My obituary of Buck O’Neil. Most emotional piece I ever wrote. October 7, 2006.
In a Lincoln Town Car on the way home from a funeral, Buck O Neil said: “I don’t want people to be sad when I die. I ve lived a full life. Be sad for the kids who die.”
So this will not be a sad column, I hope.
Buck O Neil died Friday after a prolonged stay in a Kansas City hospital. He was 94 years old, almost 95. He lived a life for the ages. Buck used to say he had done it all — he hit the home run, he hit for the cycle, he traveled the world, he testified before Congress, he sang at the Baseball Hall of Fame, he made a hole-in-one in golf, he married the woman he loved, he shook hands with American presidents.
“And,” he always reminded people, “I hugged Hillary.”
Buck was the grandson of a slave. He grew up in Sarasota, Fla. — so far south, he used to say, that if he stepped backward he would have been a foreigner. He shined shoes. He worked in the celery fields. He could not attend Sarasota High because he was black.
“Damn,” he said on one particularly hot Florida day in those celery fields, “there’s got to be something better than this.”
“That may have been the first time I ever swore,” he would tell school kids across America. “But it was hot that day, children.”
The lesson of Buck’s story is that there is always something better — but he had to go out and get it. And he did. He played baseball. He was tall and had good reflexes. So he played first base, first for some semi-professional teams and then for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. That, he said, was the time of his life.
It was a time when black players were not welcome to play in the major leagues, a bitter time for many. But Buck O Neil did not know anything about bitterness. That was his gift. When others remembered Negro Leagues checks that bounced or playing fields with rocks on them, Buck O Neil remembered listening to hot jazz on Saturday nights — “Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Duke Ellington,” he used to say, as if there was magic in the names.
And more, he remembered playing baseball on warm Sunday afternoons with some of the best players who ever lived. He remembered playing with his friend Satchel Paige, the best pitcher he ever saw. Paige used to call him Nancy, and there’s a long story that goes along with that, a story Buck O Neil would tell 10,000 times in his long life. Suffice it to say, Satchel had a woman named Nancy, and he also had a fiancee named Lahoma, and once Lahoma heard Satchel knocking on another hotel door shouting, “Nancy! Nancy!”
Lahoma opened her door. And at that very same instant Buck opened his.
“Did you want something, Satchel?” Buck asked.
“Yes, Nancy,” Satchel said. “What time is the game tomorrow?”
“And,” Buck would say, “I ve been Nancy ever since.”
In those Negro Leagues days, Buck played baseball with Cool Papa Bell, who Buck said was so fast he once hit a line drive through a pitcher’s legs and got hit with the ball as he slid into second base. He played baseball with Turkey Stearnes, a hitter who used to carry his bats around in violin cases and talk to them after games. “Why didn’t you hit better?” he would ask them.
He played baseball with Josh Gibson, one of the great home run hitters who ever lived. Buck used to say that three times in his life he heard a different sound on a baseball field, a crack of the bat that sounded like dynamite. The first time, he was a young boy, and the hitter was Babe Ruth. The last time, he was an old man and a scout and the hitter was former Kansas City Royals star Bo Jackson.
The time in between was Josh Gibson.
Those baseball playing days burned brightly in Buck O Neil’s memory for the rest of his life. Buck was a pretty good player himself, a slick fielder and a fine hitter who once led the Negro Leagues in hitting. Toward the end of his playing days, he managed the Monarchs too. There, he ran across a shy young player from Texas who would sit in the back of the bus on those road trips and not say a word. Buck started to talk to him.
“Son,” he told Ernie Banks, “you ve got to love this game to play it.”
Ernie Banks would become perhaps the most joyful player in the major leagues. They called him “Mr. Cub” in Chicago. He hit 500 home runs. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was famous for saying, “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two.”
“I learned that from Buck O Neil,” Banks said.
By the time Buck O Neil managed in the Negro Leagues, things had changed. Jackie Robinson had broken through the color barrier, and many of the best African-American players were going to play in the minor leagues rather than the Negro Leagues. In 1955, the Chicago Cubs hired Buck to become a scout.
He became the first prominent black scout in the major leagues. His territory was the American South, and he spent most of his days around the historically black colleges. On those campuses, Buck O Neil was bigger than life. “Everybody knew Buck O Neil,” said Lou Brock, a Hall of Famer Buck signed. “You could see everybody on the bench pointing and whispering, There’s Mr. O Neil. There he is. ”
In 1962, he became the first African-American coach in the major leagues when the Cubs hired him. He was mostly responsible for working with the Cubs black players — Brock and Banks among them — and he never got the chance to work on the field as either a first- or third-base coach. This bothered him a bit — as much as anything ever bothered Buck. He went back to scouting after a year and signed numerous star players, though what he remembered most was the time he and a fellow scout, Piper Davis, were looking for a game in Louisiana. They found a field and some lights and saw two guys standing in front.
“Is this where the game is?” Buck asked.
“Oh yeah,” the guys said. “This is the game all right.”
They walked toward the field and noticed there were no baseball players on the field. Instead, they saw a crowd overflowing with people in white sheets. There was a man standing on a truck wearing the outfit of the Grand Wizard.
“Piper,” Buck said. “This ain’t no ballgame. Let’s get out of here.”
They raced back to the car, hit the gas, and drove wildly past the two guys, who were laughing hysterically. About 10 miles down the road, Buck and Piper started laughing too. And Buck never stopped.
“Hatred,” he always said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Buck loved telling Negro Leagues stories. For many years, he said, people didn’t want to listen. People seemed offended somehow when he told them that Negro Leaguer Oscar Charleston was as good as Ty Cobb or his friend Hilton Smith might have been as good as Bob Feller. He kept telling the stories because he thought it was important.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I think God may have kept me on this earth for a long time so I could bear witness to the Negro Leagues.”
In 1994, he broke through. He was discovered — at age 83 — by director Ken Burns, who gave him a starring role in his documentary “Baseball.” In it, Buck told the same stories he had been telling for more than 40 years, but now people listened. People laughed. People cried. And Buck became a celebrity. He appeared on television talk shows, and wrote an autobiography (“I Was Right on Time”) and traveled the country to tell his story.
Two years later, he had the second-greatest day of his life. The new and expanded Negro Leagues Baseball Museum opened up on the famous corner of 18th and Vine — the same corner where on those long ago Saturday nights, Buck would listen to that great jazz and talk about the baseball games to come. He had spent many of his later years trying to make the museum a reality. The opening touched his heart.
“We spend so much of our lives honoring the people who crossed the bridge,” Buck said. “Today we honor the people who built the bridge.”
One day later, Buck lost his wife of 51 years, Ora. He would lose many friends in the last 10 years of his life. But he did not allow that to stop him from loving life. He traveled America, and kept bearing witness for those Negro Leaguers who had been forgotten or ignored. I know. I traveled with him. Buck appeared at every charity function he could fit into his schedule. He signed every autograph. He hugged every woman and tossed baseballs to every kid he saw wearing a baseball glove. This year, at 94 years old, he played in the Northern League All-Star Game. He would not stop. He could not.
“Moving,” he said, “is the opposite of dying.”
He started to feel tired in August, shortly after returning home from the Baseball Hall of Fame. Buck had not been elected to the Hall of Fame — he fell one or two votes short in a special election — and this set off something of a national firestorm. But Buck said he would not let it get him down. Nothing got him down. And he went to Cooperstown and led everyone in song. A few days later, he checked into the hospital for a short stay. He got out and said that he would have to slow down. A couple of weeks later, he checked back in.
The last time I saw him, he sat in a hospital bed, and he looked thin, his beautiful voice was a rasp. His memory was still sharp, and he grabbed my hand, and he whispered: “You are my friend.” He deteriorated from there. Two weeks later he was gone.
But even though it’s late at night and I can hardly see the keyboard because of the tears, I know Buck would not have wanted any of us to cry. So, instead, I will relive once more his greatest day. I heard him tell it a hundred times. It was Easter Sunday, 1943, Memphis, Tenn. The Monarchs were playing the Memphis Red Sox. First time up, Buck hit a double. Second time, he hit a single. Third time, he hit it over the right-field fence. Fourth time up, he hit the ball to left field, it bounced off the wall, and Buck rounded the bases. He could have had an inside-the-park home run, but he stopped at third.
“You know why?” he always asked.
“You wanted the cycle,” I always said.
That night, he was in his room when a friend called him down to meet some schoolteachers who were in the hotel. Buck went down, saw a pretty young woman, and walked right up to her and said, “My name is Buck O’Neil. What’s yours?” It was Ora. They would be married for 51 years.
“That was my best day,” he said. “I hit for the cycle and I met my Ora.”
“It was a good day,” I said.
“It’s been a good life,” he said.