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Memories of Baseball Legend Buck O’Neil and the Negro Leagues Live On


Irrepressible Negro Leagues Baseball legend Buck O’Neil is someone I always wanted to interview and it finally happened on a trip to Kansas City, MO only months before he died.  The following story, which appeared in the New Horizons newspaper and, later, in The Reader (www.thereader.com), may have been one of the last feature stories to contain a new, at-length interview with O’Neil.

The charming man I first came to know through the Ken Burns Baseball documentary proved to be every bit as charming in person.  I consider it my great fortune to have met him and I hope his personality shines through in this piece, which by the way is as much about the Negro Leagues and the Negroe Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City as it is about O’Neil. That’s only right, too, as he became the face and voice of that long defunct chapter in black baseball and of that excellent museum he helped launch.

 

 

Memories of Baseball Legend Buck O’Neil and the Negro Leagues Live On

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

A July visit to Kansas City, Mo.’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) found Buck O’Neil in fine form. Sure he was stooped and moved haltingly, but the late elder statesman for African-American baseball history glowed with ardor — for life. He chatted up visitors and staff, flirting with women a quarter his age, flashing a devilish glint and smile, and generally charming everyone he met.

The image of a 94-year-old doing what he loves best — making friends, is forever fixed in the minds of people who saw him. A tall, ebullient man whose bright, jaunty attire reflected his disposition, O’Neil personified human warmth.

“The man never met a stranger in his life.“I’ll tell you what, he’s the most charismatic individual I’ve ever encountered. The energy he exerts at 94, it’s just amazing to me how he does it,” NLBM marketing director Bob Kendrick said then. Kendrick often traveled with O’Neil to spread the gospel of the museum’s mission.

Even the indefatiguable O’Neil had his limits. Last August he was admitted to a KC hospital for fatigue and died two months later from heart failture. After the National Baseball Hall of Fame‘s failure to induct him last spring into Cooperstown, it could be said he died of a broken heart. A great voice and conscience was lost, but his legacy lives on.

O’Neil’s many travels took him to Omaha, where in recent years he threw out the first pitch at an Omaha Royals game and spoke on a panel at the Durham Western Heritage Museum for a touring NLBM exhibit.

The much-beloved one was a familiar figure at the KC museum, where he held the title of chairman. He presided over the place like a bronze statue come to life from the “Field of Legends” display — eager to share the Negro leagues experience. He told it often and to great effect, most notably as narrator of the Negro leagues segment of Ken Burns’ acclaimed Baseball documentary. His vivid descriptions of the rousing place players-teams enjoyed in black communities, put a face on this story as never before. Long before the film, however, he lobbied for recognition of the Negro leagues and for induction of its stars in Cooperstown.

“I always thought the story should have been told and I’ve been telling it for the last 50 years,” O’Neil said in July. “But nobody listened to me until the Ken Burns documentary. Now everybody wants to talk to Buck about it.”

The story of a vital but long neglected chapter in the national pastime’s history is told at the museum. It’s only right the museum calls KC home, as the city gave birth to the Negro leagues and for decades hosted one of the great black ball clubs — the Monarchs. KC is also the adopted home of O’Neil, a Florida native whose father was the son of slaves. For 17 years O’Neil was a fixture at first base with the Monarchs of the Negro National League, A good, not great, player with a career .288 batting average, he four times topped the .300 mark, highlighted by a league-leading .353 average in ’46. He played in four East-West All Star games and two Negro Leagues World Series. In his later years he was a player-manager with the club, twice guiding the Monarchs to league titles.

He finally made the big leagues in ’56, as a scout, with the Chicago Cubs, with whom he became MLB’s first black coach. He was a Cubs dugout fixture for decades.

In the ’90s he played a key role in the start of the museum, located smack dab in the middle of the historic cultural hub of KC’s black community. The 18th and Vine District today is a gentrified area of brick, circa-1900s buildings, that once featured a 24/7 promenade of people taking in its clubs, eateries and stores.

 

 

A short jaunt off the Paseo exit finds you on John Buck O’Neil Way, which traverses a mixed commercial-residential area of brownstone walk ups — the Jazz Hill Homes — and places of worship — St. Stephen Baptist Church, Paseo Baptist, Bethel AME Church — whose names signify black culture. You arrive at 18th and Vine, to find an Old Market-style environs surrounded by the Blue Room, the Historic Lincoln Building, the Gem Theatre and the Swing Shop. Like a shrine stand the combined, glass-facaded NLBM-American Jazz museums and their homage to the game and the music that served to unite and thrill the black community.

O’Neil’s efforts with the NLBM no doubt helped get a record 17 Negro Leaguers and pre-Negro Leaguers elected to the Hall last year. A name conspicuous by its absence from the inductees was O’Neil’s. Kendrick said O’Neil knew well his place in baseball history and the shame of his exclusion.

“He’s a very proud man. He understands the fact he’s a trailblazer. He understands what this story represents to the core and he’s doing everything in his power to make sure others will have an opportunity to know about those who made great sacrifices and were trailblazers like himself,” Kendrick said. “And that’s why we felt so disheartened by the fact the doors to the Hall of Fame were shut on him.

“It’s difficult to assess his 70-plus-year baseball career and say he wasn’t worthy of inclusion as a contributor. You know, it leaves you to wonder what their criteria were, but certainly all of us understand the remarkable contributions this man has made to the game of baseball, across the board. Fans across the country were not just disappointed but outraged because he is the face of the Negro leagues now. He is the reason people care about the Negro leagues.”

Ever the diplomat, O’Neil downplayed the snub. “I had an idea I had a chance” to be elected “but having been on the Veterans Hall of Fame Committee for 20 years I knew what could happen.” He preferred taking the high road. He even spoke at the induction ceremony. Kendrick didn’t rule out O’Neil might one day still get in, but prayed it wasn’t too late. “We hope Buck will get this coronation at some point in time,” he said, “but the thing is we hope that it comes in his lifetime.” O’Neil fell one vote short of seeing it happen.

Hall or no Hall his name’s soon to grace the NLBM’s Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center at the nearby Paseo YMCA, a National Historic Landmark regarded as the birthplace of the Negro leagues. A $15 million rehab will provide state-of-the-art facilities for the museum’s oral history and archival work.

The museum O’Neil dedicated the last 16 years of his life to charts, in words and images, the rise and fall of the Negro leagues. If there’s a recurring theme, it’s that these teams and players made it possible for future generations of blacks to enter major league baseball. Without the Negro leagues, blacks in baseball and in society as a whole might have waited another generation for real progress.

“As Buck so eloquently put it,” Kendrick said, “it’s nice sometimes we celebrate those who built the bridge as opposed to those who crossed over the bridge. That’s what we’re doing here — we’re celebrating the bridge builders.”

Most captivating are the stories, told in interactive exhibits, that make history come alive. If O’Neil happened by, he regaled anyone within ear shot with tales of those halcyon times. He loved being a Negro leaguer. The way of life it afforded him. The people it allowed him to meet. The game he loved it enabled him to play.

“The only experience I would have traded it for would have been to have done it in  the major leagues,” said O’Neil, the prime of whose playing career came before the color barrier fell. “Yeah, that’s the only thing.”

Until the color barrier was broken in ’47, the Negro leagues offered black ballplayers the next best thing. For a time, black baseball flourished.

“The painful images of blacks are pretty much out there — the images of slavery, the struggle of the civil rights movement — but very rarely are our success stories celebrated, and this is a success story” Kendrick said. “Blacks succeeded at the highest level you can succeed playing this game and went on to spark social change in this country. I think it’s an inspirational illustration of what blacks were able to accomplish in the face of tremendous adversity.”

The Negro leagues, he said, were not only “an economic stimulus” for black businesses, but “created a sense of pride…It’s a story of men who flat out refused to accept the notion they were unfit to play America’s so-called national pastime. They created leagues of their own…They were determined, they persevered, they did whatever they had to do to prove to the world they could play this game as well as anyone. That is the prevailing American spirit.”

 

 

 

 

In an era when a “gentlemen’s agreement” among major league owners and commissioners kept blacks off the field, AfricanAmericans created their own baseball universe. In 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster — “the father of black baseball” — met with other black team owners to create the Negro National League, the first organized black pro league. Other leagues followed. The hope was the big leagues would take-in one team from each main Negro league. It never happened.

Instead, it took another 27 years before the majors let in blacks. In the meantime, the Negro leagues prospered. The first Colored World Series was held in 1924. New leagues followed. The boom was from 1933 to 1947, with teams in KC, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Birmingham, Memphis, Baltimore, New York, et cetera.

The Negro leagues featured comparable talent as the majors and, as the museum highlights, offered innovations, such as night baseball, years ahead of the bigs. Also documented is the fact Negro league teams fared well against major league teams in exhibitions. “We would have been in the majors” a lot sooner, O’Neil said, “if it hadn’t been for the segregation. What kept us out…was not the fans, but in fact the owners. See, the baseball fans, all they ever asked — Could you play?”

This “parallel” baseball experience was relegated to the back pages of white newspapers and to the shadows of mainstream history, yet it enjoyed every bit the cachet and support among black fans the major leagues did among white fans.

Black baseball also attracted white fans, particularly when Negro league teams like the Monarchs barnstormed to play exhibitions versus local town teams or major league clubs. O’Neil and his Monarchs packed them in at Western League Park and Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha and American Legion Baseball Park in Council Bluffs.

Blacks had extra motivation in Negro versus. Big League games. “We had something to prove. We wanted to prove to the world they weren’t superior because they were major leaguers and we weren’t inferiors because we were Negro leaguers,” O’Neil said. ‘We were going to show ’em we can play, too. It was great competition.”

The high times are what O’Neil recalled best. Black athletes and musicians were THE celebrities in black communities and they socialized together. In KC, they stayed at the Streets Hotel, near where the museum stands today. “At the Streets Hotel I might come down for breakfast and Duke Ellington and them might be there and say, ‘Come over and have breakfast with us this morning.” Or Sarah Vaughan. You’re talking about jazz and baseball. That was here, that was Kansas City,” said O’Neil, his plaintive voice rising and falling like a soft riff.

When the Monarchs were in town, it was news. “Yeah, we were very well respected,” he said. “I’ll tell you how much — I courted a preacher’s daughter.”

Churches heeded their presence. “Sunday, 11 o’clock service, but when the Monarchs were in town, service started at 10 o’clock so that they (churchgoers) could get to the ball park. And then they would come looking good — dressed to kill. It was actually not only a ball game, it was a social event. The Monarchs, this was the thing. You saw everybody that was somebody there at the ball park. People would hobnob with their friends. Yeah, mmmm…hmmm,” said O’Neil, his sing-song patios swelled with the solemnity of a preacher and the jive of a hipster.

 

 

photo

Grave of John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil in Forest Hill Cemetery, Kansas City, Missouri. Negro League First Baseman “Buck” O’Neil played from 1937 through 1954. Also O’Neil led the effort to build a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum & Hall of Fame in Kansas City, MO, which opened its doors in 1990.  

 

Home or away, O’Neil said he and his fellow Negro leaguers felt the passion of fans.

“Oh, man, listen, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. at his Abyssinian Baptist Church
in Harlem, New York, preached a baseball sermon for the New York Cubans, the New York Black Yankees, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Memphis Red Sox before a four-team doubleheader at Yankee Stadium,” he said. “He preached that sermon, and man, the church was full. They followed us to the ball park. We had 40,000 at Yankee Stadium. We played over at Branch Rickey’s place” — Ebbets Field, home to general manager Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers — “and we had 20,000 there.”

Even the bus trips reminded O’Neil how fortunate he was.

“All you needed was a bus and I’ll tell you what, we traveled in some of the best money could buy during that period. And actually we stayed in some of the best hotels in the country — they just happened to be black owned and operated. We ate in some of the best restaurants in the country. Of course, during that time, the best cooks in the world were black. In that bus you’d have 20 of the best athletes that ever lived. To be able to play, to participate, to compete with these type of athletes, oh, it was outstanding,” he said. “As a young man from Florida, yeah, up north here in Kansas City playing baseball, outstanding really,”

It was Branch Rickey who signed Jackie Robinson away from the Monarchs in ’45 and brought him to the majors in ’47. Robinson was one of five blacks called up to the majors that year. O’Neil said Rickey’s enlightened move to buck the system made sound business sense. “Branch Rickey, the astute businessman that he was, saw this as a brand new clientele” to be mined, O’Neil said

O’Neil insisted the men who broke baseball’s color barrier helped ignite a social revolution. “When Branch Rickey signed Jackie to that contract that was the beginning of the civil rights movement,” he said. “That was before Brown versus Board of Education. That was before sister Rosa Parks said, ‘I won’t go to the back of the bus today.’ Martin Luther King, Jr. was just a sophomore at Morehouse (College). Jackie started the ball rolling right there in baseball.”

Robinson’s success and the success of players like Larry Doby proved, once and for all, blacks belonged on the same field, paving the way for others to follow. The same way Latino players dominate the game today, blacks did for decades.

As a Cubs scout O’Neil brought great black talent to the bigs, signing future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock. He later scouted for the Royals.

He didn’t think much about his own place in history. He was too busy “running all over the country raising money” for the museum. “But, you see, I’m 94 and I ain’t going to live but 20 more years,” he said last July, smiling. “After I’m gone I want this to be here forever. That’s why we need an endowment.” To garner that support he met with everyone from MLB superstars to commissioner Bud Selig to billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to Hollywood celebs to ordinary fans.

What made him a great ambassador for the museum and the game was his ability to engage folks from every walk of life. He said he’d like to be remembered as “a spokesman for the Negro leagues — to keep this memory alive.”

Back in July, O’Neil made the rounds at KC ‘s Madrid Theatre for a Legends Luncheon, a program that raises funds for the NLBM. He greeted folks with, “Good to see you guys,” “How ya’ doin’ today?”, signed autographs and posed for pics. During an auction of baseball memorabilia, he worked the crowd, imploring and cajoling them to up their bids. “We’re going to start this off at $40. Forty, who’s going to say 40 for Buck? Fifty? Who’s going to give me 55? C’mon, bro’. Thank you, brother. Who’s going to give me $60? What do you say, sugar? There you go, love. Going once, going twice…I’ve got to let her have it,” and with that he sauntered over to the winning female bidder, embraced her and planted a kiss on her cheek.

To close the luncheon he did what became his trademark at public appearances. He invited people to join hands and sing along with him a melody from a song that best expressed the way he felt about baseball and its fans. As he crooned, he drew out each word, face beaming, lingering in the moment, basking in reflected after-glow of his adoring public.

“The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you. Thank you, folks.” Thank you, Buck. Rest in peace.

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