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Archive for Sunday, September 16, 2001

Negro League legend calls his successes ‘bittersweet’

September 16, 2001

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— This day is much like any other for Buck O'Neil, and that means he's busy.

He walks into the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, his second home, with an infielder's stride. On his way into the throng of people gathered there, O'Neil ruffles the hair on a boy's head.

The kid, who seems about 10, had his back to O'Neil and is clearly annoyed. He tries to flatten his hair back into place and looks around to see who had the nerve. When he realizes the offender is Buck, the boy just smiles and watches O'Neil start to work the crowd.

O'Neil, who turns 90 in November, clasps as many of the hands that find their way to him. Some of the people get a hug, too. Everyone gets a shot at that O'Neil grin, wide and warm as home plate in August.

He rattles off questions, showing interest, concern. Filmmaker Ken Burns, whose 1994 documentary "Baseball" highlighted O'Neil and his years as a first baseman and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, calls O'Neil "a holy man who is a gift to us all."

On this summer day in his own private sanctuary that is the museum, with his clap of white hair and natty clothes, "holy man" seems as good a way as any to describe O'Neil.

"This is what I love to do," says O'Neil after the announcement of the Buck O'Neil Classic baseball tournament, and after he has signed scores of posters, bats and books, and posed for countless more photos. "This is what I love. These people, coming here."

The attention has come late for O'Neil. But not too late.

One of a dwindling number of Negro Leaguers, O'Neil has spent the last decade preaching about the Negro Leagues, telling stories about the barnstorming days when teams would play up to 300 games a year, and how the major leagues didn't want anything to do with black players even though they knew of their talent.

His stories are about men like Satchel Paige, Double-Duty Radcliffe and Jackie Robinson. The Kansas City Monarchs, the Homestead Grays and the Indianapolis Crawfords dot his conversations.

O'Neil played on nine championship teams, starred in two Negro Leagues World Series, and in 1962 became the first black to coach in the Major Leagues for the Chicago Cubs, where he signed future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock. He's also worked as a special scout for the Kansas City Royals.

"Of all the accomplishments, I would have to say, being the first black manager was the best," O'Neil says as he settles into a chair in the back of the museum. He pauses to say hello to fans and more children who pass by and stare. But he says, "it was bittersweet."

"Sweet, because here I was now riding in nice trains and flying, too, and being paid real well for coaching. But it was bitter because I knew there were a hundred other men before me, a hundred who could have done that job better than me a long time before me, and where were they? They were nowhere.

"The history. The history and the waste that was the bitter part."

John Jordan O'Neil grew up in Sarasota, Fla., where the local high school stadium is now named after him. It's the same place he wasn't allowed into as a child because he was black.

He now lives alone in the two-story southside Kansas City home he and his wife, Ora, shared during their 51-year marriage. Ora, a school teacher, died in 1997, one day after the grand opening of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, located in Kansas City's historic 18th and Vine district.

When O'Neil isn't out working on behalf of the museum or baseball and making appearances across the country, he can often be found on the golf course. And he spends a fair amount of energy dodging questions about a recent petition to get him into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The effort, started last spring, was not based so much on O'Neil's ability as a first baseman, but on his managing and scouting skills, and on his dedication to bringing the Negro Leagues alive for the generations that missed out.

"I don't know much about that Hall of Fame petition, you know," he says. "That's not my thing. But sure, it would be nice. I'd have to say it would be just fine with me."

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