Righting A Wrong Against Buck

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - March 08, 2006
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It’s not often you get the chance to right a wrong.

Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame had that chance when a panel of “experts” was formed to determine the fate of 39 individuals from the Negro League and pre-Negro League eras.

They got it wrong.

This is not to say that those 17 who made the cut are not deserving. They may very well have been some of the best ever, but when one of the biggest names in the history of the game is left out, it raises questions about the entire process.

If this panel had been made up of the usual media members with questionable historical references, then the slight may have been easier to digest. But when a hand-selected panel of baseball people can somehow come to the conclusion that John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil somehow does not belong in the Hall of Fame, it makes you wonder what defines an expert.

O’Neil is the living embodiment of a game in which such men are in short supply. At 94, he is one of only approximately 50 former Negro Leaguers still able to provide a living history of a time that cannot, must not be forgotten.

The man called Nancy by teammate Satchel Paige was a two-time batting champion. As manager of one of the best teams in the history of the Negro Leagues, the Kansas City Monarchs, he helped develop future major leaguers Ernie Banks, George Altman, Gene Baker, Francisco Herrera, Elston Howard, J.C. Hartman, Connie Johnson, Sweet Lou Johnson, Hank Thompson and Bob Thurman. He also won five pennants with the team and two Black World Series.

After the demise of the league in which he was forced to compete, in 1962 he became the first African American to coach in the big leagues with the Chicago Cubs. He served as a scout for both the Cubs and the Kansas City Royals, and discovered Hall of Famer Lou Brock and long-time All-Star Joe Carter. He served on the Hall’s veterans committee for almost 20 years, was chair of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum board of directors, and for the past 25 years has been a fundraiser, tour guide, elder statesman and overall face of the museum to which he practically gave birth.

At the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, an indoor diamond is manned with statues of the game’s greatest. Josh Gibson is behind the plate, Paige on the mound and Martin Dihigo is at bat. The infield has Buck Leonard at first, Ray Dandridge at second, John Henry Lloyd at short, Rudy Johnson at third. The outfield consists of Cool Papa Bell in left, Oscar Charleston in center and Leon Day in right. Buck O’Neil is in the dugout managing this team of legends. His leg propped up on the wall, his eyes fixed intently on the action. You wonder if this honor is not prophetic and that O’Neil will always be outside the fence looking in. If that ends up being the case, or if O’Neil has to wait another 50 years for the right thing to be done, don’t feel sorry for him.

He doesn’t. He said as much in a PBS interview in 2003.

“Why would you feel sorry for me?” he asked. “I think we are the cause of the changes. Some of the changes that’ve been made were because of us. We did our duty. We did the groundwork for the Jackie Robinsons, the Willie Mayses, and the guys that are playing now. So why feel sorry for me? We did our part in our generation, and we turned it over to another generation and it’s still changing - which is the way it should be.”

Who will speak for the 16 men and one woman at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony? None are alive. A baseball VIP may say a few words. The grandsons and granddaughters of those long forgotten people may offer an account. But no one will be speaking from experience.

O’Neil said he would be honored to do just that - to speak about the greats he played with and about those who came before. To speak about sleeping on buses because accommodations for blacks were sometimes hard to come by, and how the league was much more than the traveling minstrel show depicted in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. No one knows better than Buck that these men were stars on the field and admired in their communities.

Because of the lack of coverage of Negro League games in white newspapers, we may never have a complete account of the prowess of these men. But for the time being, we still have Buck O’Neil.

Charming, passionate and handsome. O’Neil rejected anger and resentment in favor of love to rise above the prejudice. Baseball needs to do the same.

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