It’s been over 4 years now since Buck O’Neil passed away at the age of 94. I remember the day like it was yesterday, waking up and checking ESPN in the morning and seeing the heartbreaking article on the Baseball page. I remember feeling two things: I couldn’t believe he was no longer alive as it really seemed like he was going to live forever and the other feeling was extreme disappointment that he passed away without being elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. At his advanced age he was still a huge ambassador for the sport and meant so much to so many people. From 1994 when he appeared in Ken Burns Baseball documentary which in some ways made him a household name until the day he died in 2006, Buck O’Neil spread the word of Baseball, life and love to fans around the globe. However his importance and relevance goes back far beyond 1994 as this was who he was and what he did for a lifetime.
Buck O’Neil started his career in Baseball by playing with semi-pro and barnstorming teams in 1934 until he was signed by the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues in 1937. He only had 8 at-bats in 2 games at the end of the season and was sold to the Kansas City Monarchs that following off season. He spent the next 17 seasons with the Monarchs with the exception of a 2 year military stint in 1944 & 1945. In 1955 he resigned from the Monarchs and in 1956 he became a scout for the Chicago Cubs. By 1962 he had become a coach for the Cubs, thus making him the first Black coach in Major League history. He stayed involved with the Cubs until the 1988 which lead him full circle to the city of Kansas City, where he spent the majority of his playing career as he became a scout for the Kansas City Royals. O’Neil worked with the Royals organization on various levels up until his death in 2006.
While that is his career in Baseball in a nutshell, it barley touches upon his influence to the game as it is is still felt today on many levels. He brought a voice to the Negro Leagues to an entire generation and taught love and understanding on a human level to people. It is hard in one blog post to capture his importance to the game of Baseball but I hope to hit the tip of the iceberg of the importance of Buck O’Neil.
One thing that was great about O’Neil is that he was a great story teller and when he started talking you listened with every ounce of attention that you had. This is exactly why he became so hugely popular after the Burns documentary as the evidence is right there in front of you while you watch his parts in the film. This man spent over 70 years of his life involved in professional Baseball and without a doubt this lead to so many experiences and stories that it’s almost mind boggling to think about what he could bring to a conversation about Baseball . This little exert regarding Bo Jackson, Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson which I took from the Burns PBS documentary (it may be familiar to some of you) is one of the coolest Baseball stories I have ever heard:
I heard Ruth hit the ball. I’d never heard that sound before, and I was outside the fence but it was the sound of the bat that I had never heard before in my life. And the next time I heard that sound, I’m in Washington, D.C., in the dressing room and I heard that sound of a bat hitting the ball — sounded just like when Ruth hit the ball. I rushed out, got on nothing but a jockstrap, I rushed out — we were playing the Homestead Grays and it was Josh Gibson hitting the ball. And so I heard this sound again.
Now I didn’t hear it anymore. I’m in Kansas City. I’m working for the Cubs at the time, and I was upstairs and I was coming down for the batting practice. And before I could get out there I heard this sound one more time that I had heard only twice in my life. Now, you know who this is? Bo Jackson. Bo Jackson swinging that bat. And now I heard this sound… And it was just a thrill for me. I said, here it is again. I heard it again. I only heard it three times in my life.
But now, I’m living because I’m going to hear it again one day, if I live long enough.
In 1997, O’Neil published his autobiography “I Was Right On Time” which chronicles his time spent in the Negro Leagues. It is a great book that is sure to appeal to anyone who loves great Baseball stories/books and to anyone who likes to read up on individuals who dealt with with civil rights issues & racial segregation in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. It is a quick and very interesting read that you are sure to blaze through in no time. What’s great about “I Was Right On Time” is that you almost feel like Buck is talking directly to you while reading. You can almost hear his charismatic and gentle voice in your head as you go over his the stories of Negro League Baseball. O’Neil dealt with both negative and positive experiences during his time in the Negro Leagues and for the most part used his good natured positivity to deal with them equally which comes to no surprise to anyone familiar with him and his outlook on life.
I encourage everyone who reads this blog who is not already familiar with Buck O’Neil to research him online, watch the Ken Burns Baseball documentary or any of the various films on the Negro Leagues which he appears in, read his books, and if you happen to be in Kansas City check out the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum which has tons of great info on him and actually features a really cool statue (featured above). Unfortunately I have not been there yet but its on my things to do list in the next few years along with a visit to Cooperstown finally. With that said, I leave you with a mp3 of him from July 29, 2006 at the Baseball of Fame introduction ceremony that I found on his wiki page. For a man who would pass away a little over 2 months after this, he was so full of life and love. Listen to this and you will quickly learn to admire Buck O’Neil on so many levels. While it’s hard to deny that there is a lot wrong with Major League Baseball today and in the last 20 years or so, Buck was and is everything that was right with the game and is still sorely missed by all: