Dignity, statesmanship from diamonds open and closed
Former Negro Leagues player John “Buck” O’Neil speaks at Clark Sports Center during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 30, 2006, in Cooperstown, New York. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Among my most prized possessions is a faded, white T-shirt. Here’s why: Being in the professional writing game for a considerable stretch, you eventually meet people you normally wouldn’t without a notebook and pen handy. Some of them are truly impressive: brilliant, genial and altogether human. Others … well … not so much.
Populating my roster are governors, members of Congress, presidential candidates, state senators, sports stars, the notorious, a butcher here, a baker there, candlestick makers everywhere, CEOs, VIPs and BM&WOCs. Once, press credential in tow, I even finagled a 30-second conversation with the president of the United States until a Secret Service agent the size and shape of a bread truck reminded me that “the president needs to move along.”
Wait, there’s irony. My presidential conversation was about baseball, and of the hundreds about whom I’ve written, the single most memorable, impressive and wise human I’ve had the pleasure to meet was a baseball player — a star in every aspect of the game but a bigger star in the game of life. Not Aaron Judge. Not Shohei Ohtani. Not Mickey Mantle.
Meet Buck O’Neil, grandson of slaves and founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, established in 1997. Prior to that O’Neil played for and then managed the Kansas City Monarchs in Negro Leagues Baseball before becoming Major League Baseball’s first Black coach 15 years after Jackie Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier. Robinson was among O’Neil’s Negro Leagues contemporaries, as was Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell.
I met O’Neil in 2001 when he was making an appearance on behalf of the museum. I was nearly out the newsroom door to get my 7-year-old son from after-school care when the managing editor asked if I knew who Buck O’Neil was and did I want to interview him … in an hour. As it had many others, O’Neil’s appearance on the documentary “Baseball” had mesmerized me seven years earlier. So, yes and yes.
I collected my son, already with an affinity for baseball, and told him that we were going to meet a legend but that he had to be quiet while I interviewed him.
Hauling my kid to cover something broke several professional standards, but I got the interview … while the then-89-year-old played catch with my son. Go figure. I think of that every time I don my faded #22 O’Neil replica jersey.
Here’s what I found in the interview, the documentary and other research: O’Neil was a gifted and wise storyteller with a love of life and a grace and dignity rare among us. He was perhaps baseball’s most beloved ambassador although he was forced to practice his profession and reach his peak at a time when professional baseball was a closed shop, a de facto apartheid system, separate and surely unequal. Even after marking the milestone of becoming part of MLB, O’Neil wanted to esteem those with whom he toiled in the Negro Leagues, hence the museum.
A recent conversation with a former government official brought O’Neil to mind. We were wondering whatever happened to the idea of “statesmanship,” the art of leadership, governance and stewardship that solves problems through debate and diplomacy and detente. Contemporary examples were few. Today we’re not even assured the American history surrounding the Negro Leagues is included in school curricula.
You are correct. Buck O’Neil never negotiated a nuclear arms treaty nor passed legislation. But he lived a life of singular goodness, steeped in the profession he loved and, as any good statesman would, he left it better than he found it for no other reason than it was the right thing to do.
An MLB Hall of Famer said on O’Neil’s 94th birthday, “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.”
In 2006, 17 Negro Leagues players were inducted into MLB’s Hall of Fame. Although surprisingly not among them, O’Neil was asked to speak, which he did with his customary grace and dignity. He said, “I’ve done a lot of things I really liked doing. But I’d rather be right here, right now, representing the people who helped build a bridge across the chasm of prejudice.”
Buck O’Neil died three months later. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year. To commemorate it, I wore his #22 jersey.
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