Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Buck O'Neil: The Soul of Baseball

Buck O'Neil died in 2006 at the age of 94. You might remember him from Ken Burns' Baseball. He was the charming, smiling African-American chap who was unfailingly upbeat about the game of baseball.

Buck, born John Jordan O'Neil, played in the Negro Leagues, finishing his playing days with Satchel Paige on the Kansas City Monarchs. He went on to become the manager of the Monarchs, until their demise. Then he was hired as the first black coach with the Chicago Cubs. He went on to become a scout, signing many great talents, most notably Hall of Famer Bill Williams. O'Neill

I recently read Joe Posnanski's paean to the greatness of O'Neil, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America.

It wasn't the usual of a ballplayer's life, or a history of the Negro Leagues through O'Neil's life. Rather it was the story of one year on the road with Buck as he tries to preserve the memory of he Negro Leagues. O'Neil was a founder of the Negro League Museum in Kansas City, and at 94 spent a ridiculous amount of time on the road to small towns like Nicodemus, Kansas and big cities like New York, fund raising at ball games, schools and community centers.

O'Neil was a salesman, and his pitch was simple: The Negro Leagues are something worth remembering; don't pity us because we didn't play major league ball, we were just as good as those guys, celebrate our experience instead. Posnanski, at the time a sports writer for the Kansas City Star-Tribune, knew O'Neil well, and traveled with him and paints a picture of a dapper, well-traveled man, beginning to feel his age. Though outwardly unfailingly positive, Posnanski pictures O'Neil as someone beginning to wear out from the demands of traveling, meeting the public and the media. The book ends in 2006 as he is denied entrance to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, though the veterans committee inducted sixteen players from the Negro leagues. It was a stunning disappointment for Buck and his supporters. I believe it was an injustice, though a statue honoring O'Neil was erected near the entrance to the Hall.

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