For Buck O’Neil, Hall call confirms legacy he always carried

Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The crowd came to celebrate. They wept instead.

Several hundred people had gathered at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum on that February day in 2006. Buck O’Neil was going to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. That was the proper outcome for a man of his achievement, resiliency, and legendary optimism. O’Neil was on hand and poised to share the moment with friends and family members.

O’Neil had been one of the greatest first basemen in Negro League history; managed the storied Kansas City Monarchs; signed eventual MLB Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, and Lee Smith as a Chicago Cubs scout; became the first Black coach in Major League history; led the effort to establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City; and earned esteem as the preeminent storyteller of the transformational period before, during, and after the integration of America’s national pastime.

O’Neil possessed a unique résumé among all the Negro League players, executives and managers under consideration by a special Hall of Fame committee.

He fell one vote short.

“I shed tears that day — tears of anguish,” recalled Bob Kendrick, O’Neil’s close confidant and NLBM president since 2011. “I was the one who told Buck that he didn’t get enough votes. To this day, it was one of the most gut-wrenching conversations of my life. But who handled it better than anyone? Buck.”

Despite the heartbreak, O’Neil accepted the invitation to travel to Cooperstown for the 2006 induction ceremony and speak on behalf of inductees who had been elected posthumously. O’Neil delivered a stirring, joyful address without a hint of resentment about his own result.

“Think about the type of human being it takes to do that,” marveled Smith, the Hall of Fame closer. “He was never bitter about that situation . . . I’m telling you, for him to be part of that ceremony, it’s because he was always giving everywhere he went.”

John “Buck” O’Neil died two months after delivering that speech. He was 94.

Sixteen years later, the mystifying wait for recognition will end. O’Neil will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 24, following last year’s vote of the Golden Days Era Committee.

O’Neil’s niece, Dr. Angela Terry, will speak on his behalf.

“It is a little bittersweet, because we won’t get to high-five and chest bump with our guy,” Kendrick acknowledged, “but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment, and it doesn’t diminish the opportunity to celebrate all that he did.”

“I’m sure when we get to the moment on July 24, I’m going to be overcome with emotion. But these will be tears of joy, not the tears of anguish we shed in 2006, because my friend’s baseball legacy is fully in place. He’ll take his proper place among the immortals of our game. Of course, as we both know, his legacy is far greater than baseball.”

That legacy is growing stronger through the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center in Kansas City, now under construction at the former Paseo YMCA building near the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The Paseo YMCA has deep significance to O’Neil’s story; it was there that Andrew “Rube” Foster held the 1920 meeting that formalized the Negro National League.

The NLBM had organized numerous events to celebrate the centennial in 2020, but they were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In that sense, O’Neil’s Hall of Fame induction is Right on Time, to borrow from the title of his autobiography. The celebration of his career is infusing new energy to the “Thanks a Million, Buck” campaign to raise $1 million in support of infrastructure and programming at the Education and Research Center.

“It’s almost poetic, after having lost 2020,” Kendrick said. “When we were celebrating the 100th anniversary, we thought that was going to come with a lot of financial support for this project. But now we get to use the Hall of Fame induction as the springboard to help take care of the House that Buck Built.”

O’Neil was born and raised in Florida, where Jim Crow laws prevented him from attending Sarasota High School. Kansas City became his hometown through playing for and managing the Monarchs. He worked for decades as a scout and ambassador for the Royals, who have recognized his impact during every home game since his passing; each day, one fan who exemplifies his spirit is invited to watch the game from the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat behind home plate.

“He’s one of the greatest ambassadors for the Royals, and the game of baseball, that we’ve ever had,” said Dayton Moore, the club’s president. “With what he has meant to this community, we celebrate him 81 dates per year by honoring a citizen in our community who we feel represents the spirit of Buck O’Neil.”

“He was always caring for and loving on people. He served others in the community. He lived with a spirit of optimism and hope and forgiveness.”

Moore moved with his family to Kansas City in 2006, several months before O’Neil’s passing, but the two had met in 1994. At the time, Moore was an assistant baseball coach at George Mason University. O’Neil was receiving national acclaim for his role in Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary, and George Mason was chosen as the site of O’Neil’s interview with Ted Koppel on Nightline.

Moore described O’Neil as “one of those individuals you want everyone you know or care about to have met.” Moore also believes it’s more vital than ever that Americans — not only baseball fans — learn about the grace with which O’Neil faced and overcame prejudice.

“We’re all looking for examples of greatness and people who model the characteristics we want to see in our communities,” Moore said. “Buck O’Neil modeled that better than anybody . . . I’ll always remember him as a person who celebrated the gift of life every single day. He was thankful for everything he experienced, and he told stories about those times in his life in a very forgiving and hopeful way.”

In 2008, the National Baseball Hall of Fame honored O’Neil’s legacy by creating the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. The award honors “an individual whose extraordinary efforts enhanced baseball’s positive impact on society, broadened the game’s appeal, and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the qualities exhibited by O’Neil.”

The Hall created a permanent exhibit to recognize the award, with the list of honorees accompanying a life-sized statue of O’Neil. The O’Neil display is located so close to the Museum entrance that visitors feel as if Buck is welcoming them to Cooperstown — a perfect tribute to his warmth and graciousness.

Smith, a 2019 Hall inductee, cried the first time he saw the smiling statue of the man who believed in him.

“I went back to when I was 17 years old,” Smith said, recalling his reaction. “Buck was chasing me down in Louisiana. He’d come back to watch me play sandlot ball. I was actually catching one day, and he was there.

“He always called me ‘Lee Arthur.’ I had my chest protector and mask on, but no shin guards, because I didn’t have enough money for shin guards. Buck saw me and called out, ‘Lee Arthur! Get out from back there! We’re thinking about drafting you!’ I said, ‘To the Army?’”

Smith laughed over the phone.

“I had been lined up to play college basketball,” he continued. “Buck O’Neil saw something in me that I’d never seen myself.”

Smith will return to Cooperstown in July and sit on the dais as his mentor is welcomed into the community of baseball immortals — thus strengthening the bond between the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, two historic institutions separated by 1,200 miles.

Long after the ceremony is over, O’Neil’s impact will grow at the NLBM Education and Research Center inaugurated in his name. Kendrick envisions the organization as a worldwide headquarters to study the intersection of Negro League baseball and social history.

In that way, Kendrick believes the NLBM’s mission has taken on a heightened focus in the two years since the murder of George Floyd.

“In the aftermath of this heinous and vile act, people reached out to us, seeking thought leadership,” Kendrick said. “We truly embraced the fact that this museum is a social justice museum, and a Civil Rights museum, seen through the lens of baseball. This museum is the story of triumph over adversity. We needed that story during that critical time when the country was going through a realm of social and civil unrest similar to the 1960s.

“The museum helps us to say, ‘You’ve seen my struggles. You’ve seen me try to navigate toward equality in this country. You’ve seen me sprayed by fire hoses, attacked by police dogs, subject to police brutality. But now see my success stories.’ Negro League Baseball is one of the great American success stories. ‘You won’t let me play in the Major Leagues? OK, I’ll create my own league, and my league will rival and in many cases surpass your league in popularity and attendance.’

“There’s something very American about that spirit.”

And no American, past or present, better exemplifies that spirit than John “Buck” O’Neil. The first two floors of the Education and Research Center in his name are set to open following the Nov. 12 fundraiser gala.

There’s a pretty important ceremony coming up in a few weeks, too. Buck O’Neil is a Hall of Famer, long overdue and right on time.