Buck O’Neil, a star first baseman and manager in the Negro leagues and a pioneering scout and coach in the major leagues who devoted the final decade of his life to chronicling the lost world of black baseball, died last night in Kansas City, Mo. He was 94.Chris Cummins/AP Photo
Baseball great Buck O'Neil, at a press conference for the former Kansas City Monarchs at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, died Friday at age 94.
Bob Kendrick, marketing director for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, reported the death last night, according to The Associated Press. O’Neil entered the hospital in August but was released after a few days. He was readmitted Sept. 17, The Associated Press said.
O’Neil was a smooth fielder and a two-time league-leading hitter with the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the Negro leagues’ most acclaimed teams, and he also managed them. He spent more than three decades working in theChicago Cubs’ system, becoming one of organized baseball’s first black scouts and then the first black coach in the majors. In all, his baseball career spanned seven decades.
O’Neil had been chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., since its founding in 1997 and made scores of appearances to raise funds for it. He bore witness to the exploits of figures like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston and Ray Dandridge. All of those players were inducted into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown belatedly, their prime seasons in the Negro leagues coming in the years before Jackie Robinson broke the modern major league color barrier.
O’Neil was among 39 candidates for entry into the Hall of Fame at a special vote in February 2006 to consider figures from black baseball who were not among the 18 previously inducted. Seventeen people were elected in that vote by a 12-person committee, but O’Neil and Minnie Minoso, the only two living figures given consideration, were not chosen.
The former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who was chairman of the committee but did not vote, expressed surprise that O’Neil was not chosen. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum reported receiving expressions of dismay from the Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Lou Brock over the exclusion.
When the 17 figures were inducted into the Hall on July 30, 2006, O’Neil opened the ceremony with a recollection of the Negro leagues.
Brock, who was signed for the Cubs’ organization by O’Neil in the 1960’s, attended O’Neil’s 94th birthday party, where he told The Kansas City Star: “Buck is a man God chose for this time. He has seen it all. He saw a transformation of people, of society, of a country. Somebody’s got to be around to tell that story. I think he has been preserved for that purpose.”
For all his accomplishments, O’Neil was little known to most baseball fans until he was interviewed for Ken Burns’s nine-part 1994 television documentary “Baseball.” Still active into his 80’s — he was a special-assignment scout for the Kansas City Royals then — O’Neil told viewers of the golden age of the Negro leagues, the 1930’s and 1940’s.
“Thanks to Ken Burns, I became an overnight star in my 80’s,” O’Neil said in his memoir, “I Was Right on Time” (Fireside), published when he was 85. “But as far as I’m concerned, I felt like I was already on top of the world when I got to play with and against some of the best ballplayers who ever lived.”
He professed no regret for his lost chance to play in the majors. “Waste no tears for me,” he said in his autobiography. “I didn’t come along too early. I was right on time. You see, I don’t have a bitter story. I truly believe I have been blessed.”
White-haired but still a trim 6 feet 2 inches and 190 pounds, O’Neil radiated joy in the Burns documentary, recalling how Sunday churchgoers in Kansas City scheduled services an hour early so that they could attend the Monarchs’ games, and how the Negro leagues’ annual East-West game at Chicago’s Comiskey Park became a memorable event for black Americans.
John Jordan O’Neil Jr. was born on Nov. 13, 1911, in Carrabelle, Fla. When he was a youngster, his family moved to Sarasota, and by age 12 he was playing semipro baseball. When he was barred from Sarasota High School because of his race, he enrolled at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville and earned his high school diploma there, then completed two years of college.
O’Neil left school to play pro baseball, gaining his nickname when he was confused with an executive from another club named Buck O’Neal. He endured the indignity of playing in a grass skirt with war paint for a barnstorming team called the Zulu Cannibal Giants, but in 1938 he made his debut with the Monarchs of the Negro American League.
O’Neil led the league in batting twice, hitting .345 in 1940 and .350 in 1946, when he returned from Navy service, and he played in three East-West All-Star Games. He managed the Monarchs from 1948 to 1955, when they remained one of the Negro leagues’ top teams, and played for them through the 1954 season.
O’Neil was hired by the Cubs as a part-time scout in 1953 and steered Ernie Banks, then the Monarchs’ shortstop, to the Cubs. Hired as a full-time Cubs scout in 1955, he discovered not only Brock but also Lee Smith and Joe Carter. In May 1962, O’Neil became the first black man officially designated as a major league coach, but the Cubs used him purely in an instructional role.
In 1995, the Baltimore Orioles renamed a training facility in Sarasota the Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex, and Sarasota High School presented O’Neil with a degree at a ceremony seeking to atone for his being barred so long ago.
In July 2006, O’Neil came to the plate twice at the All-Star Game of the independent Northern League and walked each time, part of a promotional campaign to have baseball officials place him in the Hall of Fame. O’Neil’s wife, Ora, a teacher, whom he married in 1946, died in the late 1990’s. They had no children.
For O’Neil, baseball represented a lifelong joy. “Nowadays, whenever us Negro leaguers put on the old uniforms for autograph-signings and such, you can just see the years peel away,” he wrote in his memoirs. “I’ve seen men lose 50 years in just a few hours. Baseball is better than sex. It is better than music, although I do believe jazz comes in a close second. It does fill you up.”