On Sunday, the Early Baseball Era Committee will have the chance to right a wrong that has been glaring from the moment it occurred: Buck O’Neil‘s absence from the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Yes, there are ten players up for induction, most of whom have strong candidacies (Bill Dahlen, Bud Fowler, and Lefty O’Doul in particular) for a variety of reasons, but O’Neil is the one whose name stands out on the list, both in terms of name recognition and as someone who should have been selected years ago.
Born in 1911 in a Gulf Coast town in the Florida Panhandle, John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil grew up the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a Black man born in modern-day Nigeria who would be brought to America as a slave.
Working alongside his father in the celery fields of the Jim Crow South as a child, O’Neil vowed to find something better, and eventually he scraped together a living playing professional baseball across the region on a variety of Black baseball teams during the Great Depression. By 1937, he made his way to the highest level of black baseball, the Negro Leagues, breaking in with the Memphis Red Sox.
A year later, he was on his way to the Kansas City Monarchs, where he settled in as the club’s everyday first baseman for over a decade. For much of that time, he was teammates with the legendary Satchel Paige. He also missed two seasons, 1944 and 1945, serving in the United States Navy during World War II, which robbed him of the opportunity to play alongside a rookie shortstop for the 1945 Monarchs—Jackie Robinson.
In 1947, O’Neil took over as the Monarchs manager, a role he held for nine years as the Negro Leagues withered and eventually died in the wake of Robinson’s successful integration of Major League Baseball. Even then, O’Neil discovered a pair of significant future MLB stars in the early 1950s, but more on that later.
After ending an 18-year run with the Monarchs in 1955, O’Neil moved into a scouting role for the Chicago Cubs, before moving into an on-field coaching role in 1962. Even though Robinson had long since retired and would be elected to the Hall of Fame that year, O’Neil broke a barrier that season, as the first Black coach in MLB history.
He stayed in the Cubs organization until 1988, when he returned to Kansas City to join the Kansas City Royals organization, where he remained on staff until his death in 2006 at the age of 94 years old. He lived a rich and full life, but the teams he was on the payroll for only tell a small part of the story.
The First Snub
From 1981-2000, O’Neil was part of the Baseball of Fame’s Veteran’s Committee, serving as their Negro Leagues representative. In that time frame, 11 Negro Leagues veterans were inducted, including Negro National League founder Rube Foster and Larry Doby, who integrated the American League in 1947.
In 2006, though, Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame capped off a five-year research effort by establishing a committee to consider a much larger batch of Negro Leagues personnel to consider for election. To some, it may have been considered an effort to properly “wrap up” the inductions of Negro Leagues players in one large batch.
Regardless of the exact intent, in 2006 the Hall of Fame welcomed 18 Negro Leaguers into the Hall of Fame. Willard Brown was among them, as was O’Neil’s former boss, longtime Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson, the only white man inducted for his Negro Leagues contributions. Of note, former Newark Eagles co-owner Effa Manley was selected, the first (and, to date, only) woman to be enshrined in Cooperstown.
However, O’Neil fell one vote short. Many people were not happy. Ernie Banks went so far to say, “It is a travesty. It really hurt my heart. It hurt me. I wish I could surrender my election to baseball’s Hall of Fame to him, because I always felt that he deserved it more than I did.”
Though he was not selected, O’Neil was the country’s leading expert and spokesperson on Negro Leagues baseball. Additionally, all 18 inductees were no longer living, with the last living member of the class being Willard Brown, who passed away in 1996. So, after coming painstakingly close to having a Hall of Fame speech of his own, Buck O’Neil was nonetheless asked to deliver a speech for those who did not live long enough to give theirs.
To many, it probably felt like a bittersweet moment, if not an outward slap in the face. If Buck felt that way, he did not show it when he stepped up the podium, where he proclaimed that he was “proud to be a Negro League ballplayer” before ending his speech by imploring the entire crowd (including the past Hall of Famers on stage) to sing along with him.
Being a Kansas City native myself, it is safe to say that Buck O’Neil took the snub better than nearly everyone else here. He went on the record afterwards saying he was simply happy to be alive and to be able to preach the gospel that was Negro Leagues baseball. For a short time afterwards, a local insurance company even ran commercials with Buck saying, “I love my home! It is my very own Hall of Fame!”
Nonetheless, Buck O’Neil would not be elected to the Hall of Fame. Barely two months after speaking and singing in Cooperstown, O’Neil passed away.
The first legacy of Buck O’Neil can already be found in the Hall of Fame. While serving as the Monarchs manager in 1950, he was approached by the New York Yankees about signing slugger Willard Brown, who was the fourth Black player in MLB history, debuting for the St. Louis Browns in 1947. O’Neil instead convinced New York to sign a 21-year catcher.
That catcher, Elston Howard would integrate the Yankees in 1955, appearing in 12 All-Star Games, winning four World Series titles, and earning an MVP award. Amazingly, he was only the second-best Monarch that O’Neil sent to the majors.
Right around the same time Howard was sold to the Yankees, O’Neil was tipped off about a 19-year-old shortstop from Dallas. As legend has it, O’Neil trusted the word of friend (and Hall of Famer) Cool Papa Bell, signing him sight unseen. Three years later, that kid, Ernie Banks, integrated the Chicago Cubs and embarked on a 19-year career that saw him swat 512 homers, earn two Most Valuable Player awards, and earn himself a plaque in Cooperstown.
Later as a Cubs scout, he successfully signed another prospect, an outfielder from Southern University in Louisiana who eventually joined Banks in the Hall of Fame. His name was Lou Brock, the second-most prolific base-stealer of all time. He’s also credited with bringing future Hall of Famer Lee Smith and future World Series hero Joe Carter to the Cubs.
While those scouting discoveries are an impressive legacy in itself, his most notable work was in the twilight of his life.
After moving back to Kansas City, O’Neil spearheaded the effort to keep the legacy of the Negro Leagues alive. That led to the creation of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in 1990.
What started out as a one-room operation essentially supported solely by him and then-Royals second baseman Frank White eventually moved into a permanent location in the historic 18th and Vine district in Kansas City in 1997. To this day, the street where O’Neil and the Monarchs used to go to clubs to watch jazz legends like Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington perform is now the home of the relics that tell the stories of the bygone players, teams, and leagues.
Even in the final year of his life, O’Neil stayed active promoting the museum, successfully lobbying Congress to designate the museum in Kansas City as America’s only official Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, a designation the museum still holds today, as well as attending functions across the country promoting the museum.
Twelve days before heading to Cooperstown, O’Neil set a still-standing record as the oldest person to suit up in a professional baseball game, as he took two plate appearances (one for each side) in the independent Northern League All-Star Game, which was hosted by the Kansas City T-Bones. (Personal note: I was there. He walked both times, though not before chasing a 3-0 pitch in the dirt in his second plate appearance)
Even after his death, his legacy continued to grow. President George W. Bush honored him posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor available. In 2008, the Hall of Fame inaugurated the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award (honoring him as the first recipient), along with a statue of O’Neil inside the museum.
Since 2007, the Royals have honored Buck every night with the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat, which honors local leaders who make a difference in the Kansas City community by letting them enjoy a game from the very seat at Kauffman Stadium where O’Neil would watch Royals games.
Even on a simpler scale, to many Buck O’Neil is remembered fondly as simply a light that shined in a dark chapter of baseball history. During the 1994 MLB strike, the documentary series Ken Burns’ Baseball aired on PBS to millions of fans deprived of baseball amidst the labor battle.
In part five of the series (“5th Inning”), a great deal of time is spent covering the Negro Leagues, allowing O’Neil to tell stories about Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and other contemporaries with an almost child-like reverence. At the age of 82, O’Neil burst into the limelight, where he remained the rest of his life, spreading stories and happiness as far as he could.
By the time of his death, there was arguably no greater ambassador for the game of baseball than Buck O’Neil and few men in America were more beloved. While his playing career was modest and spent entirely in the shadows, what he did afterwards to impact the lives of so many in and out of the game still reverberates over 15 years following his death, something that few Hall of Famers in any sport can claim.
In the final months of his life, Buck O’Neil refused to look back at his life with any sort of bitterness or angst about what could’ve been had be born in a different day. As he said:
I wouldn’t trade my life for anybody’s. I’ve had so many blessings in my life. I don’t want people to be sad for me when I go. Be sad for the kids who die young. You shouldn’t feel sad for a man who lived his dream. You know what I always say? I was right on time.
Buck O’Neil was right on time, but his Hall of Fame induction was not. It’s past time for Buck’s induction. After Sunday, let’s hope that we will never have to wonder again if it will ever come…
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