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On Buck O’Neil and Jackie Robinson

Apr 15, 2013, 1:49 PM EDT

061006_buckONeal_hmed_9p.nbcsports-story-612 AP

I told a version this story in “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America,” which is about my year of traveling around the country with the great Buck O’Neil, Negro Leagues player and manager, brilliant scout for the Cubs, the first African American coach in Major League Baseball and the living memory of the Negro Leagues for generations of people who could barely imagine an America where African Americans were banned from the Major Leagues.

* * *

We were in New York in the summertime. It was hot. One thing I remember about all those trips with Buck was how hot it was just about everywhere we went. It was hot in Houston. It was hot in Atlanta. It was hot in Chicago and in Washington. And it was hot in New York.

We woke up early and rode into the city for a morning radio interview. There was an easy pace and rhythm to Buck’s interviews. Everyone, more or less, asked the same questions. What was it like? Can you tell us about Satchel Paige? Was Josh Gibson as good as people say? How good was Jackie Robinson? Who is your favorite player now? What do you make of steroids in baseball? Do you think the game is as much fun as it used to be? Why aren’t more young African Americans playing the sport? And so on. There were rarely surprises, because they were unnecessary. Buck made such good radio and television. His voice was musical. His stories were like great songs — people would just want to hear them over and over again.

For instance, Buck had a story he told many, many times about Jackie Robinson — a story that had been told to him by his good friend Hilton Smith (Buck was at war when Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs and so did not witness it). A version of the story actually made it into the new movie “42.” When Jackie Robinson played with the Kansas City Monarchs, the team was riding through Oklahoma and pulled into a familiar gas station. Everybody piled out and stretched, and Jackie Robinson headed for the bathroom. It was a white only bathroom.

“Where do you think you’re going, boy?” the gas station owner said. “You know you can’t go in there.”

Robinson braced himself. How many battles like this would he fight in his remarkable life? He turned to the man and said, “Pull the hose out of the tank.” The man glared back, and Buck knew exactly what that man was thinking (This was Buck’s great gift — he empathized with everyone, even the racists who haunted his life). The man was thinking that this bus had a huge tank on the left side and another huge tank on the right side. The man was thinking that he was a gas station owner in a small Oklahoma town and he wasn’t going to see a vehicle needing this much gas for a long time — maybe forever. The man was thinking that this bus came through every few weeks, a steady customer, and he needed the business.

The man was thinking that the whites-only bathroom didn’t seem too sensible a policy, considering the circumstances.

“All right go on in there,” the man said, and then, to maintain some illusion of control he barked, “But make it fast.”

“Jackie wasn’t built the way we were,” Buck would say. “We were conditioned to segregation. We were conditioned to Jim Crow. We knew it wasn’t right, but we saw it as unchangeable part of the world. Jackie didn’t see it that way. Jackie knew the times would change. He would make them change.”

And then Buck would smile really big and say: “Thank you Jackie.”

When we arrived at the building in New York that day, there were a couple of security guards sitting behind a desk and looking at a wall of little monitors. One of them recognized Buck and asked, “What are you doing here?” Buck, explained that he was there to do a show called “Star and something or other.”

The man’s face fell. “Star and Buc Wild?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said Bob Kendrick, now president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum who was along for this trip and most of the other ones we made. The guard looked utterly crestfallen and then he said something I will never forget. He said: “Please don’t do that show, Mr. O’Neil. You are a gentleman. Please don’t do that show.”

The guard explained that the show was a shock jock thing — wilder and crazier than Howard Stern. He was getting frantic. “They talk ignorance on that show,” he said. Buck looked at the man and smiled. He was almost 94 years old. He had seen plenty of ignorance. He had never allowed that ignorance to overwhelm his good will. But he was also touched by the man’s concern for him. He put his hand on the man’s shoulder and said, “Ignorance, eh? Well, we’ll see if we can talk some common sense with those guys, eh?’

I won’t relive the fullness of the interview here. It’s in the book. All you really need to know is that fairly early in the interview — after Buck was introduced to a sidekick called “White Trash” — a question came zinging in: “Jackie Robinson was a sellout, am I right?”

What followed seemed to go in slow motion. Again and again and again — for what seemed like hours — there was question after question about Jackie Robinson being a sellout for abandoning the Negro Leagues and going to play with white players. Buck was bewildered. At one point, he went into his bit about how important Jackie Robinson was:

“When Jackie Robinson went to the Major Leagues, that was the beginning of the modern-day civil rights movement. That was before Rosa Parks said, ‘I don’t feel like going to the back of the damn bus today.’ That was before Brown vs. Board of Education. Martin Luther King was a sophomore at Morehouse College at the time. Jackie Robinson went to the Major Leagues and that’s what started the ball rolling. That was the start, man! Are you listening.”

The argument raged on for another full segment and it grew nastier and more intense. I don’t know what it sounded like on the radio. For me, watching my friend, it was heartbreaking.

When it ended, we went into the city — Buck had a lot more to do. The rest of the interviews went off without any surprises — everything seemed back in rhythm. But not quite. That morning interview had taken much of the life out of Buck. You have to understand, Buck was more joyous, more filled with life, more filled with hope than anybody I ever knew. By that time that day ended, Buck was as tired and deflated as I ever saw him. He was a man who cherished the two meals a day he allowed himself — always ate dessert — but when we got to the hotel he announced he was too tired to eat. He was going to his room to sleep.

And then as we walked toward the hotel, we saw a woman in a red dress. As I have written many times, this wasn’t any ordinary red dress. It was bright red, fire red, lipstick red. a Marilyn Monroe red dress. It was a Broadway show all in itself. As I walked into the hotel, I turned to Buck to ask him what he thought … only he was gone.

I looked around. Did he slip into the bathroom? Did he sneak upstairs without me? Did he stay in the car? There was a moment confusion and then, only then, did I look out the glass revolving door. And there was Buck, talking with the woman in the red dress. Well, they were laughing mostly. Talking and laughing. And hugging also, yes. Talking and laughing and hugging. Then a man came over — her husband maybe? Her boyfriend? Buck started talking with him. Talking and laughing. Talking and laughing and hugging. They were probably out there for 10 minutes, all of them, complete strangers, only not strangers at all.

When Buck returned to the hotel, he announced in his loud and happy voice: “Let’s get some dinner!” He was reborn. He practically bounced toward the hotel restaurant when suddenly he stopped. He turned to me. He said, “Let me ask you something. Did you see that woman in the red dress?”

I nodded.

And he shook his head and he said this: “Son, in this life, you don’t ever walk by a red dress.”

I’ve told that story hundreds of times by now — to me, it summed up Buck O’Neil. The “red dress” wasn’t really a red dress. It represented the joys of life. Buck never walked by a baby without having it grab his finger. He never walked by a friendly face without asking a question like “Do you remember your first day of school?” He never walked by a worker without asking how the day was going. He never stood in an elevator without striking a conversation. He never passed up a chance for a hug, or a smile, a slice of cake, a scoop of ice cream or a chance to learn something new.

I once asked Buck if he could have been the first black man play in the Major Leagues. He said no. He said that task needed someone extraordinary, someone fierce, someone who would not stand for injustice, someone who would not bend to ease of inaction or the force of hatred. I said, “You could have done it.” He said, “No, that was for Jackie. I had a different role.”

And as I tell this story one time I realize something: I have never once said whether the woman wearing the red dress was white or black. And the honest truth is, after all the years, I don’t remember.

  1. dlf9 - Apr 15, 2013 at 2:23 PM

    Beautiful Joe. Thanks.

    And a giant thank you to Buck. I’m sure where he is all the grounders take a sunday hop, there is no celery to pick and everyone calls him Nancy.

    • cowboysoldiertx - Apr 16, 2013 at 5:14 PM

      This story made my day. Buck was a terrific man and him NOT being in the hall of fame is a shame and an outrage!

  2. jm91rs - Apr 15, 2013 at 2:28 PM

    Just bought your book on amazon, I hope it reads as well as your posts here. Looking forward to reading it.

    • hasbeen5 - Apr 15, 2013 at 4:21 PM

      You won’t be disappointed.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Apr 15, 2013 at 7:23 PM

      If you are talking about Soul of Baseball, it’s even better than what he writes here. Also I hope you have a few tissues handy, because your room tends to get dusty at certain parts.

  3. Old Gator - Apr 15, 2013 at 2:31 PM

    Another opportunity to spit on the Old Timers Committee of the Hall of Lame. Here we go: ptooey!

  4. Rich Stowe - Apr 15, 2013 at 2:37 PM

    Buck was one of baseball’s greatest ambassadors. His knowledge wasn’t limited to just the Negro Leagues.

    I wonder how much harder it would have been for Ken Burns to make his documentary if Buck didn’t take part in it?

    • mrfloydpink - Apr 15, 2013 at 3:48 PM

      Buck O’Neil was a very great man, no doubt.

      But, with that said, please. Do you really think he was the only person able to comment on the Negro Leagues, on racism in baseball, on Jackie Robinson, and other such topics?

      • raysfan1 - Apr 15, 2013 at 10:56 PM

        No, just the best

  5. mrfloydpink - Apr 15, 2013 at 2:54 PM

    Dear God. How many more columns is Posnanski going to squeeze out of Buck O’Neil? Let the man rest in peace.

    • dlf9 - Apr 15, 2013 at 2:57 PM

      One day, when every baseball fan knows every Buck O’Neil story … when everyone stops to talk to every red dress that walks by … when people take joy in simple pleasures … when the last person drops bitterness in favor of a life lives out of optimism … then, and only then, should Joe stop writing about Buck.

      • cmbrown15 - Apr 15, 2013 at 3:07 PM

        I had never read this Buck O’Neil story. Maybe I never saw it, maybe I never took the time. I read it this afternoon and it made my day. I hope Joe Posnanski shares it as often as he likes.

    • mrfloydpink - Apr 15, 2013 at 3:05 PM

      Yes, yes, let the thumbs down commence. I know full well that criticizing Joe Posnanski is tantamount to blasphemy around here.

      It remains the case, however, that Posnanski has written this same basic column at least three or four times. Like here:

      In my line of work, copying and pasting from a previous article and presenting it as a new article would be called plagiarism. But I suppose sports reporters follow a different standard…

      • 18thstreet - Apr 15, 2013 at 3:28 PM

        Plagiarism is taking credit for the work of others. One should have no qualms in taking credit, repeatedly, for one’s own work.

        I don’t know what line of work you are in. I suspect you are not an etymologist.

      • mrfloydpink - Apr 15, 2013 at 5:55 PM

        I am a college professor.

        If a student turns an essay in for my class, and then turns the same basic essay in for another class, then that is plagiarism. I just sent a student to the Dean of Students last quarter for this EXACT offense.

      • DJ MC - Apr 15, 2013 at 9:51 PM

        mrfloydpink: That is not plagerism. That is something which is against the rules of your class and your college, but not plagerism.

        It’s like someone getting a ticket for speeding and you declaring them guilty of a felony. They may have committed a crime, but not one that you are claiming.

        That said, this is certainly no crime. Your class has the rule against using previously-created work in a different class to require students to put effort into their learning instead of simply resting on something they already did. That’s certainly not the case for professional writing.

      • zemongoose - Apr 15, 2013 at 10:02 PM

        @mrfloydpink–Hamburger U really needs to up the standards for its faculty.

      • mrfloydpink - Apr 15, 2013 at 11:06 PM

        A note to all of you geniuses who know so much about plagiarism. I suggest that you check the plagiarism policies at ANY university. They are always very clear and very precise and very easily found. For example, the first major university whose policies come up when you search google for ‘plagiarism’ is Michigan State. Here’s the link:

        You may want to direct your attention to this passage: “Plagiarism may be accidental or blatant and there is even self-plagiarism.”

        Or to this passage: “Turning in the same term paper (or substantially the same paper) for two courses without getting permission from one’s instructor is plagiarism.”

        You can find this exact same verbiage at UCLA, Berkeley, Michigan, Chicago, Harvard, or any other university you choose to check.

        So perhaps, before you correct me, you should–you know–actually know what the hell you’re talking about. At the very least, DJ MC, you should know how to spell ‘plagiarism’ correctly.

        Oh, and I noted in my original post that sports writers play by slightly different rules. That said, it’s still not cool to present something as “new” when it’s not. If you look at the original article I linked, it’s clear he copied and pasted significant portions of this.

      • louhudson23 - Apr 16, 2013 at 3:14 AM

        It isn’t about Joe Posnanski. It is about Buck O’Neil. Did you see the reply from the man who never heard the story? Do you give a shit? I have read the book at least three times. I have read this story here and on the old SI column. I will read it again when I see it published again. And I will say to you what Buck O’Neil would not. Fuck off……

      • 18thstreet - Apr 16, 2013 at 9:37 AM

        Despite all the thumbs down, I found Mr. Pink Floyd’s comments (and the MSU link) interesting. By senior year, I cut and pasted from prior papers frequently. I never considered it dishonest: there was research I had conduced for freshman year political science classes that hadn’t gone stale three years later. I think I once actually cited my own paper from a previous class with a footnote and everything. Man, that felt silly.

        I majored in Political Science and took a lot of American history courses along the way. There was bound to be overlap. I don’t feel guilty about that. So I find the MSU link interesting.

      • davidpom50 - Apr 16, 2013 at 12:01 PM

        Mrfloydpink, your quote from Michigan State’s policies perfectly describe what everyone is pissed off about. This ain’t a college class. Joe probably doesn’t have an instructor from whom he should seek permission. He probably DOES have editors, who obviously would know this was substantially the same as previous work from Joe, since it begins with “I told a version this story in “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.”” Joe apparently thinks these are important stories that need to be retold. A lot of the readers here apparently agree. Stop being such a pretentious douchenozzle.

      • mesohornsby - Apr 25, 2013 at 2:36 PM

        Definition of plagiarizing from Merriam-Webster: PLAGIARIZE
        transitive verb
        : to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use (another’s production) without crediting the source

        Joe acknowledged repeatedly that the stuff was already published in his book. Get a life. Go teach something you know about.

    • Rich Stowe - Apr 15, 2013 at 3:07 PM

      how many people still don’t know about Buck Oneil? Thanks to writers like Joe, his legacy and everything he meant to the game of baseball will continue to be told.

      • buddaley - Apr 15, 2013 at 9:26 PM

        This is not a college essay, nor is it an assignment. When the occasion suggests it is relevant, Joe may recall a story that fits the moment. One of the joys of baseball is the constant recalling and retelling stories. And O’Neill stories are particularly appropriate to recall in many instances. They do not lose their interest, perhaps even their power. Rather they become more and more interesting as we recognize how often they make sense.

        It is not as if Joe Posnanski’s entire oeuvre or reputation is summed up in his stories about Buck O’Neill. The breadth of his topics is remarkable.

    • Baseball Beer Burritos In That Order - Apr 15, 2013 at 3:30 PM

      Yeah, if only he had warned people IN THE VERY FIRST LINE AT THE TOP OF THE PAGE that he’s told this story before.

      And last I checked, celebrating the humanity and lives of the departed is something we do to honor the dead, not squeeze stuff out of them.

      • mrfloydpink - Apr 15, 2013 at 5:57 PM

        Uh, thanks, I actually did see that part.

        It is one thing to say “you’ve told this story before.” It’s another thing to copy and paste, and present the result as a new column.

        If he said, “Here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago for the Kansas City Star, reprinted for your enjoyment, with minor adjustments,” then he would be in the clear, ethically. But that is not what he did/said.

    • historiophiliac - Apr 15, 2013 at 4:36 PM

      Pssst. There’s a reason I never comment on these posts. You know how it is with laypeople. Don’t fight the folklore. Let them just enjoy.

    • paperlions - Apr 15, 2013 at 8:08 PM

      You are an ignoranus (stupid and an asshole).

      Telling Buck O’Neil stories celebrates the man’s life and helps keep his legacy alive.

      • mrfloydpink - Apr 15, 2013 at 11:13 PM

        Wow. I may have been called an ignoramus before, but never an ignoranus.

        In any case, I am a big fan of Buck O’Neil and his achievements. However, I find what Posnanski does to be pandering–just like Rick Reilly or Mitch Albom. And when he can’t even be bothered to write something fresh–he just recycles the same column from a few years ago, I’m even less impressed.

      • historiophiliac - Apr 15, 2013 at 11:52 PM

        ha ha

        He did get you on the ingoranus. Sorry, paper.

  6. zemongoose - Apr 15, 2013 at 9:59 PM

    That was a beautiful story.

  7. tcostant - Apr 16, 2013 at 11:00 AM

    Great job. I’ve also heard Buck tell that story, you did it justice!!!

    He was such a joy.

    Best baseball museum that I’ve ever been to and I have been to Cooperstow too.

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