Kansas City, Mo. Hearkening back to a fund drive that built the birthplace of the Negro Leagues, a civic-improvement group Wednesday gave $50,000 to a project honoring black baseball's most beloved ambassador.
Buck O'Neil, the former Negro Leagues star and major-league scout and coach who died Friday at age 94, was a longtime backer of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He was also a member of the Kansas City Enshriners, a group devoted to improving Kansas City's landmarks and the organization that made Wednesday's donation to the museum for a planned expansion.
Museum officials hope to raise $1 million by Nov. 11 toward its $15 million Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center, which will be housed in the Paseo YMCA building, where the Negro Leagues were founded in 1920.
Nov. 11 was to have been the celebration of O'Neil's 95th birthday, although his actual birthday was Nov. 13, and O'Neil's friends still plan to hold the party in his memory.
The "Thanks a Million, Buck" fund drive, launched in August, has now brought in more than $100,000 after Wednesday's gift, museum spokesman Bob Kendrick said.
"He didn't know when it was going to happen, but he was certainly aware that his group, the Enshriners, were preparing to make a contribution," Kendrick said. "I don't think he was certain about the amount, but I can rest assured he is in heaven, smiling in applause for what his colleagues have stepped up and done today."
The Paseo YMCA building, around the corner from the baseball museum, was built in 1913 after civic groups met a challenge to help fund its construction.
It's only fitting, Enshriners Chairman Ollie Gates said, that the center named for O'Neil get the same sort of help. He challenged other organizations to pitch in similar amounts.
"Buck O'Neil was an ambassador for all of Kansas City, so we're not asking just from the black community," said Gates, whose chain of barbecue restaurants sponsors the Enshriners' annual fundraising golf tournaments. "We're asking for all of Kansas City. We're challenging the whole community to make sure this happens."
The money donated Wednesday came from a fundraiser in the late 1990s for a fountain project, Gates said. That project fell through, and the money has been bearing interest since.
The expansion project would give the museum more exhibit space and would also include a technology center, classrooms and a research library. Interactive exhibits would use baseball to help teach math and science.
"He looked forward to this," said Don Motley, the museum's director. "Buck's wife was an educator, and so this is very, very dear to us."
And even without its most famous supporter, Gates said, the museum will go on.
"Let me make sure the world knows - not only Kansas City but the world - knows that even though Buck is gone, the organization here and this structure and any others to come are in good hands with Don Motley and Bob Kendrick," Gates said. "On his dying bed, he said this to me: 'We've got some good guys."'