“This is outstanding” were the first words of Buck O’Neil on July 29, 2006 during his address at the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony for 17 other Negro League players and officials. It was truly an honor for him to be able to give the speech and represent his brothers and sisters being inducted on that day. We all know it should have been 18 people receiving that recognition, and while the 18th was still alive, to have that moment. Buck didn’t need the moment though, he had already accepted a lot of “shoulda-been’s” and “coulda-been’s” and it never stopped him from living. Not many of us can even imagine what that time was like for them in those days of civil unrest. Buck would occasionally talk about others players emotional pain but never his own. I am sure he had some, but he chose to look at the bright side and on a bad day, as it is during the baseball season, there is always tomorrow.
I have had on my shelf, a book I picked up at a rummage sale titled “THE Official ENCYCLOPEDIA OF BASEBALL, 1963 Edition” by Hy Turkin and S. C. Thompson. It’s a shame that I even had to wonder if the Negro League was even mentioned but I opened it up and hunted. Out of the 625 page book, I found one page that mentioned the Negro Leagues and some of it’s players, one page! Sure we are still learning to overcome that horrible time in our history, but it is amazing how that in 1963, 16 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier we still didn’t get it. As a timeline reference, one year before this book was published, Buck O’Neil was named the first black in the major leagues to coach, for the Chicago Cubs. In the chapter on history, they do reference the Cubs in 1962 losing 100 games for the first time in their history, but do not mention the history they made by hiring Buck.
He had a way about him, that would allow people to forget about their troubles and make the person he was speaking with, the center of his attention. I saw him on several occasions at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and at Kauffman Stadium mingling with people and he was always smiling. My most memorable encounter with him was at a Royals game where he taught me a humbling lesson. One that I will never forget and one that I remember like it was just yesterday.
It happened at the ballpark in Kansas City and as he did until the last years of his life, Buck would sit in an isle seat just a few rows directly behind home plate at Kauffman Stadium. Always a beacon of smiles and happiness, he drew fans of all ages to him. A stadium usher would watch the isle above him and while play was under way, and only let people with seats in that section go down . Then in between innings they would let fans down the isle one at a time to speak to him or to get an autograph. Finally the 3rd out and she nodded her head at me. It was time for me to follow the steps down with my KC Monarchs cap in hand like I was a child taking my first hand written Christmas list to see Santa Claus. I lowered myself beside him and without a word as I must have assumed that speech was not necessary, silently I handed my cap to him. Buck looked up at me with a stern voice and said “Now you ASK me for that autograph young man”. Stern at the beginning and for a brief moment I was frightened. But in the same moment, something magical happened because before he finished that same sentence, and in a way that only Buck can do, he was smiling ear to ear.
I then nervously asked him “may I please have your autograph sir?” And still smiling he said “You sure can!” He signed his name and that Monarchs cap it is still a treasure of mine along with that memory. That evening I received the autograph souvenir and was taught a lesson on how to first give respect, then earn it for yourself. I was taught that in a manner that not many people are able to teach. This was a decent man, full of life and full of love for baseball and people most of all. But I imagine baseball fans held a special place in his heart like he holds in mine.
In the induction ceremony speech in 2006 he said, “I can’t hate a human being because my God never made anything ugly, but you can be ugly if you wanna boy, but God didn’t make you that way.” Then he asked the people there to hold hands and had them sing after him, “The greatest thing in all of my life, is loving you.” and closed with “Now I could talk another 10 minutes, but I’ve got to go to the bathroom” and like he always did he walked away with everyone smiling. God certainly did good work with Buck O’Neil.
Buck O’Neil played an instrumental role in getting others into the Baseball Hall of Fame and then what seemed like an insult to us, could not gather 9 out of the 12 votes required for his own induction. He was honored to simply have been asked to give the speech for his friends on their induction day at Cooperstown. How many of us could find that kind of grace and pride? While it did not affect him visibly, I would imagine he was pretty good about choosing the important things to worry about like if that pretty young lady over there had gotten her hug and smile yet.
We could all learn many lessons from Buck O’Neil. Like how to live a happy life, full of smiles, and perhaps, the most important lesson, is that life is… Outstanding!