I came late to the party. The legacy of black baseball had been cemented long before I was drawn to its lore. I didn’t make that love connection until 2002, the year I first visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
In my early discussions with people there, I kept referring to the museum as a Hall of Fame, which everybody politely corrected me on. They reminded me that the Baseball Hall of Fame was in Cooperstown, N.Y., which is where all the stars of Negro Leagues baseball should also be.
The museum is a tribute to the men who made the game thrive in an era when color kept them from plying their skills in the Major Leagues. To Satchel, to Cool Papa, to Josh, to Smokey Joe and Biz and Double Duty, names that might have been lost forever if not for the museum. Yet no one who saw these men play could really doubt they were as good as the big leaguers of the day, and they had one man alive to keep those stories of black baseball fresh.
His name was Buck O’Neil. He was a blood-and-guts icon who was, through all of the museum’s formative years, its face, its voice, its link to yesteryear. Buck was the museum’s ambassador of goodwill, spreading the gospel of black baseball wherever it needed to be spread. And that was seemingly everywhere among a growing population of black sports fans who had loosened their hold on the game.
But Buck kept their grip from breaking free altogether, and Buck did it in his role as chairman of the baseball museum in the heart of the city’s black community. Thanks to Buck O’Neil, the place was a shiny gem among unpolished diamonds.
For that alone, the museum owed him whatever fame it had. For whatever the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is today, it is that because of Buck O’Neil, whose death, at 94, in 2006 left a void at the top of the organization.