Newell: ‘Legend’ moniker fits Buck
KANSAS CITY, KAN. ? You couldn’t help but wonder how they would introduce Buck O’Neil.
This was, after all, the Northern League All-Star game – a minor-league division all about gimmicks. In my first five minutes, I had been paid $1 to park in their lot, seen skydivers flop onto the field and seen mascots dance arm-in-arm with umpires.
The problem was, through all the glamour and glitz, the Northern League had stumbled on something very real. And that was the 94-year-old Buck, who slowly lifted his dark glasses and dabbed at his eyes with the handkerchief that he’d been hiding in his right hand.
“Batting first, the legendary Buck O’Neil.”
It seems like we hear it too often in sports: the word legend. Somehow the “legendary” Hulk Hogan and Barry Bonds and Doyle Brunson have made it into the same category as all those we hold dear.
But what makes Buck different? Why do thousands of people sign petitions to get him into the Baseball Hall of Fame? Why is he a legend to so many?
I would get my answer soon enough.
Here’s a story: As O’Neil leans next to the dugout, a man from the stands yells behind him. Buck turns, and the man asks if he can get a picture.
It’s two minutes from perhaps the last professional at-bat of Buck’s life.
He smiles for the camera. A legend to one more man.
Here’s another: After the first pitch of his at-bat sails in high, Buck immediately turns and teases the umpire.
The fans laugh. Why is he arguing a ball?
Turns out the umpire didn’t hold up his end of the bargain. Buck had told him to call it a strike no matter what.
Here’s a third: Buck takes three pitches that are high, then lowers his hand to show the pitcher where to throw it.
The plan is for Buck to get intentionally walked, take his base, and ride off into the sunset without so much as breaking a sweat.
But that’s not Buck’s way. Sure enough, Josh Beshears lobs a meatball right down the middle.
And, for a second, you forget that Buck is in the middle of his 10th decade.
With his weight and hands back, Buck unleashes a swing he says he hasn’t taken since 1955.
His momentum starts and can’t be stopped, and in essence the bat swings him. After missing the ball, his body uncoils outside the box.
It’s all smiles after that.
But maybe the most telling moment was in an interview, when a young reporter made the rookie mistake with Buck O’Neil.
We’ve all heard of it happening. Sports figures becoming upset with the media when they call them the incorrect title.
Buck stopped her mid-question. He couldn’t stand to be called “Mr. O’Neil.”
“Wait,” he said. “My name is Buck.”
She smiled. And then she called him Buck.
He was asked if he would like to come back to participate in the All-Star game again. Buck grinned.
“Maybe the next 10 years,” he said.
Hopefully then he won’t just be called a legend. He’ll be called a hall-of-famer, too.