a soul at peace. There aren’t that many.

    • indaburg - Feb 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM

      I saved reading this for tonight because I had a feeling this was something special. I was right. Thanks, Joe.

      This is beautiful.

    • thoughtday - Feb 28, 2013 at 3:54 PM

      I had the privilege of meeting Mr. O’Neil on two different occasions and I have to say that he was the kindest and gentlest human being that I have ever met. It was a sad day for all when he passed.

  3. natstowngreg - Feb 27, 2013 at 5:46 PM

    Like more than a few fans, I was introduced to Buck O’Neil by Ken Burns. He used Buck in his baseball documentary to tell one of the major stories of baseball history — indeed, American history. The story of segregation. Listening to Buck O’Neil talk, I thought, this is a good person. The more I learn about him, the more I realize he was a great person. For only a great person could endure so much with so little bitterness.

  4. brianbowman16 - Feb 27, 2013 at 5:50 PM

    Joe, this is one of the best written articles I have ever read. Excellent tribute to the legacy of Mr Buck O’Neil. I will be buying your book about him because if you can get such a touching yet tragic message across in a blog, I can only imagine what you accomplish with an entire book.

  5. jessethegreat - Feb 27, 2013 at 5:53 PM

    Excellent read! Thanks for sharing, Joe!

  6. Ducky Medwick - Feb 27, 2013 at 5:57 PM

    I’ve made a concerted effort to catch up on long unread baseball books over the last year (to the detriment of professional and social obligation). Soul of Baseball effected me beyond being a fan or an amateur historian. Proud that it made me weep. Must read.

  7. joecool16280 - Feb 27, 2013 at 6:04 PM

    Mr. Posnanski, you got me checking this site daily again after being turned off by another “writer”.

  8. bougin89 - Feb 27, 2013 at 6:18 PM

    Absolutely great read!

  9. pa9erfan - Feb 27, 2013 at 6:19 PM

    i’ve read the book and been to the nlbm in kc… mlbhof should check themselves, dam shame mr.o’neil is not inducted….

  10. Old Gator - Feb 27, 2013 at 6:25 PM

    The failure of the Veteran’s Committee to vote Buck O’Neill into the Hall of Fame is probably the biggest thing among several issues that make that place of less than no interest to me anymore. I’ve said this before on this blog several times, but this seems like a good occasion to say it again. As far as the committee members who had some hemorrhoidal rationale for not seeing “the whole thing,” I wouldn’t piss on their heads if their hair was burning.

  11. crankyfrankie - Feb 27, 2013 at 6:40 PM

    I admit I am torn. Disappointed in the HOF for not putting him in but wanting to see the place before I go. I also plan on visiting the NLBM before I go. Thanks for the well written piece.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Feb 27, 2013 at 7:36 PM

      Like OG above, I really have no desire to see the MLB HoF (along with the steroids/writers BS, but I digress). However, I’m definitely planning a trip to the NLBM when my son is a little older. Men who honestly seemed to enjoy the game in the face of all that adversity. Stunning, absolutely stunning…

  12. deepflakes - Feb 27, 2013 at 7:47 PM

    Got to meet him once — just a class act.

  13. dontcallmepete - Feb 27, 2013 at 8:10 PM

    If I could live one day in the manner in which he lived his life I’d consider myself blessed. Thanks Joe.

  14. gallaghedj311 - Feb 27, 2013 at 8:33 PM

    Got me teary eyed Joe. Wonderful article. Thank u for educating this 30 year old guy on this amazing man. Solid read…

  15. Paul White - Feb 27, 2013 at 8:33 PM

    About ten years ago about it was announced that before the annual Negro Leagues Day game at Kauffman Stadium in KC, several former Negro Leaguers would be outside signing autographs, Buck O’Neil included. I decided immediately that I would be bringing my son, who was 7 or 8 at the time. My sole purpose was to get him Buck O’Neil’s autograph. We were not, and are not, autograph hounds or collectors, but that was one I felt my son should have, if only so I could talk to him about Buck, his life, and the path he took in baseball.

    It turned out to be a murderously hot day, hot enough that I wondered if they would cancel the autograph session rather than subject those elderly men to the heat. They didn’t cancel, but it was clear that it was a chore for the gentlemen to sit and sign. Even though some people were stopping to chat with the players and asking for photographs, I told my son that we would only get one autograph, no photos, no chatting, just move on as quickly as possible to shorten their day a little bit. He was fine with that, and there was no question that the one autograph we would stand in line for would be Buck’s. The line snaked slowly up to him, and Buck was clearly fading. As we got closer it was clear that it was taking him a lot of energy to just hold the ball and sign his name. No more chit chat, not even lifting his head. Very un-Buck-like. Behind us, they cut off the line earlier than planned so they could get out of the heat sooner.

    Finally it was my son’s turn, and Buck, with his head still hanging, reached out his hand for the ball we had brought. My son handed it to him, and Buck, seeing it was a child’s hand giving him the ball, looked up. He smiled his famous smile, and asked my son, “How you doin’ Home Run?”

    “I’m fine Mr. O’Neil.”

    “You look like a ballplayer, Home Run. Do you play ball?”

    “Yes, I do.”

    “Well, Home Run,” Buck said, as he signed out his name with a bit more flair and handed it back to my son, “How about you hit a home run for ol’ Buck the next game you play?”

    “I’ll try my best, Mr. O’Neil. Thank you for the autograph.”

    “You’re welcome, Home Run. I like a man who always tries his best.”

    He smiled his Buck smile at my son again, and gave a little wink, too.

    My son still has that ball, and still occasionally talks about how he got it. And then we chat a bit about Buck, and the Negro Leagues. And with an assist from the late, great Buck O’Neil, I get a chance to do a little parenting by reminding him that Buck always liked a man who tries his best. So Buck gave me something that day, too. Even though we never spoke at all.

    • raysfan1 - Feb 27, 2013 at 10:30 PM

      I was real proud of myself, getting through Poz’ article dry-eyed despite my admiration of Buck O’Neil and despite how well, as always, he wrote the piece. Then I read your comment, and blew my streak. Awesome story, Mr White. Thank you.

      • IdahoMariner - Mar 3, 2013 at 11:39 PM

        yeah, me too.

        man, paul, great story. thanks for sharing it.

    • The Vegaquarian Times - Feb 27, 2013 at 11:45 PM

      One of my biggest regrets as a baseball fan is not getting my butt up to see Buck at the NLBM. I live in St. Louis, and would always tell my friends about it and how Buck would often be there and talk to fans. I would drive up to see Royals games, but took it for granted that Buck would always be there. Stupid me.

      • manolibre48 - Mar 13, 2013 at 10:31 PM

        Stupid us would be more appropriate. How many ‘great’ and ‘normal’ people do we let slide out of our lives thinking “I’ll get around to it”? But, they know how you really feel about them. They know. 😉

    • abaird2012 - Feb 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM

      Wonderful story from Joe, and I think this should be “Comment of the Year.”

      Sorry, Gator.

      • Old Gator - Feb 28, 2013 at 12:04 AM

        No apologies needed whatsoever. I step aside happily when the subject is an encounter with the great Buck O’Neill and is written so beautifully. Paul, that was exquisite.

    • indaburg - Feb 28, 2013 at 12:07 AM

      Exactly what Raysfan1 said. I got through Joe’s piece intact, but now I’m teary. Great story.

    • stlouis1baseball - Feb 28, 2013 at 1:33 PM

      Jeesh Paul! I made it all the way through Joe’s article with no waterworks.
      Then I read your post and I am now blowing my nose. Thanks for sharing!

  16. krmcelhinney - Feb 27, 2013 at 11:17 PM


    I had the pleasure to meet Buck years ago at an NAIA convention in Kansas City. He was sitting by himself and I walked up, introduced myself, and had the good sense to listen to him for about twenty minutes. What a gentleman. One of the highlights of my life. To this day I still marvel at the size of the mans generosity, kindness and how big his hands were.

  17. cowboyzshininstar - Feb 28, 2013 at 3:00 AM

    Amazing piece Joe. Glad to read a story with some substance. That has somewhat subsided in the sports world. I’m really glad you did this story.

  18. mgflolox - Feb 28, 2013 at 3:29 AM

    Strictly as a ballplayer, from what I can gather, Buck was along the lines of a Keith Hernandez/Mark Grace quality of player. Damn good-championship quality, if not quite Hall of Fame level. As a human being, he towers so far above HOF standards, he is most assuredly inner circle. Shame he isn’t alive to see what I believe will be his eventual induction, he is a more than worthy candidate.

  19. hasbeen5 - Feb 28, 2013 at 8:27 AM

    Great read Joe, as is anything you write about Buck. I read Soul of Baseball a year or so after it was published, and it’s what brought me back to being a die hard baseball fan. After reaching my competitive limits, I was bitter about not being able to play anymore. Reading about Buck’s enthusiasm and passion reminded me of the great stuff I was missing and reminded me just how much I loved the game.

  20. wmw3629 - Mar 1, 2013 at 10:18 PM

    These ridiculous “voters”-(how pathetic are these losers)? Yeah, vote Buck and Santo in only after they die. Deny them what they deserved and waited on for so many years. Did any of these jack offs even ever watch a baseball game?

  21. manolibre48 - Mar 13, 2013 at 10:26 PM

    Wonderful article and great comments. As I read through them, two thoughts came to me over and over: 1) Every comment is respectful (how unusual these days!), and, 2) Who are the ‘haters’ that would dislike the article or the comments here? Makes me realize there really are people out there without souls.

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