When the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced that it had elected 17 new members from a special Committee on African American Baseball to honor the Negro Leagues in 2006, a shock was felt throughout the game that Buck O’Neil wasn’t among them.
The most compelling voice from Ken Burns’s Baseball, the first Black coach in major league history, and a man whose undying efforts to keep the story of the Negro Leagues alive were seemingly powered by an eternal flame of human kindness, O’Neil’s election should have been a fait accompli. Instead, he was left on the outside looking in. Again.
As Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick remembered on the 3 Strikes, You’re Out podcast, there was a weight of almost unbearable sadness in the room when the news hit that O’Neil had missed election. But because every player and executive from the 2006 class was deceased, O’Neil soon began focusing on traveling to Cooperstown and speaking on Induction Weekend.
This election result was a major disappointment. But O’Neil had been navigating barriers erected by organized baseball his entire life. One more setback wasn’t going to stop him from his eternal mission: speaking about his pride — both in who he was and in what he and his Negro Leagues brethren accomplished.
The story of the Negro Leagues themselves captures that dichotomy. On the one hand, it’s a tragedy of baseball’s systemic racism that they had to exist in the first place. But even with that in mind, those who played in the Negro Leagues could still feel justifiable pride in playing the game at its highest level in the spite of that oppression. As we noted yesterday, this sense of pride is something that we as an LGBTQ community can relate to, even though the degrees of our struggles are not the same.
And it was Buck O’Neil’s mission to make sure that immense pride was never swallowed up by the tragic side of the story. As a member of the Negro Leagues, he got to play against legends like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell as well as less well-known all-time greats like Martín Dihigo, Willie Wells, Turkey Stearnes, and Double Duty Radcliffe.
While these near mythic figures understandably felt the anguish of being denied the opportunity to compete in organized baseball, their pride also sent an important message: it was baseball itself that missed out on the opportunity to see them be great.
So in spite of his personal disappointment, the 95-year-old O’Neil made the lengthy trip to Cooperstown that summer. His work wasn’t done yet, and he had to make sure that the Induction Day crowd wouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to recognize the greatness of Biz Mackey, Mule Suttles, Effa Manley, and other names they might not have otherwise recognized.
His pride in being part of the Negro Leagues with these Hall of Famers was on full display and, as he did just about everywhere he spoke, O’Neil stole the show by giving that pride a voice:
“Tell you what: The Negro Leagues were nothing like Hollywood tried to make it. The Negro Leagues were the third largest Black business in this country... All you needed was a bus, and we rode in some of the best buses money could buy, yeah... a couple sets of uniforms... You could have 20 of the best athletes that ever lived. And that’s who we are representing here today. It was outstanding...
“And I’m proud to have been a Negro League ballplayer, yeah, yeah. And I tell you what, they always said to me, ‘Buck, I know you hate people for what they did to you or what they did to your folks.’ I said, ‘No, man, I never learned to hate.’ I hate cancer. Cancer killed my mother. My wife died 10 years ago of cancer — I’m single, ladies! I hate AIDS. A good friend of mine died of AIDS three months ago. I hate AIDS. But I can’t hate a human being because my God never made anything ugly.”
Over the course of his life, O’Neil faced an almost unfathomable amount of ugly barriers and crushing disappointments, but his pride never let that disappointment fester into hate. And while he didn’t sugar coat the prejudice he endured, he never let it win out over his inner grace.
O’Neil never stopped fighting for the legacy of his Negro League peers, especially those who “helped build a bridge across the chasm of prejudice.” And eventually, even though most of baseball missed out on seeing them be great firsthand, the game eventually came around and finally recognized that greatness. Which turned out to be Buck’s most lasting victory of all.
Less than three months later, Buck O’Neil died that October. But his legacy continues to live on in so many places today. His words and accomplishments come alive every day at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, which he helped found. Even though he missed induction into the Hall of Fame, the Hall tried to make up for it by establishing the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, commemorated with a life size statue next to the museum’s Gallery.
Most importantly, Buck O’Neil lives on in the words of pride he gave us every time he told his life story and the history of the Negro Leagues. Words best summed up by the song he asked everyone to join in singing on that memorable day in Cooperstown:
“The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.”