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World War II 1
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Navy 1
Birth:
13 Nov 1911 1
Carrabelle, Florida 1
Death:
06 Oct 2006 1
Kansas City, Missouri 1
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Full Name:
John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil 1
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Buck O'Neil 1
Birth:
13 Nov 1911 1
Carrabelle, Florida 1
Male 1
Death:
06 Oct 2006 1
Kansas City, Missouri 1
Cause: heart failure and bone marrow cancer 1
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World War II 1

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Navy 1
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1943 1
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1946 1
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Stories

Buck O’Neil, Negro Leagues Pioneer, Is Dead at 94

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.”

A KC legend dies Baseball icon “lived a full life” as he came to symbolize the glory of the Negro Leagues.

In a Lincoln Town Car on the way home from a funeral, Buck O’Neil said: “I don’t want people to be sad when I die. I’ve lived a full life. Be sad for the kids who die.”

 

So this will not be a sad column, I hope.

 

Buck O’Neil died Friday after a prolonged stay in a Kansas City hospital. He was 94 years old, almost 95. He lived a life for the ages. Buck used to say he had done it all — he hit the home run, he hit for the cycle, he traveled the world, he testified before Congress, he sang at the Baseball Hall of Fame, he made a hole-in-one in golf, he married the woman he loved, he shook hands with American presidents.

 

“And,” he always reminded people, “I hugged Hillary.”

 

Buck was the grandson of a slave. He grew up in Sarasota, Fla. — so far south, he used to say, that if he stepped backward he would have been a foreigner. He shined shoes. He worked in the celery fields. He could not attend Sarasota High because he was black.

 

“Damn,” he said on one particularly hot Florida day in those celery fields, “there’s got to be something better than this.”

 

“That may have been the first time I ever swore,” he would tell school kids across America. “But it was hot that day, children.”

 

The lesson of Buck’s story is that there is always something better — but he had to go out and get it. And he did. He played baseball. He was tall and had good reflexes. So he played first base, first for some semi-professional teams and then for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. That, he said, was the time of his life.

 

It was a time when black players were not welcome to play in the major leagues, a bitter time for many. But Buck O’Neil did not know anything about bitterness. That was his gift. When others remembered Negro Leagues checks that bounced or playing fields with rocks on them, Buck O’Neil remembered listening to hot jazz on Saturday nights — “Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Duke Ellington,” he used to say, as if there was magic in the names.

 

And more, he remembered playing baseball on warm Sunday afternoons with some of the best players who ever lived. He remembered playing with his friend Satchel Paige, the best pitcher he ever saw. Paige used to call him Nancy, and there’s a long story that goes along with that, a story Buck O’Neil would tell 10,000 times in his long life. Suffice it to say, Satchel had a woman named Nancy, and he also had a fiancee named Lahoma, and once Lahoma heard Satchel knocking on another hotel door shouting, “Nancy! Nancy!”

 

Lahoma opened her door. And at that very same instant Buck opened his.

 

“Did you want something, Satchel?” Buck asked.

 

“Yes, Nancy,” Satchel said. “What time is the game tomorrow?”

 

“And,” Buck would say, “I’ve been Nancy ever since.”

 

In those Negro Leagues days, Buck played baseball with Cool Papa Bell, who Buck said was so fast he once hit a line drive through a pitcher’s legs and got hit with the ball as he slid into second base. He played baseball with Turkey Stearnes, a hitter who used to carry his bats around in violin cases and talk to them after games. “Why didn’t you hit better?” he would ask them.

 

He played baseball with Josh Gibson, one of the great home run hitters who ever lived. Buck used to say that three times in his life he heard a different sound on a baseball field, a crack of the bat that sounded like dynamite. The first time, he was a young boy, and the hitter was Babe Ruth. The last time, he was an old man and a scout and the hitter was former Kansas City Royals star Bo Jackson.

 

The time in between was Josh Gibson.

 

Those baseball playing days burned brightly in Buck O’Neil’s memory for the rest of his life. Buck was a pretty good player himself, a slick fielder and a fine hitter who once led the Negro Leagues in hitting. Toward the end of his playing days, he managed the Monarchs too. There, he ran across a shy young player from Texas who would sit in the back of the bus on those road trips and not say a word. Buck started to talk to him.

 

“Son,” he told Ernie Banks, “you’ve got to love this game to play it.”

 

Ernie Banks would become perhaps the most joyful player in the major leagues. They called him “Mr. Cub” in Chicago. He hit 500 home runs. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was famous for saying, “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two.”

 

“I learned that from Buck O’Neil,” Banks said.

 

By the time Buck O’Neil managed in the Negro Leagues, things had changed. Jackie Robinson had broken through the color barrier, and many of the best African-American players were going to play in the minor leagues rather than the Negro Leagues. In 1955, the Chicago Cubs hired Buck to become a scout.

 

He became the first prominent black scout in the major leagues. His territory was the American South, and he spent most of his days around the historically black colleges. On those campuses, Buck O’Neil was bigger than life. “Everybody knew Buck O’Neil,” said Lou Brock, a Hall of Famer Buck signed. “You could see everybody on the bench pointing and whispering, ‘There’s Mr. O’Neil. There he is.’ ”

 

In 1962, he became the first African-American coach in the major leagues when the Cubs hired him. He was mostly responsible for working with the Cubs’ black players — Brock and Banks among them — and he never got the chance to work on the field as either a first- or third-base coach. This bothered him a bit — as much as anything ever bothered Buck. He went back to scouting after a year and signed numerous star players, though what he remembered most was the time he and a fellow scout, Piper Davis, were looking for a game in Louisiana. They found a field and some lights and saw two guys standing in front.

 

“Is this where the game is?” Buck asked.

 

“Oh yeah,” the guys said. “This is the game all right.”

 

They walked toward the field and noticed there were no baseball players on the field. Instead, they saw a crowd overflowing with people in white sheets. There was a man standing on a truck wearing the outfit of the Grand Wizard.

 

“Piper,” Buck said. “This ain’t no ballgame. Let’s get out of here.”

 

They raced back to the car, hit the gas, and drove wildly past the two guys, who were laughing hysterically. About 10 miles down the road, Buck and Piper started laughing too. And Buck never stopped.

 

“Hatred,” he always said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

 

Buck loved telling Negro Leagues stories. For many years, he said, people didn’t want to listen. People seemed offended somehow when he told them that Negro Leaguer Oscar Charleston was as good as Ty Cobb or his friend Hilton Smith might have been as good as Bob Feller. He kept telling the stories because he thought it was important.

 

“Sometimes,” he said, “I think God may have kept me on this earth for a long time so I could bear witness to the Negro Leagues.”

 

In 1994, he broke through. He was discovered — at age 83 — by director Ken Burns, who gave him a starring role in his documentary “Baseball.” In it, Buck told the same stories he had been telling for more than 40 years, but now people listened. People laughed. People cried. And Buck became a celebrity. He appeared on television talk shows, and wrote an autobiography (“I Was Right on Time”) and traveled the country to tell his story.

 

Two years later, he had the second-greatest day of his life. The new and expanded Negro Leagues Baseball Museum opened up on the famous corner of 18th and Vine — the same corner where on those long ago Saturday nights, Buck would listen to that great jazz and talk about the baseball games to come. He had spent many of his later years trying to make the museum a reality. The opening touched his heart.

 

“We spend so much of our lives honoring the people who crossed the bridge,” Buck said. “Today we honor the people who built the bridge.”

 

One day later, Buck lost his wife of 51 years, Ora. He would lose many friends in the last 10 years of his life. But he did not allow that to stop him from loving life. He traveled America, and kept bearing witness for those Negro Leaguers who had been forgotten or ignored. I know. I traveled with him. Buck appeared at every charity function he could fit into his schedule. He signed every autograph. He hugged every woman and tossed baseballs to every kid he saw wearing a baseball glove. This year, at 94 years old, he played in the Northern League All-Star Game. He would not stop. He could not.

 

“Moving,” he said, “is the opposite of dying.”

 

He started to feel tired in August, shortly after returning home from the Baseball Hall of Fame. Buck had not been elected to the Hall of Fame — he fell one or two votes short in a special election — and this set off something of a national firestorm. But Buck said he would not let it get him down. Nothing got him down. And he went to Cooperstown and led everyone in song. A few days later, he checked into the hospital for a short stay. He got out and said that he would have to slow down. A couple of weeks later, he checked back in.

 

The last time I saw him, he sat in a hospital bed, and he looked thin, his beautiful voice was a rasp. His memory was still sharp, and he grabbed my hand, and he whispered: “You are my friend.” He deteriorated from there. Two weeks later he was gone.

 

But even though it’s late at night and I can hardly see the keyboard because of the tears, I know Buck would not have wanted any of us to cry. So, instead, I will relive once more his greatest day. I heard him tell it a hundred times. It was Easter Sunday, 1943, Memphis, Tenn. The Monarchs were playing the Memphis Red Sox. First time up, Buck hit a double. Second time, he hit a single. Third time, he hit it over the right-field fence. Fourth time up, he hit the ball to left field, it bounced off the wall, and Buck rounded the bases. He could have had an inside-the-park home run, but he stopped at third.

 

“You know why?” he always asked.

 

“You wanted the cycle,” I always said.

 

That night, he was in his room when a friend called him down to meet some schoolteachers who were in the hotel. Buck went down, saw a pretty young woman, and walked right up to her and said, “My name is Buck O’Neil. What’s yours?” It was Ora. They would be married for 51 years.

 

“That was my best day,” he said. “I hit for the cycle and I met my Ora.”

 

“It was a good day,” I said.

 

“It’s been a good life,” he said.

 


Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/2006/10/07/538098/a-kc-legend-dies.html#storylink=cpy

JOHN (BUCK) O'NEILL Birth data: Nov. 13, 1911 Current home: Kansas City, Mo. Occupation: Scout, Kansas City Royals Playing career: Memphis Red Sox, 1937; Kansas City Monarchs, 1938-43, 1946-50 Position: First baseman and manager "It was an exciting time. I was young, got a chance to travel. Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, New York City, Washington, Philadelphia. Those places were alive. It was the jazz era. All the black entertainers, we knew them, because we were entertainers too. They'd see us play in the afternoon, and we'd go see them play at night. I remember Bojangles dancing on our dugout at Yankee Stadium. We were warming up and there was a combo in the stands, and suddenly we look up and Bojangles is dancing and people are hollering. All kinds of stars came to see us—Joe Louis, Count Basic, Lionel Hampton. They were our friends. It was high living for those times. And we were very popular. They even changed the church times back to 10 o'clock so people could get to the ballpark. "In 1946 I was playing with Satchel Paige's all-stars. A guy from Los Angeles wanted us to play there against Bob Feller's all-stars and said if Satchel and Bob would pitch the whole game, he could sell it out. Feller said he'd talk to Satchel. The Feller all-stars were getting 60 percent of the gate, and we were getting 40 percent. Satchel said, 'All right, I'll do it, but on one condition.' Feller said, 'What's that?' 'From now on when we play, you get 50 percent and we get 50 percent.' It was a deal. And the game was a sellout. I remember Satchel gave one up to Ralph Kiner. Satchel turned to me after it sailed out and said, 'Who's that?' I said, 'Satchel, that's Ralph Kiner, and he led the league in home runs this year.' Satchel said, 'Oh, yeah? Be sure to tell me when he comes up again.' "

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