Skip to content

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Report: Red Sox open to trading both Jon Lester and John Lackey

    Jul 28, 2014, 11:41 PM EDT

    red sox logo

    The Red Sox hold some interesting cards going into Thursday’s trade deadline.

  2. VIDEO: Derek Jeter passes Carl Yastrzemski for seventh on all-time hits list

    Jul 28, 2014, 10:26 PM EDT

    648bbcda87835c87e67dd6081897c327 Getty Images

    With three hits against the Rangers this evening, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter has passed Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski for seventh-place on baseball’s all-time hit list.

  3. Brandon Belt is making progress from his concussion, but Hector Sanchez needs more time

    Jul 28, 2014, 9:20 PM EDT

    giants logo

    The Giants currently have two players sidelined with concussions. Brandon Belt appears closer to returning than Hector Sanchez.

  4. Mark Teixeira hopes to return from lat strain on Tuesday

    Jul 28, 2014, 8:28 PM EDT

    Mark Teixeira AP AP

    Mark Teixeira is out of the Yankees’ starting lineup for the eighth straight game tonight due to a lower lat strain, but he’s aiming to make his return tomorrow.

  5. Blue Jays acquire Danny Valencia from Royals for Erik Kratz and Liam Hendriks

    Jul 28, 2014, 7:29 PM EDT

    Danny Valencia Getty Getty Images

    It’s not a big deal, but the Blue Jays and Royals have pulled off a trade this evening which will send infielder Danny Valencia to Toronto and catcher Erik Kratz and right-hander Liam Hendriks to Kansas City.

  6. The Mariners and Orioles have called the Red Sox about Jon Lester

    Jul 28, 2014, 6:51 PM EDT

    Jon Lester Jon Lester

    We heard yesterday that the Dodgers have been in touch with the Red Sox about a deal for left-hander Jon Lester, but they figure to have plenty of competition leading up to Thursday’s non-waiver trade deadline.

  7. Report: Indians “very willing” to trade Justin Masterson

    Jul 28, 2014, 6:17 PM EDT

    Justin Masterson Getty Getty Images

    An impending free agent, Justin Masterson owns a disappointing 5.51 ERA over 18 starts this season and is currently on the disabled list with right knee inflammation.

  8. Brewers minor leaguer suspended for drugs

    Jul 28, 2014, 5:34 PM EDT

    Police Blotter

    Looks like he picked the wrong week to not stop doing amphetamines.

  9. A’s lose Craig Gentry to broken hand, call up speedster Billy Burns

    Jul 28, 2014, 5:17 PM EDT

    Craig Gentry A's AP

    A’s outfielder Craig Gentry began the season on the disabled list with a back injury and now, after hitting just .264 with zero homers and a .625 OPS in 80 games, he’s going on the shelf again with a broken hand.

  10. A lost Red Sox World Series ring leads to some good things for a Yankees fan

    Jul 28, 2014, 5:03 PM EDT

    Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 4.43.30 PM AP

    Do the right thing and good things happen. Not always, but here, yes.

  11. Yankees designate Jeff Francis for assignment

    Jul 28, 2014, 4:46 PM EDT

    Colorado Rockies v Chicago Cubs Getty Images

    Two weeks ago the Yankees acquired Jeff Francis from the A’s as a roster reinforcement, but now they’ve designated the journeyman left-hander for assignment.

  12. So maybe Cole Hamels is available after all

    Jul 28, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT

    cole hamels getty Getty Images

    After a couple months worth of reports that Cole Hamels is not on the market . . . maybe he’s on the market.

  13. Rays activate Joel Peralta, designate Erik Bedard for assignment

    Jul 28, 2014, 3:45 PM EDT

    Joel Peralta AP

    Bedard was demoted from the rotation to the bullpen three weeks ago, but has barely pitched since then and at age 35 could be nearing the end of the line.

  14. Andrelton Simmons made another incredible play

    Jul 28, 2014, 3:15 PM EDT

    andrelton simmons getty Getty Images

    At this point I’m almost convinced that the ground balls are purposely doing strange things just to test the limits of what Simmons is capable of.

  15. Dodgers acquire Darwin Barney from Cubs

    Jul 28, 2014, 2:44 PM EDT

    Darwin Barney Getty Getty Images

    Last week the Cubs designated infielder Darwin Barney for assignment and now Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune reports that they’re close to trading him to the Dodgers.

  16. Oswaldo Arcia Bo Jackson’d his bat after a strikeout

    Jul 28, 2014, 1:51 PM EDT

    Oswaldo Arcia AP

    Twins outfielder Oswaldo Arcia was unhappy about striking out yesterday against the White Sox, so he snapped his bat over his knee, Bo Jackson-style.

  17. Ray Rice is awful, but let’s not pretend baseball has a great record on domestic violence

    Jul 28, 2014, 1:39 PM EDT

    Milton Bradley angry

    The NFL weighed in on domestic violence and concluded “eh, no big deal.” MLB has tended to avoid the matter altogether.

  18. Jason Heyward leaves game with back injury

    Jul 28, 2014, 1:18 PM EDT

    Jason Heyward Getty Getty Images

    Braves right fielder Jason Heyward left this afternoon’s game what the team is calling lower back soreness.

  19. Phillies release Tony Gwynn Jr.

    Jul 28, 2014, 12:46 PM EDT

    tony gwynn jr. getty Getty Images

    Gwynn had a brief run as a regular for the Padres and Dodgers, but he profiles strictly as a backup outfielder at this point and at age 31 will likely have to prove himself at Triple-A for a while after hitting just .163 in 67 games for the Phillies.

Featured video

Three legends off to Cooperstown
Top 10 MLB Player Searches