Commentary: O’Neil injustice must be rectified

Being a bad guy can keep you out of the Hall of Fame (ask Pete Rose), but being a really great guy won’t get you in (ask Buck O’Neil).

Buck O’Neil belongs in the Hall of Fame because he is the living history of Negro leagues baseball – a decent enough player, five times a pennant-winning manager for the leagues’ greatest franchise, the first African American coach in the major leagues and, for the past 50 years, a tireless, charismatic, endearing advocate reminding us that whatever differences of race exist, baseball brings us together.

When the first 18 men from the Negro leagues were elected to the Hall of Fame by baseball writers and the Veterans Committee, no one argued that O’Neil belonged alongside Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell. But now a select committee, charged with identifying Negro leagues Hall of Famers, has elected a group of 16 men and a woman – five executives among them – without electing Buck O’Neil.

That is an outrage.

It cannot stand uncontested.

The argument against O’Neil, as told to me by people who should know, is that: 1) He was not close to being a Hall of Fame player; 2) he was not a Hall of Fame manager, his franchise being so dominant that most anyone could have won with it; and 3) if the Hall of Fame starts electing people because they’re, quote, really great guys, unquote, that’s a slippery slope leading to dilution of the honor.

Excuse me. Besides Buck O’Neil, name another really great guy who dedicated his life’s work to baseball, to the Negro leagues, to history and, at age 94, is still so classy and gracious as to say, in the hour of his disappointment, that, if asked, he’d go to Cooperstown and be part of the ceremonies for the 17 elected.

First on his own, because that’s who he is, and later through books with John Holway and Steve Wulf that led to his appearances in the Ken Burns baseball documentary, John Jordan (Buck) O’Neil has talked Negro leagues baseball. It’s stretching reality to say what we know about the Negro leagues we know because of O’Neil, but it’s a stretch we’re willing to make because the man is a charmer. Without Buck O’Neil, the elected 17 would have remained where they were, mostly forgotten.

There may even be good reason for forgetting some. Listen to Keith Olbermann, the broadcaster and master of baseball history. On his MSNBC show, Olbermann said the committee elected two executives of dubious reputation. He described Alex Pompez as “a former racketeer in the Dutch Schultz crime family.” Of Effa Manley, a white woman who passed for black, he said, “(Her) co-owner husband reportedly traded away at least one of the team’s players because she was having an affair with that player.”

Give me Hall of Famers who tell me why baseball means so much to people – as Buck O’Neil did.

It’s an egregious mistake that ought to be fixed. Maybe commissioner Bud Selig can slip an iron fist into a velvet glove. Failing that, the least Cooperstown could do is ask Buck O’Neil to speak on behalf of all Negro leaguers at this summer’s induction ceremony.

They might also create an annual award for baseball lifers who have enriched the game.

Make it the Buck O’Neil Hall of Fame Ambassador Award.

Give the first one to him.