Tell the Story of Buck O'neil

Matt MooneyCorrespondent IOctober 17, 2006

IconJohn "Buck" O'Neil was a man of stories.

When he burst into the national consciousness at the fledgling age of 82, he was spinning captivating tales of life as a player and manager in the Negro Leagues during the 1930s on Ken Burns' nine-part TV epic Baseball.  He drew in audiences with narratives full of passion for the game and for life.  A well-placed message or flawless punch line always left a satisfied thirst for more.


This was the stage on which Buck O'Neil unofficially became baseball's grandfather figure, a man who would sit a wide-eyed baseball world on his knee and recount the legend of Satchel Paige's famous showdown with Josh Gibson.  Baseball could not get enough of Buck O'Neil, and why should it have been otherwise?  He was a man whose boundless charisma was equaled only by his unprejudiced kindness.  If fame changed Buck, it was only insofar as it amplified these traits to a national scale.


Anyone who ever met him likely felt moved at last week's news of his passing, and I count myself among those legions.  I worked at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum as part of the Steele Internship program (class of 2004) the summer between my junior and senior years of college.  Over Induction Weekend, I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Buck as part of a public forum, and it was an event I will never forget.  His personality could have filled that room when it was empty.  Every eye and every ear focused on him.  When the time was up and the spell was broken, every soul left feeling, simply put, like a better human being.  It's tough to do justice to an event that occured over two years ago, but, fortunately, I captured those reflections and documented them here.

Buck's death at the ripe age of 94 now leaves a void in several respects.  He carried with him a perspective of baseball that crossed four generations.  The priceless memories and historical recollections of the Negro Leagues to which he gave such eloquent voice now fall silent.  One of the last remaining portals to an age and a culture of baseball distinct for its lack of documented accounts is now irreversibly closed.


Unquestionably, the greatest legacy he leaves behind is his preservation of Negro League history.  He did so not with acid-free paper or hermetically-sealed cases but through the ancient art of oral tradition.  His magnetic gift for storytelling may not capture the facts in their entirety, but his is the truth that has preserved the immortality of deserving legends.


It is immensely difficult to quantify his value in a game that pays such devout homage to figures, statistics, and numbers of varying complexity.  But some simple counts give an idea of the man's influence:


.353 — Career high batting average in a season by O'Neil as a first baseman for the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs.


17 — Number of Negro League and pre-Negro League players, executives and managers posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this past June, due in large part to O'Neil's illumination of the great players of "Shadow Ball."


4 — Number of titles O'Neil won as a manager for the Monarchs from 1948-1953.


1 — Negro League Museum in Kansas City for which Buck served as chairman.


0 — Number of African American coaches in the Major Leagues before Buck O'Neil signed with the Chicago Cubs in 1962.

There is no question that Cooperstown should honor the man in some capacity, though the answer may not be to give him a plaque.  His exemplary service as an ambassador for baseball is meritorious and worthy of recognition, even though his objective performance and contribution may not be worthy of enshrinement.  That is why it is imperative, of the utmost importance, to give back to Buck all that he gave to baseball.  Tell the story of John "Buck" O'Neil.  Tell his story so that he, too, can become a part of baseball's immortal lore.