Remembering the Soul of Baseball

Author’s Note: I encourage you to read Buck O’Neil’s autobiography “I Was Right on Time” or Joe Posnanski’s “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip through Buck O’Neil’s America” to truly understand the greatness of John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil.

There once was a light that shined brightly in Kansas City but five years has passed since it last burned so bright.  For some Kansas City is jazz; for some it’s barbeque; to others it’s art; to many, it’s baseball.  But to John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil, Kansas City was home.  If jazz and baseball are the heart of Kansas City, Buck O’Neil was it’s soul.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of  Buck O’Neil.  He lived a good long life (died just a month before his 95th birthday) but I still feel he was taken from us way too soon.  Buck O’Neil was born in Carrabelle, Florida on November 13, 1911.  He was raised in Sarasota.  Times were tough for young Buck growing up but one thing he knew as a young boy was that he loved baseball.  He got the chance to grow up watching greats like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson play the game he loved.   However Buck would tell you any day of the week that Negro Leaguers Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Satchel Paige were even better.  Many like to argue Ruth vs. Gibson or Paige vs. Johnson but O’Neil was one of the few in that debate who actually saw them play.  He was one of the few who had met and played against greats like these.

There is so much that I can say about Buck O’Neil and for the sake of brevity I do not even know where to begin.   This is a man who was a player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the greatest baseball teams in the history of the game.   In the Negro Leagues he coached Jackie Robinson and Elston Howard.   He played on the same teams as Satchel Paige, “Cool Papa” Bell, and Oscar Charleston.  He was the first black coach in Major League history.  As a coach for the Chicago Cubs he discovered players like Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Joe Carter, and Lee Smith.  He was one of the best scouts in the Major Leagues for a number of years.  He was even named the Midwestern Scout of the Year by the MLB while working for the Kansas City Royals in the late 1980’s.  In 2006 (about 4 months before his death), Buck O’Neil signed a one day contract with the Kansas City T-Bones and became the oldest man in the history of professional baseball to make a plate appearance.  He was walked safely to first.  He was a great player and an even greater coach.  But for most of his life, very few knew who he was.

It wasn’t until the 1990’s when Ken Burns made his famed documentary “Baseball” for PBS that many met Buck for the first time.  He was initially brought on to provide commentary for the episode “Shadowball” about the Negro Leagues but Ken Burns soon realized how great a treasure Buck really was and interviewed him for nearly all of his segments. Burns remarked that, “[Buck] is wise, funny, self-depreciating, and absolutely sure of what he wants from life. He is my hero, my friend, and my mentor. He is like Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson, what human progress is all about.”   It’s fair to say that Buck stole the show and became a national phenomenon.  Buck always liked to joke that it was “nice to be discovered at 82”. He became an even greater ambassador for the game he loved and was the driving force behind the founding of the Negro League Baseball Museum in the 18th and Vine Jazz District in Kansas City.
He was the greatest ambassador that America’s greatest game has ever had and likely, will ever have.   Unfortunately for Buck, he was never really included in baseball.  The Cubs had a longstanding tradition of letting their bench coaches rotate in and out to serve as 1st base or 3rd base coach but the Cubs refused to ever let Buck step foot on that field.  Shortly before Buck died, the Baseball Hall of Fame held a special election for Negro League players.   Buck O’Neil had not wanted much from this life.  He was a simple guy with simple tastes but he wanted to be enshrined in Cooperstown.  Well the day came and went and 17 Negro Leaguers were inducted into the Hall of Fame but the MLB’s first black coach was denied entry.

The baseball community was outraged by the exclusion of Buck from the list of Hall of Famers.  New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro wrote, “They left Buck O’Neil off the list… which makes the list a complete joke.” A Detroit News editorial read, “The committee should be ashamed of itself.”  Many Hall of Famers – Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Joe Morgan among them – were up in arms over Buck’s exclusion.  Hall of Famer Bob Feller remarked upon hearing the committee had excluded Buck, “What the hell do they know about baseball?”

For those at the museum with Buck that day it was obvious that O’Neil was saddened by the news that he did not get in but his only response was,  “Seventeen huh? That’s wonderful.”

Because that’s the kind of guy Buck was.  He loved everybody and he cared more about the game of baseball and more about his friends than he ever cared about himself.  And he considered every person he met a friend.  He always took time to sign autographs for kids (even when he was battling arthritis in old age he would sign hundreds of balls a day) and never passed up the chance to talk to a girl in a red dress (one of his many rules for living).  He never held any bitterness towards anyone in spite of the raw hand he was dealt.  When induction day came around that July, it was Buck O’Neil who stood up there and introduced each and every one of them.  He talked about honor and how he had never felt more loved in the days since the 17 were inducted.   He was a class act all the way and never blamed anyone.  He loved the game and was just thankful to be a part of it.

A year after his passing the Hall of Fame decided to institute the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award to be given no more than once every three years to someone who has served as a great ambassador of the game.  There was no talk of actually inducting Buck into the Hall at the time or since.  They even constructed a statue that they placed right outside of the gallery where they store the Hall of Fame plaques.  I guess it makes sense.  The story of his life was always being just outside of the Majors, just outside of managing, just outside of the Hall – why wouldn’t his legacy be any different?

I am amazed by Buck in his lack of bitterness.  Time and time again Buck would say in regards to his career, “Waste no tears for me.  I didn’t come along too early – I was right on time.” There once was a light that burned bright in Kansas City but it’s been five years since the light has left us.  Buck may have been born right on time but he was taken from us way too soon.  Kansas City and the game of baseball are just not the same without him.