John “Buck” O’Neill 1911 – 2006
Yesterday, we all lost a luminary figure in this game called life. Sports in general, and baseball specifically lost a living legend. And an opportunity to do the right thing. I’ll get back to that last point later.
I’ve stated before the significance of Buck O’Neill and what his never to be repeated contribution to the sport has meant.
Buck played in the Negro Baseball Leagues with legends like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson during this country’s embarrassing era of chosen bigotry. His playing accomplishments may not be as valuable as his overall life contribution to the sport. This even though he was a good hitting and fielding 1st baseman, who twice won batting titles in the Negro leagues before winning a pennant as Manager for the Kansas City Monarchs.
Buck was the first black MLB coach. He was responsible for orchestrating black talent having opportunities in the big leagues. He was a tireless promoter of baseball and the significance of the Negro Leagues. He was paramount in the tireless rallying for funding and awareness for the Negro Leagues Museum, whereby ensuring future generations have the opportunity to learn about true baseball superstars whose legacies might otherwise be lost and forgotten.
It is important to catch the scope of Buck’s experience. He saw Babe Ruth and Johan Santana pitch. He talked hitting with Lou Gehrig and Ichiro Suzuki.
He gained renewed notoriety after being featured in Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary titled “Baseball”. In true Buck fashion, he joked that he became “an overnight sensation at 82”, referring to his age at the time. Buck increasingly became more popular from that point until he died.
It has been reported that he ran into resistance from some modern day black Major Leaguers along the way who verbalized to him they were not interested in turning back the clock and revisiting the Jim Crow era. Luckily, he was a huge hit with the young people of all colors who adored him as a grandfather figure and hung on every word of his inspiring and colorful recollective stories. I read an article where shortly after Buck’s snubbing by the Hall of Fame, kids in the 17 year old range were planning to ride bikes across the nation to bring awareness to what they viewed as an extreme injustice. I don’t know that it ever successfully happened. The cool thing was that youth sees value in Buck’s life accomplishments. These kids’ parents were Asian immigrants by the way. Buck was effective in motivating colorlessly.
Sports are not the most important thing about this life. But they teach many pertinent life lessons. They allow underdogs to dream and achieve their dreams, whether they play baseball when they’re older or not. They are knit into the fabric of what makes up this country, and what makes this country great. You can’t separate America from sports without leaving a gaping hole. Remember when sports helped us heal some after the tragedies of the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place and the media and entertainment machines were struggling with how they should or could proceed? Sports are powerful man.
Now for what I feel is one of the biggest missteps ever made by Major League Baseball. The overlooking of Buck O’Neill last year when they began inducting key Negro League players into the Hall of Fame. He missed the necessary 3/4 vote by one vote. I don’t know the criteria or why he was not a shoo in, but it was never reasonably explained. Few have contributed as much during and after their career in baseball as Buck O’Neill. Unfortunately, they will never have the opportunity to make it truly right. Someone should have stepped up and made it happen.
O’Neill never seemed to feel bitterness from the way he had been unfairly treated during his life. He didn’t show any signs of wear from the unjust hurdles he had faced. It’s reported that he said he lived “right on time”.
As much as I may feel anguish and disappointment that baseball forever missed an opportunity to show love and care for someone that loved it so much while he was still living, I will again learn from Mr. Oneill. Check out what he had to say about not getting into the Hall:
“Shed no tears for Buck,” he (O’Neill) told them. “I couldn’t attend Sarasota High School. That hurt. I couldn’t attend the University of Florida. That hurt.
“But not going into the Hall of Fame, that ain’t going to hurt me that much, no. Before, I wouldn’t even have a chance. But this time I had that chance.
“Just keep loving old Buck.”
No problem with that Mr. John “Buck” O’Neill. But we will miss you.