“He is wise, funny, self-deprecating and absolutely sure of what he wants from life. … He is, like Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson, what human progress is all about.”
— Ken Burns
If only Ken Burns’ seemingly endless documentary series “Baseball” had been that concise and precise. I haven’t watched my 18 hours of tapes since the programs first aired in 1994, but now I might have to take another peek with my finger hovering over the fast-forward button.
It was Burns, you’ll recall, who introduced Buck O’Neil to most fans. Buck’s frequently interspersed comments were the best thing about “Baseball.” OK, the old Negro League star was a chatterbox, but he chattered so entertainingly that you couldn’t get enough of him. The documentary made O’Neil a star — “I’m an overnight sensation at the age of 82,” he used to say — and he remained one until his death last week at 94.
I met him a few times and was just as rapt as anyone else as he spun his yarns, usually with considerable embellishment. I wish I had known him better, but that doesn’t really matter. If you loved baseball, you were Buck O’Neil’s friend.
When it came to being an ambassador for the game, O’Neil yielded to no man. Though he never played in the major leagues because of baseball’s unofficial and unconscionable color barrier before 1947, he didn’t let the bigots and bozos destroy his spirit and spunk. That would have been giving in, you see.
Even when the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee snubbed him earlier this year, inexplicably failing by one lousy vote to elect him, O’Neil showed no sign of bitterness toward his fellow members of the committee.
“Shed no tears for Buck,” he told reporters. “I couldn’t attend [then-all-white] Sarasota High School, and that hurt. But not going into the Hall of Fame, that ain’t going to hurt me that much, no. Before [integration], I wouldn’t even have had a chance, but this time I had that chance. Just keep loving old Buck.”
Was that really how O’Neil felt, or was he merely keeping a Stiff Upper Lip in public? That didn’t matter, because once again old Buck was saying life was too good to let little disappointments spoil his enjoyment.
In more than one sense, he represented a bridge between two distant eras in baseball and society. On the field, the old first baseman who had yukked it up with Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in the 1930s hung around long enough to bat in a minor league all-star game this summer — thus becoming by far the oldest man ever to play. Off the field, he suffered all the slings and arrows of outrageous segregation and lived long enough to see America become a land where every citizen could be truly free.
And along the way, he remained a gentle if fiercely competitive man who was happy to be alive and involved in the game he loved so.
O’Neil finally made the majors as the first black coach, with the Cubs in 1962. Properly he should have gotten there at least two decades earlier, but no public complaint escaped his lips. In fact, he cherished his time as a player and manager with the potent Kansas City Monarchs in what then was called black baseball.
“I can’t remember a time when I did not want to make my living in baseball,” he said in a 2003 interview. “God was very good to old Buck.”
From commissioner Bud Selig on down (or up?), tributes flowed in over the weekend. One of the most heartfelt came from Reggie Jackson: “He was a blessing for all of us. I believe that people like Buck and Rachel [Mrs. Jackie] Robinson and Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa are angels that walk on earth to give us a greater understanding of what it means to be human.”
In addition to giving O’Neil a posthumous pass into Cooperstown, how should baseball best honor this vibrant, caring man? Well, columnist Bryan Burwell had a pretty good suggestion in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Why not name the Hall of Fame’s Negro Leagues wing after him?
For certain, Buck O’Neil honored baseball, and let’s give him the final explanation why, as related in one of his interviews with Ken Burns:
“It’s a religion for me. … It’s a very beautiful thing because it taught me and teaches everybody else to live by the rules. … It can bring you up here, but don’t get too cocky. Because tomorrow it can bring you down there. … But one thing about it, though, you know there will always be a tomorrow.”