Buck O’Neil Still Awaits Justice

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - October 31, 2007
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Although Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame won’t admit it, the announcement of the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award is a payoff.

It’s compensation for years of using his image, class and dedication to the game to promote the business of baseball, and to quiet the critics who for years have clamored for his induction.

A year ago the Hall gathered a group of “experts” to once and for all recognize and enshrine the stars of the Negro League. Thirty-nine names were submitted for consideration, and 16 athletes and one woman - names mostly unknown to the majority of baseball fans - were inducted while the one that is nearly universally recognized was left off.

It could be argued that O’Neil’s three all-star games and two batting titles do not merit entry as a player. He may not have been a good enough manager after winning five league titles and two Negro World Series. As a Major League scout, maybe he could have found more players like Lou Brock and Joe Carter. It may have not been enough to chair the Negro League Baseball Museum Board of Directors. The Veterans’ Committee of the Hall of Fame could have found someone else to help identify missed candidates, and the Hall could have asked any number of men to praise last year’s Negro League inductees. On any one of these accomplishments, O’Neil may have lacked qualification, but taken as a whole, there may have been no one in the history of the game who has achieved so much or has had a bigger impact on the game.

Commissioner Bud Selig said at the announcement that O’Neil “is now in Cooperstown where he belongs.”

Which is, of course, not entirely true. While a statue of O’Neil will greet visitors coming into the Hall along with those of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, the plaque signifying official enshrinement is yet to come, and it seems that it may never happen.

Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey said that last year’s election was a onetime-only event, and that “We believe now that all the Negro Leaguers who are deserving of a plaque on the wall are in Cooperstown.”

While the Hall has work to do in order to truly recognize the man, there can be no better person than John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil to represent an award that celebrates greatness in ways not measurable in box scores. The former Kansas City Monarch first baseman epitomized not what baseball - and America - were, but what they could be. O’Neil was blessed to live in a time that allowed him to watch Babe Ruth hit homers and to talk hitting with Ichiro Suzuki. Sadly, he also lived in a time when the indignities of a segregated America affected every aspect of life - and not for the better. Following his death, Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson told ESPN, “He was a blessing for all of us. I believe that people like Buck and Rachel Robinson and Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa are angels that walk on earth to give us all a greater understanding of what it means to be human.”

The first recipient of the award will be the namesake himself. After that, another will be added to the list once every three years so long as someone is deemed worthy. It may turn out to become the most difficult criteria in the Hall.

Jackie Robinson would be a good No. 2, as would the man who dared to bring him into the game, Branch Rickey. Roberto Clemente, who died Dec. 31, 1972, in a plane crash while rushing relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, would be another player worthy of having his name associated with O’Neil. Cal Ripken Jr., who has become a Johnny Appleseed of amateur baseball and whose work with the Living Classrooms Foundation, Athletes For Hope and the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, is a nominee just awaiting appointment.

When all is said and done, the statue at the entrance of the Hall of Fame may be the perfect tribute to the man and the perfect indictment of the institution.

Unless otherwise corrected, fans who enter the shrine to America’s Pastime will ask the unanswered question. Why isn’t Buck O’Neil in the Hall of Fame?

A good question that someday Petroskey, or those who follow, will have to answer.

O’Neil starred in the Negro Leagues because white baseball wouldn’t have him. For decades the Hall of Fame has done the same. The Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award is a fitting honor to not just a great ballplayer, but a great human being.

Hopefully, some day soon, O’Neil will join those who will be celebrated under his name as a full member of the Hall of Fame.

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