Archive for Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Woodling: Legends buried nearby

June 3, 2008


On Memorial Days, my grandmother would lug a pail of water along with soap and brush and give the family grave stones a thorough scrubbing.

That's my first memory of visiting a cemetery, and I couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 years old. Today I still visit those grave sites - my grandmother is buried there now, too, of course - and I'll always remember her down on her hands and knees.

Forest Hill Cemetery is located in Kansas City, Mo., basically at the intersection of Troost Avenue and Gregory Boulevard. A bunch of Woodlings are buried there, and so are a handful of famous baseball players.

In fact, every time I drive to the Woodling plot, I go past a small traffic island that contains the grave of Satchel Paige, the legendary former Negro League ballplayer and member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As we were driving by, I mentioned to my wife and daughter that Buck O'Neil, another baseball legend in his own time, was also buried in Forest Hill, yet I had no idea where in the large expanse he had been interred.

Turns out if I had waited awhile I would have known. Over the weekend, Forest Hill unveiled a monument to O'Neil, the man who put a living face on Negro League baseball. The new six-foot high stone and surrounding garden are near O'Neil's grave, and I'm going to make a point to seek them out next May.

My recollection of O'Neil is mostly the same as yours - from his numerous television appearances. I also ran into him once in person. Late one night, we were riding on the same Blue Bus at Kansas City International Airport. He was about 90 years old then and was returning from one of his many appearances around the country.

All I could do was wonder how many 90-year-olds were traveling on their own like that. Or if I would have anywhere near that much energy when I reached his age : if I reached his age.

Although never officially elected to the Hall of Fame, baseball has established the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award and will honor one of the game's great ambassadors with a statue to be unveiled this summer in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Thus O'Neil will become the third resident of Forest Hill Cemetery enshrined in Cooperstown, joining Paige and Zack Wheat.

Wheat was an outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers for nearly two decades, compiling a .317 career batting average while playing mostly during the dead-ball era. After retiring from baseball in the late 1920s, Wheat worked as a Kansas City police officer for several years.

While Paige and O'Neil are revered as Kansas City icons, Wheat's relative obscurity is mostly a product of being born before evolving media technology created a national consciousness.

We came to know O'Neil for his grace and his humility. We know Paige for his diamond skill as well as his famous line: "Don't look back. Somebody may be gaining on you."

About Wheat we know less. Except that shortly before his death, someone asked him if he had any advice for youngsters who hoped to become ballplayers.

"Yes," Wheat replied. "Tell them to learn to chew tobacco."


Bill Lee 9 years, 9 months ago

I find it incredible that Chuck had only one encounter with Buck O'Neil in all the years that he covered sports in this area. I first met Buck when I had seats to a game behind the visitors dugout, where Buck used to sit and record each pitch thrown in every home game for the Royals. In the two years I covered the Royals for a Topeka radio station I must have have had dozens of conversations with this wonderful man. I have met or known many celebrities in my life, but Buck was the one who impressed me the most. He truly did define the word "grace."

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