What follows is one of two cover stories I did on the late Negro Leagues Baseball legend Buck O’Neil. I earlier posted an O’Neil article I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com), and the story I’m posting here appeared in the New Horizons. Both pieces appeared in these Omaha publications mere months before O’Neil passed and were largely based on an interview I did with him in Kansas City at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum he was instrumental in founding. I found the gregarious O’Neil every bit as charming and enthusiastic in person as I saw him on television.
Buck O’Neil and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City Offer a Living History Lesson aboutthe National Pastime from a Black Perspective
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Monuments of both the human and brick-and-mortar kind abound at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) in Kansas City, Mo., where the story of a vital but long neglected chapter in the national pastime’s history is told. The NLBM preserves a rich heritage alongside the American Jazz Museum it shares space with in a sleek modern facility of bold colors and designs. It’s only right the NLBM calls Kansas City home, as that city gave birth to the Negro leagues and for decades hosted one of the great black ball clubs — the Kansas City Monarchs.
KC is also the adopted home of Buck O’Neil, widely considered the elder statesman of the Negro leagues. An all-star player and manager with the Monarchs of the Negro National League, the 94-year-old O’Neil co-founded the museum, which opened in a much smaller facility in 1991. The present structure opened in 1997. The NLBM is located smack dab in the middle of the historic cultural hub of KC’s black community, the 18th and Vine District, a gentrified neighborhood of brick, circa-1900s buildings, that in its day featured a 24/7 promenade of people taking in the area’s many 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 stands the combined baseball-jazz museum and its homage to the game and the music that served to unite and thrill the black community.
The last Negro leagues team folded more than 40 years ago. The color barrier that precipitated the formation of the Negro leagues fell just after World War II ended. Yet African American pioneers in baseball are very much on people’s minds these days due to the July 30 National Baseball Hall of Fame induction of 17 Negro leagues and pre-Negro leagues figures. It’s the largest group from early black baseball to be elected to the Hall at one time.
A name conspicuous by its absence from this new crop of inductees is Buck O’Neil’s. In addition to his feats as a player-manager, he’s devoted himself to ensure the history of the Negro leagues not be lost. He’s perhaps best known for his narration in Ken Burns’ acclaimed Baseball documentary. His vivid descriptions of Negro leagues lore and 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 as a singular slice of history and led the drive for its stars to be inducted 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. “But nobody listened to me until the Ken Burns documentary. Now everybody wants to talk to Buck about it.”
NLBM Marketing Director Bob Kendrick said O’Neil knows well his place in baseball history. “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. Education has been at the forefront of his life, and we’re talking about someone who’s the grandson of a slave, who was denied the opportunity to attend public high school in Sarasota, Fla., even though his parents were tax payers, who rose above that to become this elder statesman and icon for everything that is good in this country. He has been everything to this museum. If you had to point to a single individual for the building of this institution and keeping alive the legacy of the Negro leagues, it would be Buck O’Neil.”
“And that’s why we felt so disheartened by the fact the doors to the Hall of Fame were shut on him,” Kendrick said. “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. Just as Satchel (Paige) was during his heyday, Buck has become the face of the Negro leagues. He is the reason people care about the Negro leagues. There’s no question about it.”
Bob Kendrick at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Ever the diplomat, O’Neil downplays the Hall’s 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 prefers to take the high road. “We’re fixing to put 17 more in there at the end of July. Isn’t that wonderful?” Kendrick doesn’t rule out O’Neil might one day still get in, but he only hopes it’s not too late. “We hope Buck will get this coronation at some point in time, but the thing is we hope that it comes in his lifetime.”
Hall or no Hall his name’s soon to grace the planned Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center that will mark the NLBM’s largest expansion project in a decade. The center will be housed in 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’s dedicated the past 16 years of his life to charts, in words and images, the rise and fall of the Negro leagues. A “Field of Legends,” complete with life-sized bronze statues of Negro league greats arrayed on a mock diamond, puts you right there in the action. 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 (MLB). Without the Negro leagues, equal rights for blacks in baseball and other aspects of society might well have waited another generation.
“As Buck so eloquently puts 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.”
Kendrick said major league players who visit the museum come away awe-struck.
What most captivates people are the stories, told in interactive exhibits, that make this living history come alive. That’s especially true if you’re lucky enough to be there when O’Neil happens by to regale anyone within ear shot with tales of those halcyon times. The much-beloved O’Neil is a familiar figure there. An ebullient man, whose bright attire reflects his sunny disposition, he chats up visitors and staff, charming everyone he greets.
For a recent Legends Luncheon held at the Madrid Theatre in KC, a program that raises funds for the NLBM, O’Neil made the rounds at each table to welcome attendees — “Good to see you guys” — to sign autographs and to pose 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 saunters to the woman, embraces her and plants a kiss on her cheek.
“The man has never met a stranger in his life,” said Kendrick, who often travels with O’Neil to spread the gospel of the museum’s mission. “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. Just his sheer love of humanity, his love of life. When you meet Buck O’Neil, you’ve just got to be on his team.”
O’Neil 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 1947, the Negro leagues offered black ballplayers, coaches and managers the next best thing. It was their major leagues.
The warm embrace blacks once extended to the game is in sharp contrast to their low participation in it today. Where blacks used to identify with baseball, it’s now largely seen as a white or Latino or even Asian sport. But not so long ago black-is-beautiful and baseball went hand in hand. The Negro leagues constituted a cultural institution that fostered black pride and generated black commerce.
“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.
“It was an economic stimulus for black businesses. It created a sense of pride in the African American community because while this was shared by others, it still was intrinsically ours. It had been born, anchored and become successful” in the black community, He said. “Negro leagues baseball brought tremendous joy to African Americans during a time that was very difficult for blacks in this country.”
“I always share with our visitors that the story of the Negro leagues embodies the American spirit unlike any other,” Kendrick said, “because in it is everything we pride ourselves in being Americans. It’s a story of courage. It’s a story of men who flat out refused to accept the notion they were unfit to play America’s co-called national pastime. They created leagues of their own that actually rose to rival, and in many cities across this country, surpass the major leagues in popularity and attendance. 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.”
During an era when a “gentlemen’s agreement” among major league owners and commissioners kept blacks off the field, African Americans created their own baseball universe. In 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster — “the father of black baseball” — held a meeting with other black team owners at KC’s Paseo YMCA and the result was the Negro National League, the first organized black pro league. Other leagues followed. The hope was the big leagues would eventually 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 continued to prosper. 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. A period poster on display called the attraction “the greatest drawing card outside the major leagues.” Also documented, in box scores and anecdotes, is the fact Negro league teams fared well against major league teams in exhibitions. One only imagines how the record books would be rewritten had greats “Cool Papa” Bell, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard or Josh Gibson played in the majors. Or if pitcher Satchel Paige made it there in his prime rather than at the tail end of his career.
The museum provides a glimpse into what’s called a “parallel” baseball experience, but one relegated to the back pages of white newspapers and to the shadows of mainstream history. Yet this other world of professional baseball enjoyed every bit the cache 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. Fans flocked to see the Monarchs at Western League Park and Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha and American Legion Baseball Park in Council Bluffs.
The high times of being part of this unique experience is what O’Neil recalls.
“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,” said O’Neil his sing-song patios swelled with the solemnity of a preacher and the jive of a hipster. “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. As a young man from Florida, yeah, up north here in Kansas City playing baseball, outstanding really.”
Black athletes and musicians were THE celebrities in black communities and they socialized together. In KC, they stayed at the Streets Hotel, right down from 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 Vaughn. You’re talking about jazz and baseball. That was here, that was Kansas City,” said O’Neil, whose plaintive voice rises and falls 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.” Or as Henry “Pistol” Mason, a Monarchs pitcher O’Neil signed and managed, said, “We had a different brand of baseball. People wanted to see our brand of baseball, with its action and enthusiasm, running and bunting. It was more festive when we played. Going to the ballpark was just like going to a picnic. We had something to prove too — that we were good enough to play in the major leagues.”
Amen, said O’Neil, who feels this extra motivation explains why Negro leagues teams often beat major league teams in exhibitions. “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,” he said. Besides, he said, major leaguers “couldn’t afford to twist an ankle or break a finger in an exhibition ball game.”
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.”
It was Rickey who signed Jackie Robinson away from the Monarchs in 1945 and brought him to the majors in 1947. 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 emphasizes the men who broke baseball’s color barrier helped to spark a social revolution. “When Branch Rickey signed Jackie (Robinson) 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.”
In O’Neil’s opinion, “What kept us out of the major leagues was in fact not the fans, but the owners. See, the baseball fans, all they ever asked — Could you play?”
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. With integration underway, MLB increasingly tapped the Negro leagues’ deep talent pool. Sadly, many greats were deemed too old to invest in and thus never played in the bigs. Even Negro leagues teams began to prefer young prospects, whose contracts they could sell, over old veterans. Devoid of their stars, Negro leagues teams folded and then entire leagues disbanded. The last survived into the early 1960s. By then, blacks were regarded as essential cogs to any successful MLB franchise with the exception of a few hold outs (most notably the Boston Red Sox),
The impact black players had on the majors is undeniable. From the inception of the Rookie of the Year Award in 1949, seven of the first 10 winners were black. From 1949 to 1959, nine of 11 National League MVPs were former Negro leaguers. Future legends and Hall of Famers Robinson, Doby, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, among others, all came out of the Negro leagues. Besides their talent, they brought a livelier style of play — the hit-and-run, stretching a single into a double or a double into a triple, stealing home.
As a teen, Omaha’s own baseball icon, Bob Gibson, turned down a Monarchs offer to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals. By then, blacks were established in the majors while the Negro leagues were on their way out.
In a 33-year Chicago Cubs scouting career, O’Neil brought great black talent to the bigs, signing, among others, future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock. He became MLB’s first black coach with the Cubs. He later scouted for the Royals.
Buck O’Neil Legacy seat at Kaufman Stadium
He doesn’t think much about his own place in history. He’s 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, smiling. “After I’m gone I want this to be here forever. That’s why we need an endowment.” To garner that support he meets with everyone from MLB superstars to commissioner Bud Selig to billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to Hollywood celebs to ordinary fans.
What makes him a great ambassador for the Negro leagues and for the game itself is 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.”
To close the Legends Luncheon he did what he usually does at his public appearances — he invited people to join hands and sing along with him a melody from an old song that best expresses the way he feels about baseball and its fans.
“The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you. Thank you, folks.” Thank you, Buck.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. For details about the museum, its permanent and traveling exhibits and its many educational programs, check out the web site www.nlbm.com or call toll-free at (888) 221-NLBM.