By George Mitrovich
9 October 2006
Buck O’Neil at age 94 has passed into the eternal presence of God; the God he believed in, the God he loved, the God he worshipped, and the God he honored by the quality and character of his life – not least his loving acceptance of others, of their inherent dignity as God’s children. His death came in Kansas City, where he lived, and where his greatest achievement stands – the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Buck had been hospitalized for several weeks. He died of complications from congestive heart failure and recently diagnosed bone marrow cancer. The sudden deterioration of his health was a surprise to me since I had never known him to be ill.
Last spring a special committee chaired by former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent elected sixteen individuals from the Negro Leagues, but Buck’s exclusion was shocking to his legion of admirers across America. Buck met this stunning news with remarkable grace, for his surprise and disappointment must have been very great.
When it became known that Buck was out of the Hall of Fame, I reacted, as did many, with astonishment and disgust. I then did three things:
First, I wrote an op-ed on the committee’s unfathomable folly for several newspapers around the country – The Denver Post, Cincinnati Post, and Newsday among them.
Second, I called Congressman Richard Neal’s office in Washington and asked if he would be willing to introduce a Sense of Congress Resolution calling for Buck’s election to the Hall of Fame? I assumed he would respond favorably, for I had worked with Mr. Neal and the Boston Red Sox for more than two years to get Jackie Robinson the Congressional Gold Medal, and thus knew of his deep commitment to right wrongs of the past. In this instance, as before, Congressman Neal did not disappoint. He and his very able press secretary, Billy Tranghese, began the process to affect the Sense of Congress Resolution.
Third, I contacted Andrew Card, then chief of staff of President George W. Bush, and asked if Mr. Card would lend his support to having the president award Buck the Presidential Medal of Freedom? Mr. Card and his staff were extremely gracious and encouraging. It didn’t happen before Mr. Card left the White House or before Buck’s death, but I still hope it comes to fulfillment – even posthumously.
In the passing of Buck I lost a special friend, one of the most extraordinary individuals I ever knew. I place him among a small number of people I consider truly exceptional, those whose lives intersected significantly with mine – Robert F. Kennedy, Malcolm Muggeridge, George Plimpton, Eugene McCarthy, and Charles E. Goodell.
When Buck’s death became known I received several telephone calls and e-mails of condolences on “my loss.” I responded by saying that it wasn’t “my loss”, but the loss of every person ever exposed to Buck’s magical and transcendent presence – for he had about him an aura few humans ever achieve.
I shall always be grateful to Doug Price, one of Colorado’s leading citizens, who encouraged me to invite Buck to speak to The Denver Forum – an invitation that began one of the more meaningful relationships of my life.
What follows are: 1) Baseball writer Gordon Edes tribute to Buck that appeared in The Boston Globe, Sunday, October 8 (used by permission); 2) my op-ed that appeared inThe Denver Post, Cincinnati Post, Newsday; and other American newspapers; and 3) a long Sunday article Buck and I wrote for The Baltimore Sun in 1999, 52 years after Jackie Robinson’s signing as the first black player in the major leagues (used by permission).
An Appreciation – The Boston Globe
To the end, a sweet soul, never bitter
By Gordon Edes
Sunday, October 8, 2006
The last day of January, and there was snow in the bleachers, icicles hanging on the foul poles, and 350 kids were sitting behind glass in Fenway Park. Most of them had never laid eyes on a soul as old as this white-haired man, who with a hand as big as a frying pan stroked his ebony cheek and spoke to them in a voice that somehow was strong and soft at the same time.
“They wouldn’t let me play baseball,” Buck O’Neil said, “because of this beautiful tan, uuuuhhhh-huuuhhhh, yes.”
Buck O’Neil died Friday night in Kansas City. He was 94 years old, closing in on 95.
“So sad, so very sad,” said Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino. “What a life. I mean, he was just a giant, yet he remained so plain and humble and ordinary in some ways, too.
“It’s the passing of an era. They don’t make ‘em like Buck O’Neil anymore. I never met a man with less bitterness in him, despite the myriad indignities he experienced in the course of his life.”
When the Red Sox invited O’Neil to Fenway Park that winter’s day in 2004, as part of their celebration of Jackie Robinson’s birthday, they did so for a reason.
“Buck was living history,” said Dr. Charles Steinberg, the Sox’ executive vice president of public affairs. “Our dream is that those children one day will tell their grandchildren 60 years from now, `I met Buck O’Neil.’ Who better than Buck O’Neil to tell these kids why Jackie Robinson was the right one — not the best one, but the right one — to break the color barrier?”
John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil was the grandson of slaves. “Do you know why his name was O’Neil?” Steinberg said. “That was the name of the slave owner who owned his grandparents. They took his name because he never separated families, parents from their children. They took his name as a sign of gratitude and respect.”
Buck O’Neil could tell stories, hmmm, hmmm, yes. Cool Papa Bell, he was so fast he won his bet with Satchel Paige that he could flick the light switch in their hotel room and jump in bed before it got dark, but ol’ Buck could tell you it was because Cool Papa knew the switch was faulty. Or how about that day in his hometown of Sarasota, Fla., when he looked up in awe after Babe Ruth’s bat struck a ball and made a sound he heard duplicated just twice more in his lifetime, once by Josh Gibson, the great Negro leagues catcher, the other by Bo Jackson.
But first, he would seek out a pretty woman in the room, as he did at a dinner the Sox held for him the night before he spoke to the kids, melt her with a smile, then open his arms and wrap her in a hug. Best day of his life, he often would say, is when he hit for the cycle and that night met Ora, the woman who would become his wife for 51 years.
Ken Burns, the documentary maker, introduced a nation to O’Neil in 1994 in “Baseball,” the series in which O’Neil brought long-forgotten heroes of the Negro leagues to life.
“How lucky we are to have had some time with him,” said Lucchino, who was CEO in Baltimore for the All-Star Game in 1993 when a young PR intern from Yale named Theo Epstein conceived and executed a project to make the Negro leaguers part of the festivities, an effort that paid off when a Baltimore native son named Leon Day subsequently was elected to the Hall of Fame.
When Lucchino was in San Diego, O’Neil came there, too, as part of the push to build the Padres a new ballpark, and one day spoke from the roof of a parking lot in the depressed part of town proposed as site of the new park. Steinberg recalled his words: “He said, `When I was a young man playing baseball, we came all the way to San Diego and this neighborhood was really hopping. To come back years later and see what happened to this neighborhood, I wanted to cry. If you build a ballpark and bring the life and vitality back here, ol’ Buck would like to come back once more.’ ”
O’Neil, who played and managed in the Negro leagues, became the first African-American coach in the major leagues, and as a scout found Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock. His answer, to those who asked whether he regretted that his youth was spent in the era of Jim Crow, could be found in the title of his autobiography: “I Was Right On Time.”
“He used to say, `Don’t shed a tear for ol’ Buck, I was dancing with Lena Horne,’ ” Steinberg recalled. “He said, `I don’t think we missed anything. Maybe the whites missed something not seeing us.’ ”
That winter’s morning in Fenway Park, Buck O’Neil told those kids what he thought of hatred. “I don’t hate God’s creatures,” he said. “I can’t hate any of God’s children. Hate? I hate cancer. I hate disease.”
There was a special election this year of Negro leaguers to baseball’s Hall of Fame. Somehow, O’Neil, the game’s greatest ambassador, fell a vote or two short. But who was it who gave the speech honoring the 17 who were chosen for induction? Buck O’Neil.
“Buck was such a pure soul and had such a genuine love of life, baseball, and other people,” Epstein said yesterday. “It’s remarkable that being bitter about segregation never occurred to him. He saw the Negro leagues as a triumph, so there was nothing to be bitter about. He was just an inspiration of a human being.”
Uuuuhhhh-huuuhhhh, yes. Let’s hope those kids remember, and pass it on.
Op-ed Page – The Denver Post
Hall of Fame Shame
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Buck O’Neil’s failure to be elected last week to baseball’s Hall of Fame by a special committee is shameful. Few people in the history of baseball have done more for the game than the great man from Kansas City.
The committee, chaired by former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, was formed to address the glaring absence of Negro League greats from the Hall of Fame. Major League Baseball had provided a grant to the Hall for that purpose (but exercised no control over the selection process, and Vincent did not have a vote on those chosen).
By not electing O’Neil, however, the committee did him and the game they profess to love a grave injustice. And because this was a one-time shot, there will be no second chance for O’Neil, who recently celebrated his 94th birthday.
Typically, O’Neil’s reaction to the committee’s mindless rejection was dignified and gracious. But anyone who knows him would not have expected anything else. His response to the committee’s indignity was forged in the fiery furnace many black-Americans have faced in their lives — indignities no child of God should ever face, but from which the character of O’Neil evolved with the strength of steel.
O’Neil’s view of those selected was they all belong in the Hall of Fame. He said if invited he would go to Cooperstown this summer for the Hall of Fame ceremony and speak in behalf of those new inductees, including Effa Manley, the first woman chosen. But the choice of Manley, who co-owned the Newark Eagles, makes abundantly clear the selection committee’s choices were based upon criteria not related to on-the-field accomplishments. That being the case, why then was O’Neil excluded? But if you’re looking for answers from members of the selection committee you will wait in vain. The huge storm raised by O’Neil’s rejection sent them into hiding.
Dick Freeman, an executive with the San Diego Padres, was asked how O’Neil’s exclusion could have happened? The essence of his answer was this: “Too often baseball people think only about what a player did on the field. In Buck’s case the committee’s focus was so narrow and constricted they ignored what he has become – one of the game’s foremost ambassador. Moreover, they apparently forgot that without Buck and Ken Burns (who produced the famous baseball series for PBS) few people would have known of the Negro Leagues.” He might have added that O’Neil as a player with the Kansas City Monarchs won two batting titles, and one season committed only one error in the field, a truly remarkable achievement (he was a first baseman).
But for me, when I learned that O’Neil was not chosen, there was simple shock, so inexplicable did I find his rejection. Here’s why: I’ve known some extraordinary people — Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm Muggeridge, George Plimpton, Alan Simpson, Gloria Steinem, but no one has impressed me more than Buck O’Neil – in every conceivable way.
When we first met in 1993, I had recently attended a birthday tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. At the ceremony where King was honored a combined black church choir sang, “God is a good God, God is a great God, He can move any mountain.” I repeated those words to O’Neil. I then asked, “But God didn’t move the mountain of slavery. He didn’t move the mountain of discrimination or racial injustice.” Without a moment’s hesitation O’Neil answered, “That’s true, but God gave us the power to climb those mountains.”
Over the years, I’ve been with O’Neil in many places — Denver, Boston, Indianapolis, Albuquerque, San Diego. But wherever he goes people react the same — with affection and admiration. I’ve also witnessed, at ballparks around the country, the obvious devotion major and minor league players have toward him — black, white, Latino, they all love him.
Once I brought O’Neil and Roger Kahn (who wrote The Boys of Summer) to my grandson’s second-grade class at an elementary school in San Diego. Kahn spoke about Jackie Robinson. O’Neil talked about his life growing up in Florida, of becoming a Negro leagues player. At the end of his remarks he invited a young African-American girl to come and sit beside him. He told her how important her education and that of all the children I the class would be, how hard the needed to study. He then said he wanted to come back when they graduated from elementary school, middle school and high school. He said he wanted to be there the day the graduated from college. As he spoke the children’s attention was riveted on O’Neil (you try holding the attention of a classroom of second graders).
That scene, O’Neil embracing children, has been played out thousands and thousands of times across our country. But not just with children, but with everyone O’Neil meets. There is about his persona a transcendence rare in human beings – and all who come within his presence feel it, are drawn to it, and it stays with them long after the moment is gone.
Three years ago, O’Neil went to Boston to speak at the Red Sox’s annual birthday tribute to Jackie Robinson. The night before there was a small dinner for O’Neil attended by team officials and members of the media, including baseball writer Gordon Edes of the Boston Globe. When the dinner was over, Edes said the chance to be with O’Neil that night, to hear his stories, had been one of the highlights of his life.
O’Neil may not have made Baseball’s Hall of Fame. But make no mistake about it: He’s already in a place of far greater importance, one that greatly transcends the realm of sports — the Human Hall of Fame. And his presence there will insure, Baseball Hall of Fame or not, the memory of Buck O’Neil will be remembered a thousand summers from now.
Perspectives – Baltimore Sun
Baseball & Blacks
George Mitrovich & Buck O’Neil
Sunday, October 24, 1999
The end of the World Series will close out the baseball season. It also will bring to a close Leonard Coleman’s tenure as National League president. His departure from Major League Baseball will remove the game’s highest-ranking African-American, further eroding the increasingly tenuous connection African-Americans have to a sport responsible for one of the most memorable and important historical symbols of black emancipation – the signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Coleman, whose decision to resign is tied to a disagreement with the commissioner’s office over lines of authority and supervision of umpires, is a person of exceptional qualities and integrity. A Princeton-Harvard man who spent several years on a mission for the Episcopal Church in Africa, he will not be easily replaced. His absence will create a significant void in a game that, more than any other professional sport, made it possible for gifted African-American athletes to compete as equals. He also will be missed as a person of grace and dignity who worked with diligence to increase the number of African-Americans in executive positions within baseball.
Those who see this issue divorced from the “real world” beyond sports have short memories and a shallow grasp of American history. The breaking of the color barrier in the major leagues took place long before the rise of Martin Luther King Jr., Brown vs. the Board of Education and the civil rights movement in the South. Before any of those things happened, Jackie Robinson was breaking down racial barriers, within baseball and without, that had stood since 1839 when the modern game was invented. It should be remembered that Branch Rickey of the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson in 1947 – a year before President Harry S Truman ordered the desegregation of the military. That is why the near-absence of African-American managers, front-office personnel and executives is extremely disappointing and troubling. Coleman’s departure will aggravate that shameful and sorry fact.
Of the 30 teams of the National and American leagues, only one, the San Francisco Giants, has an African-American manager, the highly regarded Dusty Baker. The major leagues have no African-American general managers, team presidents or owners.
Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, has asked major league teams with managerial openings to interview African-Americans. Rumor has it that the Chicago Cubs will hire Don Baylor, the former Colorado Rockies manager (now a hitting coach with the Atlanta Braves), for the job left vacant when Jim Riggleman was fired. The Milwaukee Brewers, the team that is owned by Selig but run by his daughter, have talked with Davey Lopes, a coach with the San Diego Padres, about their managerial opening, but how much of this is real and how much is show?
The commissioner’s directive was blatantly ignored by one team, the Detroit Tigers, whose officials hired Phil Garner, the fired Brewer’s manager, without so much as a perfunctory interview with any African-American candidate. Selig has promised that the Tigers will be fined for failing to heed his directive. We’ll see.
Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, in issuing its Racial Report Card two years ago, pointed out that the percentage of African-Americans playing major league baseball has fallen to a 20-year low — 17 percent, or 129 players out of 750. That fewer African-Americans play our “national pastime” is often overlooked because many of today’s greatest stars – Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn, Bernie Williams, Frank Thomas, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Mo Vaughn and the
Orioles’ Albert Belle — receive significant media attention that distorts the shrinking number of black players.
In 1997, the year baseball celebrated the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s joining the Dodgers in Brooklyn, the Dodgers in Los Angeles had no black players.
But the problem isn’t confined to the major leagues. At the College World Series in Omaha this year, of almost 200 players, only 10 were African-Americans, with none serving as head coaches.
The Northeastern report says that 6.5 percent of the student-athletes playing baseball in Division 1 of the NCAA are African-American. The study adds that, in 1997, only six African-American coaches were leading 764 college baseball teams – a shocking 0.8 percent.
Nor is the issue confined to the playing field. It extends dramatically to attendance at major league games. The number of African-Americans watching baseball has seriously declined, a fact established with a simple eye test by anyone attending a big league game or watching one on television. Even if you think you’re “colorblind,” you cannot miss the obvious – few African-Americans are there. This is in dramatic contrast to the days when 25,000 African-Americans watched some of the great Negro League teams play, including the Baltimore Elite Giants and the Homestead Grays.
Why, 52 years after Jackie Robinson, should there be fewer African-Americans playing and watching baseball?
Some say the absence of African-Americans at major league games is a factor of economics; they cannot afford to attend. That reasoning borders on racial stereotyping and must be rejected. The issue isn’t economics. Baseball, of all major professional sports, remains the least expensive to watch. The issue for most African-Americans is one of choice rather than cost, a matter that baseball needs to acknowledge.
There is also this: Many gifted young African-American athletes play sports other than baseball, especially basketball and football. Northeastern University says that, in 1996-97, 78 percent of the athletes in the NBA were African-American. The corresponding figure in the NFL was 66 percent. These are significant statistics. They tell a story of young African-Americans succeeding in dramatic fashion away from the baseball diamond. That’s a positive development. It means these athletes have more opportunities to succeed.
But while more chances arise for African-Americans to play basketball and football, they have diminished where baseball is concerned. Baseball’s record of developing young African-American players, of providing them with opportunities to play, especially in our inner cities, is poor. The RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) program started by the major leagues is a laudable effort, but it needs to be vastly expanded and more extensively funded.
Other teams would do well to follow the example of the San Diego Padres, who are building 60 youth baseball fields. But, in hard truth, few major league owners are as generous as John Moores, the Padres’ owner – and even fewer understand the significance of the issue, not just as a baseball issue but as a societal issue.
The baseball talent pool among African-Americans is drying up. If you can’t put African-American players on the field, you won’t get African-Americans in the stands, which is more than a loss for baseball, it’s a profound loss for the integration of American society. And, most troubling of all, it tells us that 52 years after Branch Rickey did what no one else in the major leagues had either the integrity or moral courage to do – sign an African-American player – we’re still engaged in this debate.
With Leonard Coleman as president of the National League, there was hope that baseball, with Coleman’s gentle but firm pleadings, would remember its place in our history — as a sport that transcended a game and became a pivotal force in raising African-Americans’ hopes that one day, in a good and just society, because of a game the boys of summer play, they would truly be free at last.
Baseball must do more than redeem the legacy of Jackie Robinson, the legacy it celebrated two years ago. Baseball must honor the efforts of individuals such as Leonard Coleman and find the means to bring back to baseball those African-Americans who no longer consider the game relevant to their lives.