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April 2, 2007

No Bitterness from Buck O’Neil


As baseball season gets underway, with news about overpaid, whining athletes, steroids and DirecTV dominating the sports pages, it's worth looking at reminders of baseball's inspirational side. And for the past century, baseball has had few inspirations quite like Buck O'Neil.

The legendary player, manager, coach, scout and all-around ambassador of the game, who came up in baseball's Negro Leagues in the 1940s and stayed a part of the game for seven decades, is the subject of a new book called "The Soul of Baseball: a Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America," by Joe Posnanski. It's an amazing book about an amazing man.

Posnanski, the respected baseball writer for the Kansas City Star, spent a year on the road with O'Neil, as they visited various U.S. cities in order to promote the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, an institution that O'Neil himself helped to establish. He wished to honor the leagues, which existed for black players prior to (and for awhile, after) Jackie Robinson's integration of the game in 1947.

Everywhere he goes in the book, O'Neil is embraced – by current ballplayers, by old teammates, by fans who remembered meeting him 40 and 50 years before. He was baseball's first black coach and first black scout, signing legendary players from Lou Brock to Ernie Banks. There were few who played the game between 1940 and 1980 who didn't know Buck O'Neil well. And to know him, of course, was to love him.

And then there are the stories. O'Neil was a born storyteller, always telling humorous and touching stories about events that had taken place decades earlier. America first fell in love with him in the early 1990s, when he appeared in Ken Burns' documentary "Baseball," and in the years since O'Neil had become one of the game's greatest ambassadors.

Chris Rock used to joke that the most racist people of all are old black men - and they have reason to be, because they've seen real racism. "None of this not being able to get a cab - they were the cab." And indeed, Buck O'Neil had every reason in the world to be bitter.

As a black man growing up in the South in the early 20th Century, he saw unspeakable, racist horrors. Despite a successful career as one of the greatest Negro Leaguers, he was never able to play or manage in the major leagues. And, months before his death, when a commission of experts assembled to elect several Negro Leaguers to the Baseball Hall of Fame, O'Neil was inexplicably left off the list.

But Buck O'Neil was not bitter. In fact, he was beloved by virtually everyone who knew him. "Hate never got anyone anywhere" was his mantra. The merits of the "turn the other cheek" approach can be debated, especially in regard to racial prejudice. But it certainly worked for Buck.

In an age when a player like Gary Sheffield reacts with searing outrage because the Yankees picked up his $13 million option rather than let him be a free agent, it's almost shocking the way O'Neil reacted to the Hall of Fame slight. He not only attended the induction ceremony, but participated in it, as the keynote speaker. Watching that speech on TV, on that August day in 2006, I was transfixed by this wonderful man, who had given so much to the game that he loved.

Buck O'Neil died on October 7 of last year, at the age of 94, just a couple of months after that speech in Cooperstown. It's a true blessing for the game that he lived as long as he did, and we've thankfully been given an intimate look, with Posnanski's book, at all Buck O'Neil gave to the game.


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