Sunday, October 08, 2006

Rest In Peace, Buck O'Neil

*****Buck O'Neil, 1911-2006*****

"This is not a sad story. It's a celebration!"

That is what Buck O'Neil would often say to people who would lament the fact that he and countless other baseball players, managers and officials were relegated to the Negro leagues in the segregated America of yore.

The same sentiment how should hold true as we say good-bye to Buck O'Neil, who died at age 94 Friday night.
Major league baseball and the world at large will say one last, loving farewell to Mr. O'Neil, the man who put the human face on an era and the leagues in which he played and managed.

Remembering O'Neil should be done in a way he would appreciate.

Honor the man who used an unending supply of grace to help a game and a nation come to terms with its disgrace of a past.

Emulate the man who never knew bitterness, self-pity or hate, but rather embraced this nation and its national pastime with all his heart and soul.

Allow the positive lesson to sink in that it is possible to find humanity in an institution, in a society despite both having kept countless Americans disenfranchised simply because of the color of their skin.

O'Neil, of a generation that saw the worse side of modern America's intolerance, found that humanity, and more. For that reason, alone, Buck O'Neil was right when he said he wasn't born too soon, but right on time.

Because while he was surely valued as a player, then longtime manager of the Kansas City Monarchs, O'Neil's greatest legacy will be how he proved to be the perfect interpreter of America's imperfect, painful past.

A walking, talking font of history, O'Neil put dimension, humanity and perspective into countless stories populated by the likes of Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Bob Feller.

The pictures he painted of the players of the 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond, be they white or black, big or small, were vivid. And the recounting of their trials and tribulations were touching, funny, revealing.

Most important, Buck O'Neil's recounting of the era in which all the greats lived, on one side or the other of the color line, did more than illuminate. It showed how to come to terms with what had been.

For who could fume about such history in front of a man who lived it yet still projected nothing other than goodness and compassion, patience, faith and, above all, forgiveness?

Just this summer, O'Neil showed, again, the amazingly forgivng heart held in his then-frail frame.
For he watched as baseball welcomed its largest - and likely last - class of Negro League luminaries into the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. While many in the baseball world were outraged and embarrassed that O'Neil was not allowed to join those 17 selected by a specially-appointed screening committee, O'Neil refused to fuel the fury.

Instead, he came to Cooperstown to welcome those bygone greats into a fraternity that never found a way to include him - much the way the game, itself, did not invite him in to play on the major-league stage.
By doing so, O'Neil showed once more a love of the game. And he used that love to coax an arguably unworthy sport through yet another pitifully awkward chapter.

No one who was there will ever forget that bright, sunny day in rustic New York when O'Neil showed us all how beautiful magnanimity can be.

"I want you to light this valley up today," said O'Neil told an enthralled audience of Hall of Famers, baseball execs, media and fans.

The audience did, especially when Buck O'Neil, part Southern black preacher, part performing artist, asked the audience to join hands and sing with him a repeated refrain:

"The greatest thing in the world is loving you."

Again and again, we all did sing. And how we loved the moment, and how we loved Buck O'Neil.
Hall of Famer? You'd better believe it, a million times over, forever and always,
in heaven as he was on earth.

6 comments:

Annette John-Hall said...

Beautiful tribute, Claire.

However, I'm still outraged that Buck wasn't induced in the Hall of Fame, allowing him to enjoy the accolades while he was still alive. A slight of the highest order.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written. Nice job.

Anonymous said...

Perfect sentiment. It is a crime and an outrage that Buck did not live to see his own induction, but after meeting him in Cooperstown over HOF weekend this year, I am assured that he was thrilled by the recognition of those whose achievements would have gone unnoticed had he not taught us (Effa Manley, Biz Mackey, etc.). I do feel lucky to have met him. Sleep peacefully, Buck.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the wonderful tribute. I had the immense pleasure of meeting Buck several years ago when he visited my wife's alma mater (a small liberal arts college in Nebraska) during their annual guest speaker week.

His stories were captivating, even to casual fans - traveling with Satchel Paige, hitting the town with Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, the origins of the famous "I can turn off the lights and be in bed before it gets dark" story, and offseason barnstorming exhibitions where Negro League players could square off against top Major Leaguers (including Ruth, Cobb, and others).

Rarely do I go to a baseball game, at any level, and not think of Buck O'Neil. For me his spirit, his life, and his passion absolutely embodied the wonderful and tragic aspects of the magnificent game.

While I agree that his exclusion from the HoF is shameful, the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City (which he was instrumental in creating and promoting) is one of the best museums I've visited and stands as an even greater tribute than a plaque in Cooperstown could.

Anonymous said...

The death of John "Buck" O'Neil last week illustrated the folly of the Hall Of Fame's Negro Leagues Committee voting last February. Now an American icon has gone to his grave without receiving his sport's ultimate tribute, election to the Baseball Hall Of Fame.
A Negro Leagues research committee had worked tirelessly for the past few years to give fans more accurate Negro Leagues statistics. The voters however became so enamoured of this new toy (stats) that they became the sole basis for election. Factors such as long range impact on the game or intangible qualities of a player were ignored.
The victims of this trend were the two living candidates, Mr. O'Neil and Minnie Minoso.
O'Neil excelled as a player and later as a player-manager in the last years where the Negro Leagues talent-level was still of a high-quality before the inroads of major leagues integration weakened it. He also broke ground as the first Black major leagues coach. He was also instrumental in the foundation of the Negro Leagues Museum and helped keep the memory of those leagues alive for half a century since his playing days ended in 1955.
Minoso, playing for the New York Cubans, Negro Leagues teams of the mid and late 40's, became the first Black Latino to successfully jump to the major leagues, thereby opening the game up to Black Latinos for the first time. He was a two-time Negro Leagues All-Star and later a seven-time major leagues All-Star, a successful transition between the leagues and styles of play of the black and "white" leagues, if there ever was one. That most of Minoso's best years in the big leagues came in his 30's, because the start of his major leagues career was delayed by the restrictions of the racial barrier is a tribute to his enormous athletic abilities. He was only the eighth black overall to play in the big leagues and discrimination and insults of taunting racist fans on the road were daily facts of life for Minoso. His sparkling play and upbeat personality won even most of these racists over and Minoso's "positivity" helped defuse racial tension.
Considering the Black Latinos who have enjoyed Hall Of Fame careers since Minoso and the high percentage of Latinos of Color in the major leagues today, many of which are all-stars and future HOFers, it is ironic that Minoso remains out of the Hall, because those Black Latinos enjoying the riches and benefits of a major leagues career today, would never have been given the opportunity if Minoso hadn't helped Jackie Robinson and others kick down racism's door nearly six decades ago.
The fate of O'Neil, of not being inducted to the Hall Of Fame in his lifetime, should not be allowed to befall Minoso, who turns 84 next month, as Hall Of Fame officials must hold a second special Negro Leagues election or find some other mechanism where these two greats, Buck O'Neil and Minnie Minoso, can take their rightful places in Cooperstown.
Dennis Orlandini
Irvington, NJ

Alan Uhl said...

My Cheltenham High School class of '45 classmate, Buck Shelton, mailed me your beautiful piece about Buck O'Neil. Out here in the Kansas City area Buck was an icon, a treasure and we all realized how lucky we were to have him. Thank you so much.