Grave Story: Buck O’Neil (1911-2006)

Here lies John “Buck” O’Neil (approximately), a Negro Leagues legend, a baseball icon and a trail-blazer in the major leagues. Right up to his final days, he worked ceaselessly to preserve the memories of his fellow Negro Leaguers. He was a first baseman for the Memphis Red Sox (1937) and player (and later player-manager) for the Kansas City Monarchs (1938-43, 1946-49). He also coached for the Chicago Cubs in 1962 and was a scout for several teams.

(I said “approximately” in the above paragraph because the monument pictured on this page is actually a cenotaph, or a memorial for someone who isn’t actually buried there. O’Neil and his wife Ora are buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City, Mo., not far from this stone. So until I can get back to KC, this will have to do.)

At the bottom of Buck O’Neil’s magnificent monument, you can find this inscription: “If I’m a Hall of Famer to you, that’s all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don’t weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful!”

That may be the most Buck O’Neil statement possible. No bitterness for a life that could have been. No anger about a well-deserved honor that has somehow eluded him. Just gratitude for the life he had and the love he experienced from generations of baseball fans.

Buck O’Neil was born on November 13, 1911 in Carrabelle, Fla. The nickname came after he started playing first base and reminded some of the Negro Leagues star Buck Leonard. O’Neil wrote a wonderful memoir, I Was Right on Time, which told his story of growing up picking celery in Florida to his life as a baseball player. As far as I’m concerned, it belongs on the bookshelf of every baseball fan. The stories of his own life, as well as those of his friend Satchel Paige, are well worth the price of purchase. Heck, learning why Paige called O’Neil “Nancy” is worth the price of admission all by itself!

He played on several amateur teams before joining Memphis. After that, he moved to the Monarchs, one of the greatest teams of the Negro Leagues era. Officially in his 11-year career, he batted .283 with 7 home runs and 99 RBI in 766 games, but that hardly does justice to the career he had. Those are official stats and hardly comprehensive of the amount of games that the teams played. Negro League players frequently barnstormed across North America, playing games wherever they could and against opponents of all types. Statistics vary from site to site, too. Baseball Reference lists O’Neil with a .295 batting average in 1946, as the Monarchs were en route to the pennant. However, the Negro Leagues eMuseum (www.mlbemuseum.com) states that he had a .353 batting average that year to win the batting title, and then he hit .333 with 2 home runs in a narrow 7-game loss to the Newark Eagles in the World Series.

Suffice to say that, though his fame as a Negro Leagues spokesman overshadowed his playing career, he was an excellent player.

O’Neil played against many major leaguers in exhibition games… just never in the major leagues thanks to segregation. He played in three Negro League All-Star Games at Comiskey Park in Chicago and two World Series. As a Monarch, he was teammates with stars like Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith. He later acted as the Monarchs manager and had the distinction of running a co-ed team, once the team acquired infielder Toni Stone from the Indianapolis Clowns.

By the time Jackie Robinson had busted the color line in baseball, O’Neil was past his prime as a player. He continued to play and manage the Monarchs, leading them to several pennants along the way until the Negro Leagues folded. He was also a scout for the Cubs and Royals and discovered several star players, including Lou Brock, Lee Smith and Joe Carter. He actually signed Ernie Banks twice — once to the Monarchs and once to the Cubs. He was responsible for giving Banks the optimistic attitude that would turn him into the beloved “Mr. Cub.”

“His spirit, his love of the game, were contagious,” Banks said in 1967.

O’Neil did make it to the major leagues as a coach for the Chicago Cubs in 1962 — the first African-American coach in MLB history. He was a Cubs scout, but he couldn’t sit on the bench during games unless the opposing team granted permission, since he wasn’t technically a coach. Some teams refused to give the permission, so the Cubs gave him a coach’s contract. Unfortunately, he was never considered for a managerial role, even though the Cubs were using their “College of Coaches” stunt that shuttled managers in and out of the dugout with no rhyme or reason.

Late in life, O’Neil got recognition through Ken Burns’ acclaimed “Baseball” documentary. He was tasked with telling the history of the Negro Leagues and life as a black ballplayer in the 1930s through the ’50s. He became the breakout star of the series and was invited to speak across the country. Though he was in his 80s, he didn’t slow down a bit. He helped keep alive the memories of the Negro Leagues’ legendary players, and not just the well-known legends like Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson and Josh Gibson. Buck’s all-time Negro League team included people like Leonard, Newt Allen and Mule Suttles.

For 20 years, Buck O’Neil was on the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee, which inducts players from baseball’s past eras. During his tenure, the Committee recognized many greats from the Negro Leagues, bringing players like Leon Day and Smokey Joe Williams to Cooperstown. Day received word he was inducted into the HOF just 6 days before his death.

In 2006, the Veterans Committee inducted 17 players and executives from the Negro Leagues into the HOF, unofficially closing the chapter on the Negro Leagues. Shockingly, O’Neil didn’t get elected. He was at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City on the day that the vote came out, sitting with NLBM president Bob Kendrick and writer Joe Posnanski. Multiple votes were cast. The commissioner of baseball, Fay Vincent, broke protocol by stumping for O’Neil himself. But at the end of the voting, O’Neil was just short.

Kendrick was the one who fielded the phone call from the Hall and told O’Neil, “Buck, we didn’t get enough votes.” According to Kendrick, O’Neil looked down for a moment and then asked how many people did get in. When told that 17 Negro League players and executives did make the cut, he shouted out “Wonderful!” Then he went to face the large crowd that had gathered in anticipation of his election to break the news to them. He ended up being the one to comfort many of them, and not the other way around.

“Shed no tears for Buck. This won’t stop me. I’ve got a whole lot to live for,” Posnanski quoted him as saying. “It would have been ‘Buck O’Neil, Hall of Famer.’ Not it’s just ‘Buck O’Neil,’ which is all right. Or how about ‘Buck O’Neil, humanitarian’? That sounds better anyway.”

The Hall vote took place at the end of April, 2006. O’Neil went to Cooperstown in August to speak on behalf of the inductees, all of whom were long dead. He started feeling tired after that trip and was in and out of the hospital after that, according to the beautiful obituary that Posnanski wrote.

Buck O’Neil died in Kansas City on October 4, 2006 at the age of 94. More than 10,000 people filed past his casket at the Negro Leagues Museum, and his funeral was attended by several Hall of Famers, including a few he discovered. He’s buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City, Mo., a short distance from his friend Paige. His cenotaph, located close to the cemetery’s main office, was a gift of the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City. It’s an amazing museum and is a must-visit for any baseball fan. Buck pushed for its creation and was on the board of directors until his death — just one more way he helped keep the memory of the Negro Leagues alive.

An early version of this article originally appeared at the Hall of Very Good.

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