The story is legendary. Baseball John Jordan “Buck” O‘Neil, then age 93, was walking back to his hotel in New York City about a year ago when he and a couple of friends passed an attractive woman, apparently in her 30‘s wearing a bright red dress. The friends entered their hotel, which is when they noticed was no longer with them. He was back down the street exchanging laughs with the woman. When O‘Neil retuned they asked him if he knew her. “No,” he said, “but one thing in life, you never pass up an opportunity to talk to a woman in a red dress.”
Our No. 1 story in the COUNTDOWN, tonight, Buck O‘Neil died Friday night from cancer of the bone marrow and congestive heart failure, both only diagnosed within the last month. We were privileged to be on the planet at the same time he was.
The day Buck O‘Neil born was in Carrabelle, Florida, November 13, 1911, William Howard Taft was president of the United States and Richard Nixon‘s mother was not yet pregnant with him.
Enrico Caruso opened the opera season by singing “Aida” in New York with Arturo Toscanini conducting. And baseball fans in Philadelphia were still celebrating their Athletics' World Series win over the New York Giants keyed by the amazing performance of third baseman, Frank Baker, now nicknamed “Homerun Baker” for having hit not one, but two homeruns in the series.
There were, of course, no African-American players in the World Series, nor on any other major league team, nor in the minors, nor had there been for 27 years, nor would there be for another 36. And in Carrabelle, Florida, and in Sarasota, where he would grow up, African-American children did not go to the same schools as the white children did. And so Buck O‘Neil would not have a chance to go to Sarasota High School nor the University of Florida. His chances would have to come on the celery fields of Sarasota and the baseball fields.
Buck O‘Neil was a natural first baseman and a natural hitter, playing ball for a few dollars a game helped him to work his way through Edward Waters College in Jacksonville. And in 1934, he began an odyssey through the segregated Negro Leagues, reaching their big time just in time for their heyday, the Kansas City Monarchs. “Satchel” Paige and Jackie Robinson among his teammates, and black baseball's first World Series championship his accomplishments. But he was already 35 when Robinson was chosen to integrate the major leagues and already player manager in Kansas City. Too late to cross the color line as a player, too soon to cross it as an executive. So instead he became developer of player talent.
His proteges included Elston Howard, the first black player, later MVP of the New York Yankees, and Ernie Banks, who became Chicago's legendary Mr. Cub.
ERNIE BANKS, “MR. CUB”: I‘m in the Hall of Fame because of Buck O‘Neil. I spent many time and many years with him. He‘s a scout and a teacher. And he saw something in me when first arrived with the Kansas City Monarchs that I didn't see in myself. And he's that type of person. He can really pull the skills that a person has out.
As integration put the Negro Leagues out of business, Buck O'Neil became one of the major league's first scouts with the Cubs in 1956. He had already bought them Banks he would later find them other Hall of Famers like Billy Williams and Lou Brock and later day stars like Joe Carter.
And in 1962 after the suggestion of Banks, O'Neil became baseball's first black coach spending the season in a Chicago uniform and a dozen more working with the minor leagues. And there the story might have ended. Buck O‘Neil, triumphant, if obscure in overcoming. But he wanted the overcoming to be remembered as one of the founders of the Negro League's baseball museum in Kansas City, he helped open a window to history.
As one of the stars of the PBS documentary, “Baseball” in 1994 he became an overnight sensation at the age or 82. And he was a tireless campaigner to get more and more of the forgotten heroes of the Negro Leagues into the baseball‘s Hall of Fame.
In 2001, baseball finally announced a special committee would convene. It would research all candidates and five years later, give a simple yes or no vote on each. One vote for all time, you are either in or never to be eligible again.
The election of Buck O'Neil, by now baseball‘s senior ambassador, with 65 years in the game an a million fans for every year, was a foregone conclusion. Except when the voting was announced last February, 17 men and women, two of them white, had been elected, Buck O'Neil had not.
The experts, some with conflicts of interest, like books they had written about their own favorite candidates, others with grudges against the Negro League‘s museum, turned Buck O‘Neil away through their and baseball‘s eternal shame.
Seemingly the only man who did not see it that way, though, was bucking O'Neil himself.
He volunteered to speak about all of those who were voted in and their induction in Cooperstown, N.Y., last July. That month he became the oldest man to play in a professional game, drawing two walks in the All-Star game of the minor league, the Northern League. Throughout the summer he continued a tireless schedule, crisscrossing the country to attend Negro Leagues commemorations to speak, to meet fans, and then in August he checked himself into a Kansas City hospital with exhaustion.
I last got the privilege of speaking with Buck O‘Neil on March 1, just after that Hall of Fame vote that broke our hearts, but not his.
OLBERMANN: There are a lot of us in the Buck O‘Neil fan club who are or who were really angry or really broken hearted that the election turned out the way it did. But you very obviously and very publicly are not. Why aren‘t you? BUCK O'NEIL: Well, you know, I‘m a little disappointed that I didn't get in, but I think the people that was on that committee, that did the voting, they were voting just what they thought it should be and I can‘t hold that against anyone. I did have a chance, you know. If I hadn‘t had a chance, now I would have been bitter, just like, oh, I couldn't attend Sarasota High School. They didn't give me a chance, but with this, they gave me a chance to get into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. I just didn‘t make it. OLBERMANN: What do suggest those of us who admire you do about our disappointment? O'NEIL: Well, I do not know what you can do, really, as far as me going into Cooperstown. But I thank all of you that you feel the way that you feel. And I feel that I could be in Cooperstown. I think that put the numbers down. I put the numbers up that would lead you into the Hall of Fame, not on the fields. Now, a lot of people they are talking—they were talking about other things I accomplished off of the field, which is wonderful, but, listen, I play, you know, I played a year and made one error and I hit the ball, I just happened to be a line drive hitter, not the homerun hitter. But I drove in the runs; I could do all these things. But I think, you know, with me, my greatest accomplishment might have been starting the Negro League Baseball Museum, here in Kansas City, which tells that story. So, if it‘s to be one day I might be in the Hall of Fame. But I just want to thank all of the people that felt the way that they are feeling right now. But don‘t weep for Buck. No man. Just feel happy, just like I am, being thankful, just like I am, that I can do and have done the things that I did do. OLBERMANN: I'm not going to try to talk you out of being OK with this. If this cup is half full, god bless you we could learn a lot of that from you. But I do want to ask you this, Ernie Banks said last night that he thinks the work of that special committee is not done yet, that it should not be disbanded, that it has more people to elect and honor from the Negro Leagues and whether it is Cannonball Dick Redding or it‘s John Donnellson or it is Minnie Monsoso or it is Buck O‘Neil should there be another vote next year? O'NEIL: Well, now, had I been—had I been elected, I was going to preach, because I think everybody was on that list was qualified should be in the Hall of Fame, really. And that‘s what I was going to preach if I had been in. But now I can‘t preach that because they would be thinking I‘m just preaching for Buck O'Neil. OLBERMANN: Well, I don‘t think anybody would ever think that. I have been asking for three nights now if the voters who did not vote for you or for Minnie Minoso, would identify themselves and at least explain what they were thinking. The voters all say they‘ve been asked by the Hall of Fame to keep their voting confidential, Hall of Fame spokesman told me that‘s not true. They can talk if they want to. Do you have an opinion about that? Should they explain why they did or did not vote for anybody in particular including you? O'NEIL: They should if they wanted to. If they wanted to explain why they didn't vote for Buck, yes, they should, they should have that privilege to do or not to do. But, I don‘t see why they wouldn‘t explain why they didn‘t. I don‘t know why they would or wouldn‘t. But we‘ll see. Maybe somebody will come and say something after while. OLBERMANN: Buck I said this 10 years ago when we sat down to talk about Jackie Robinson, I‘ll say it again, it‘s an honor just to know you, sir, and thank you for everything you‘ve done for baseball, thank you for everything you‘ve done for this country. O'NEIL: The pleasure's all mine and I thank you very much for having ol' Buck on here to talk a little. Thank you.OLBERMANN: And by the way, I‘m still going to push to get you into the Hall of Fame anyway. O'NEIL: Hey, don‘t stop. Keep it up.OLBERMANN: Thank you, sir. O'NEIL: You‘re welcome.
That we can promise, Buck. I‘m not so sure about the not weeping and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.