I continue to have great admiration and respect for men who played in the Negro Leagues. Deprived of the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues, these men pursued their passion in all kinds of adverse circumstances. Some, such as Satchel Paige, made some money. Most played because of a love of the game. For me, no one reflects that love of the game as much as John “Buck” O’Neil.
Buck O’Neil grew up in Florida, the grandson of a Mandingo tribesman brought to the States as a slave. Buck faced early discrimination in that his hometown did not allow African American students to attend the local high school so he had to attend an out-of-town school.
Starting at age 12, he played baseball as a first baseman. Eventually he was signed by the Memphis RedSox of one of the Negro Leagues and was then sold to the Kansas City Monarchs where he spent the majority of his career as both player and manager. He became the first African American scout, working for the Chicago Cubs and signing among others future Hall of Famer Lou Brock. He also founded the Negro League Museum in Kansas City.
Buck came to my attention as well as the nation’s through Ken Burns’ PBS documentary series Baseball. Buck’s passion for baseball as well as his great pride in the Negro Leagues was apparent and won the hearts of many. He never minimized the challenges and hardships of being a black man trying to have a career in baseball. As he says in his autobiography, he realized early on that Major League baseball was “a white man’s game” that was not open to him. But he did not appear to have become bitter, focusing instead on his joy of the game and having had the privilege of knowing and playing ball with some of the greatest baseball players to ever grace a field. He stands as a beacon to me of the power of rising above adversity and reminds me of how blessed are those who have the gift of enthusiasm.
In 2006, with Buck’s encouragement and involvement, 17 members of the Negro Leagues were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Buck was not among them. But his comment at that time reflects the qualities that endear him to me and thousands of others:
“God’s been good to me. They didn’t think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That’s the way they thought about it and that’s the way it is, so we’re going to live with that. Now, if I’m a Hall of Famer for you, that’s all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don’t weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful.”
Buck O’Neil died in 2006. This year he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, an honor well past due.
If you never seen it, watch Ken Burns’ baseball documentary and enjoy Buck. Should your travels take you to Kansas City, don’t miss the Negro League Museum. Enjoy Buck’s autobiography I Was Right On Time.
Here then is the great Buck O’Neil (don’t click the arrow. Click the “Watch on Youtube”: