In 2004, Buck O’Neil was the featured speaker at the Tennessee Baseball Leadoff Banquet. He was 92 years old, but looked and acted much younger, his white hair not withstanding.
O’Neil had showcased his baseball skills with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. He joined the Monarchs in 1938, was named player/manager in 1948, and continued his association with the organization through 1955.
He had a career average of .288, hitting .300-plus four times. He led the league at .353 in 1946 and had a career best mark of .358 in 1947.
He was a man with an engaging personality who spent a lifetime creating and influencing baseball history.
“The idea of playing in the Negro Leagues is outstanding for me,” he said, relaxing in a room at the then-Hyatt Regency. “I played with Satchel Paige, with and against Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, and against Babe Ruth and Bob Feller.
“I had seen great baseball all my life. When Babe Ruth swung the bat, it was a sweet sound, a sound I had never heard before. I saw a barrel-chested man with skinny legs hitting the ball.”
It was definitely a vintage time, Buck said.
“The players in the Negro Leagues were outstanding,” he said. “The best black athletes in the world played in the Negro Leagues. The best white athletes played in the major leagues. To make a living in those days, you had to play baseball. That was where the money was. The major league minimum was $5,000.
“Some Negro League players, like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, might have made more than some major league players. They got a percentage of the gate. When I went to Kansas City, I got $100 a month.”
He teamed with Paige, who once said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” During the height of Negro League barnstorming in the 1930s and 1940s, Buck remembered having “no luck” hitting Paige and worked tirelessly to get Satchel on his side, instead of facing him, bat in hand, each day.
O’Neil later became a scout with the Chicago Cubs and was named the first African-American coach in the big leagues in 1962.
“I knew all about the Cubs,” he said. “I knew their system and their players. I went to spring training with them, working all the levels.”
He mentioned a couple of the trailblazers who helped make the game better, specifically for African-American players.
“The real trailblazer was Rube Foster, who started the Negro Leagues in 1920,” Buck said. “He thought if he organized the black players, the National League would take one and the American League would take one.”
The other was Jack Roosevelt Robinson, who broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
“Jackie was not the best player in the Negro Leagues,” he said. “He was the ‘right’ player to break the color barrier.”
There was more about Jackie most folks didn’t know.
“We stopped in a filling station in Oklahoma one night, and the sign on the restroom door said ‘White Men Only.’ As we were filling up the tank on our bus (with 50-gallon tanks on each side), Jackie started to walk in. The attendant said, ‘Boy, that’s for white men only.’
“In response, Jackie said, ‘Pull the hose and let’s go.’ He understood economics better than we did. We had become acclimated to segregation.
Buck saw Babe Ruth hit home runs and talked hitting with Lou Gehrig, according to an Associated Press story written after his death Oct. 6, 2006, at age 94.
“In February 2006,” the AP story continued, “it was widely thought that a special 12-person committee commissioned to render final judgments on Negro Leagues and pre-Negro League figures would make him a shoo-in for the Baseball Hall of Fame. It would be, his many fans all thought, a fitting tribute to the entire body of his life’s work.”
AP reported that the panel voted in 16 men and one woman, with O’Neil being left out, garnering 11 votes, but needing 12.
Regardless, there was always a love affair between Buck O’Neil and baseball.
“I can’t remember a time when I did not want to make my living in baseball, or a time when that wasn’t what I did get to do,” he told AP in 2003.
Then came the final word, the final comment on his life, at least for one night at the old Hyatt Regency.
“God was very good to old Buck.”
Monday, August 18, 2014