Skip to content

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Blue Jays acquire John Mayberry, Jr. from the Phillies

    Aug 31, 2014, 11:35 PM EDT

    John Mayberry Jr. John Mayberry Jr.

    The Blue Jays added an outfield bench bat, picking up John Mayberry, Jr. from the Phillies on Sunday.

  2. The Brewers made a run at David Price in July

    Aug 31, 2014, 11:05 PM EDT

    David Price David Price

    The Brewers tried but ultimately failed to acquire David Price from the Rays in July because they refused to part with pitcher Jimmy Nelson.

  3. Bryce Harper logs his first multi-homer game of 2014

    Aug 31, 2014, 10:30 PM EDT

    Bryce Harper Bryce Harper

    Bryce Harper entered August with numbers far below expectations. He’ll enter September with much better-looking stats thanks to a decent showing in August, including a spectacular finish on Sunday.

  4. Aroldis Chapman’s fastball could make some history

    Aug 31, 2014, 9:35 PM EDT

    Aroldis Chapman Getty Images

    Aroldis Chapman has had a great season, as usual, but he could do something no pitcher has done since the implementation of pitch-tracking technology in 2006.

  5. The Phillies achieved a rare but ignominious feat on Saturday

    Aug 31, 2014, 8:40 PM EDT

    Philadelphia Phillies v New York Mets Getty Images

    Is it really a good thing if one’s team is one of only two teams in the last 113 years to have four relatively old players accrue a significant amount of playing time?

  6. Yankees acquire pitcher Chaz Roe from the Marlins

    Aug 31, 2014, 7:45 PM EDT

    Chaz Roe Getty Images

    The Yankees picked up Chaz Roe on the cheap from the Marlins on Sunday, just ahead of the waiver deadline.

  7. Adam Dunn plans to retire, says this season “is probably going to be it”

    Aug 31, 2014, 6:55 PM EDT

    Adam Dunn Getty Images

    Adam Dunn is ready to call it a career, he told the media on Sunday after he was traded from the White Sox to the Athletics.

  8. Kolten Wong exited Sunday’s game with a head injury

    Aug 31, 2014, 6:05 PM EDT

    Kolten Wong Kolten Wong

    Kolten Wong hit his head on the ground pursuing a ball hit by Chris Valaika in the eighth inning of Sunday’s game against the Cubs. He was helped off the field, and he’ll undergo testing after the game.

  9. Rusney Castillo debuts in the Gulf Coast League

    Aug 31, 2014, 5:11 PM EDT

    rusney castillo ap AP

    Rusney Castillo made his debut in MLB-affiliated ball on Sunday afternoon with the Gulf Coast League Red Sox, singling through the left side of the infield in his first of two plate appearances and striking out looking in his second.

  10. Video: Jose Bautista homers for fifth straight game

    Aug 31, 2014, 4:17 PM EDT

    jose bautista getty Getty Images

    Watch as Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista leaves the yard for the fifth time in five games Sunday afternoon against the Yankees …

  11. Blue Jays give Derek Jeter a trip to Canadian Rockies

    Aug 31, 2014, 3:25 PM EDT

    jeter banff

    Derek Jeter’s retirement tour continued Sunday afternoon at Rogers Centre in Toronto, where the Blue Jays presented him a $10,000 check for his Turn 2 Foundation and this really cool trip …

  12. Dodgers activate Hyun-Jin Ryu and Juan Uribe from DL

    Aug 31, 2014, 2:33 PM EDT

    dodgers logo

    Hyun-Jin Ryu is back in the Dodgers’ starting rotation after missing a little over two weeks with a strained glute and Juan Uribe is back at third base after sitting out 15 days with a strained hamstring.

  13. Reds trade setup man Jonathan Broxton to the Brewers

    Aug 31, 2014, 1:48 PM EDT

    broxton getty Getty Images

    The National League Central-leading Brewers just made a pretty significant upgrade to their bullpen. From Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com comes word that Milwaukee has acquired right-handed reliever Jonathan Broxton in a waiver trade with the Reds.

  14. Miguel Cabrera sits Sunday with nagging ankle injury

    Aug 31, 2014, 12:55 PM EDT

    miguel cabrera tigers getty Getty Images

    Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera had to leave the second half of Saturday’s doubleheader against the White Sox after struggling to make it down the first base line on a fourth-inning groundout. He’s been battling a right ankle injury for several weeks, and it seems only to be getting worse.

  15. A’s acquire veteran slugger Adam Dunn from the White Sox

    Aug 31, 2014, 11:49 AM EDT

    adam dunn white sox getty Getty Images

    The A’s announced Sunday morning that they have acquired veteran designated hitter Adam Dunn from the White Sox for minor league reliever Nolan Sanburn.

  16. Jacoby Ellsbury out again Sunday with left ankle injury

    Aug 31, 2014, 11:37 AM EDT

    jacoby ellsbury getty Getty Images

    Yankees center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury is sitting out a second consecutive game after injuring his left ankle on a slide into home plate Friday night …

  17. Jay Bruce on rough 2014 season: “It’s honestly been the most embarrassing year of my life”

    Aug 31, 2014, 10:53 AM EDT

    jay bruce getty Getty Images

    Jay Bruce finished 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in Saturday’s loss to the Pirates and is now batting .217/.292/.369 with 130 strikeouts in 114 total games this season. He’s sporting a career-worst .661 OPS and it looks like he’ll finish with fewer than 20 home runs for the first time since breaking into the major leagues in 2008.

  18. Giants, Dodgers, A’s among teams with interest in acquiring veteran slugger Adam Dunn

    Aug 31, 2014, 10:01 AM EDT

    adam dunn getty Getty Images

    White Sox veteran slugger Adam Dunn appears willing to waive his no-trade clause and join a contending team for his first taste of postseason baseball …

  19. Video: Padres notch third straight extra-innings walkoff

    Aug 31, 2014, 9:34 AM EDT

    alexi amarista getty Getty Images

    Check out Alexi Amarista guiding the Padres to their third consecutive extra-innings walkoff victory with an RBI single to shallow left-center field Saturday night against the visiting Dodgers …

  20. Settling the Score: Saturday’s results

    Aug 31, 2014, 8:58 AM EDT

    cory rasmus getty Getty Images

    This weekend has been a nightmare for the A’s. They headed into Anaheim on Thursday for the start of a four-game series with the goal of recapturing the lead in the American League West standings, but runs have been difficult to come by and now the Angels enter play Sunday looking for the sweep.

Featured video

Who are the favorites for Rookie of the Year?
Top 10 MLB Player Searches
  1. J. Soler (3873)
  2. Y. Molina (2862)
  3. R. Castillo (2798)
  4. B. Posey (2226)
  5. A. Rizzo (2114)
  1. J. Ellsbury (2054)
  2. D. Murphy (1903)
  3. D. Wright (1898)
  4. M. Cabrera (1876)
  5. D. Pedroia (1847)