By In Stuff

The Buck O’Neil Award

My good friend Sam Mellinger wrote a column today for The Kansas City Star about the Baseball Hall of Fame giving the first Buck O’Neil award to Roland Hemond. Sam’s point is that while Hemond is a perfectly fine choice, he’s not a sexy choice, not a show-stopping choice, and that is a disappointment.

I’m very proud of Sam. I’ve known him since he was a kid in this business, and I’ve watched him grow throughout his life as as a journalist and as a person, and I could not be happier or prouder that he is writing my old column at The Kansas CIty Star.

I could not disagree with him more.

* * *

When Buck O’Neil died — and we’re closing in on five years ago now — there were people who believed he died with a broken heart. My own thought is that everybody who thought that got it wrong. Buck died of old age — he was almost 95 years old when he passed away in October of 2006. And the life he lived, the pain he overcame, the barriers he burst through, the joy he expressed for people and life and baseball, believe me when I tell you that you could not break that beautiful man’s heart.

The reason people thought he died with sadness is because seven months earlier a special committee did not vote him for the Hall of Fame. There’s no question that it stung Buck a bit. His accomplishments as a player (a Negro Leagues batting champion), a manager (his Kansas City Monarchs teams were the best in Negro Leagues baseball multiple times), a coach (he was the first African American coach in baseball), a scout (signed Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Joe Carter, Lee Smith among other) and a celebrator of the game (impossible to sum up) were well known. Everyone had seemed so sure that the committee would honor him — and I have little doubt that was the Hall of Fame’s intention when they formed the committee — and the no vote on that day in February when 17 others were elected came as a jolt. I was there. I saw it.

He handled it with dignity, of course. He was quiet for a little while. And then, just minutes after that, he started wondering if he might be asked to introduce the 16 dead men and one dead woman who were elected. And when I asked him why he would consider doing that — indeed, he DID introduce them in Cooperstown in one of his his last public appearances — he said to me words that still echo in my head: “Son, what has my life been about?”

What was Buck’s life about? It was about baseball, of course. It was about love. It was about faith. It was about honoring those who, in their own small ways, had helped changed the world. And it was about doing his best to make sure people did not forget. Again and again, across the country, he would tell people small stories about Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston and many others. He would talk about the pulse of neighborhoods in black communities in the 1930s and 1940s, with jazz playing on neon-lit Saturday nights and baseball on brilliantly bright Sunday afternoons.

“And,” he would always say, “we could play.”

There’s no question the Hall of Fame vote stung him a bit, but I think people always assumed it hurt him much more than it did. After a little while, it seemed to embarrass him when people wandered over to tell him how much he deserved to go to the Hall of Fame. He had suffered countless and infinitely bigger disappointments in his life — he was not allowed to attend the white high school, not given a chance to play baseball in the Major Leagues, not even allowed to coach on the field with the Chicago Cubs — and these left no mark on his sense of hope, his exuberance for life, his optimism for the future, his love of people. If you just showed up at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, there was a good chance he’d be there, and he would say: “How would you like a tour?” And then he would take you around, tell you some stories, leave you feeling like the most important person in the world. And then he would hug you. And suddenly you had a day you would never forget for the rest of your life. Which, I think, was the point.

I tell you a bit about Buck O’Neil because after he died people lined up to honor him. More than a million dollars was raised for the “Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center.” Months later, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush. Not too long after that, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced that they would build a statue in his honor. And they announced that on occasion, they would give out a new award they called “The Buck O’Neil Award,” for “distinguished achievement and extraordinary efforts to enhance the game’s positive impact on society.”

Of course, I desperately wanted Buck to be elected into the Hall of Fame while he was alive. The snubbing undoubtedly hurt me more than it hurt him because Buck was my friend and because, of course, I do not have Buck’s strength of character. That said, when he died I sincerely hoped that the Hall of Fame would not posthumously induct him into the Hall. I thought in some ways that would have been an insult to what the man’s ideals and principles — it would have smacked of pity and regret, two things that Buck had no use for.

But when they announced the Buck O’Neil Award, well, I thought the Hall of Fame got it exactly right. They got it perfect. Son, what has my life been about? Here they would have a chance to honor all those people in baseball who have not been honored, all those people who have helped make baseball fantastic and joyful but have not been celebrated and not been inducted into the Hall of Fame. It seemed to me that this was EXACTLY the way to honor Buck’s memory.

Then … I waited. The Hall of Fame did not give out the award that first year, or the second year, or the third year. I started to wonder if they had forgotten all about it. But I was told by some people that they wanted to wait until 2011 to give out the first one. Buck would have turned 100 this year.

Tuesday, they gave the first Buck O’Neil Award to longtime scout and executive Roland Hemond. And it was an utterly beautiful choice. Hemond has been in baseball for 60 years, and he has breathed life and triumph and delight into the game for all those years. The danger of talking about people like Hemond — and Buck, for that matter — is that a list of accomplishments can come off as cold and impersonal and unconvincing. Hemond was one of the creators of the Arizona Fall League. He helped build the expansion California Angels (then the Los Angeles Angels) and Arizona Diamondbacks. He has been a lifelong advocate for scouts (scouting was always so close to Buck’s heart), and he was a lifelong advocate for giving minorities opportunities in the game, and he was named executive of the year a couple of times, and many, many other things. He was a huge influence on some pretty great baseball people. He hired a young Tony La Russa, a young Jim Leyland, a young Walt Jocketty, a young Dave Dombrowski, and so many others.

But maybe the best way to describe Roland Hemond is to tell the story of when Bill Veeck bought the Chicago White Sox. Hemond was the general manager, and Veeck told him he needed to “let your imagination run.” Many other owners and managers will tell their people to think out of the box, but with Veeck you know that when he said think of out of the box, he meant WAY out of the box.

So when Hemond showed up at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Florida — site of the Winter Meetings — and took one look at the lobby, his imagination took hold. He rushed to see Veeck and said: “What if we grab a table and put up a sign that says ‘Open for Business?'”

Of course Veeck loved it. And they did it — had a table right in the middle of the lobby, with that sign on it, and open chairs for any general manager who wanted to sit down. They made four trades in a flurry of an afternoon — a couple right at the deadline — and no one who was there that day will ever forget it.

Does a fun story like that tell you how much Roland Hemond did for baseball? Of course not. But it might tell you a little bit about the man, how he embraced the game, how he thought it was supposed to be fun and wild and unconventional and full of spirit. Some of the teams he ran played very well. Some of the players he helped discover turned into big stars. Some of the stands he took helped people in baseball who might otherwise have been overlooked. And there’s no counting how many people he made happy with his presence and story telling and exuberance. There are few who have given so much of themselves to the game. Yes, in my mind, Roland Hemond was exactly the right choice for the first Buck O’Neil Award.

The other argument is that the award should have gone to someone more famous, more iconic — Hank Aaron or Ernie Banks or Joe Morgan or someone like that? To be blunt about it, the award would have lost meaning for me if the Hall of Fame had gone in that direction. We all know of those men’s greatness. What is another award thrown on top of the pile of awards already given to those men? If they had given the Buck O’Neil award to someone already in the Hall of Fame, it would have been just another award, another honorary doctorate, a nice honor to accept, and smile for the cameras, and give a pleasant little speech about (“I can’t tell you how much this award means to me”) … just like a thousand other nice honors.

Roland Hemond broke down in tears when he won the award. That’s what the award should be about. That, I think, is what Buck O’Neil’s life was about — it was about not letting wonderful moments and wonderful people drift away unremembered.

Buck always wanted to tell people the story of Oscar Charleston. I heard him talk about Oscar Charleston dozens of times. He always said that while Willie Mays was the greatest Major League player he ever saw, Charleston was simply the greatest player he ever saw. He said Charleston could hit you 50 home runs, steal you 50 bases, run down every fly ball hit, and he had a bit of a mean streak too. He was going to beat you every way you could be beaten.

There were people who thought Buck told Oscar Charleston stories again and again to honor Oscar Charleston. But as I look back on Buck’s life, I don’t think that’s quite right. Oscar Charleston was dead a long time by then. No, I think Buck told those stories to honor … us. He thought WE should know about Oscar Charleston. He thought knowing that such a great baseball player once roamed the outfields of the world would make OUR lives a little bit richer, a little bit fuller, a little bit more colorful. That to me should be — and I think is — the spirit of the Buck O’Neil Award. I expect for the next few months people will share many Roland Hemond stories that most of us have never heard before. I expect Roland himself might share a few. And we’ll all be richer for hearing them.

And that, I think, I hope, I believe, is what Buck O’Neil’s life was about.

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39 Responses to The Buck O’Neil Award

  1. Erik says:

    Incredible as always.

  2. melodyjbf says:

    I love when you write about Buck O’Neil, Joe. You and he were a wonderful writer-subject team. The love you feel for him comes right though. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  3. Nicholas says:

    Fantastic post; a good reminder that there’s more to baseball than stats and camera-friendliness.

  4. David says:

    Thanks, Joe. Beautiful. It’s a shame that all of us didn’t have the chance to meet Buck. And I’m glad he’ll live on through the award.

  5. Charlie says:

    Love the idea of this Buck O’Neil Award. But it needs a nickname a la “Oscar” or “Emmy.”

    I hereby nominate “Nancy” as the official nickname for the Buck O’Neil Award.

  6. MattD says:

    Damn, Joe. Anyone ever tell you that you can write a little?

    Did you put all the Buck O’Neil stories in that book? There must be more – do you have another Buck book in you?

  7. greg says:

    I love that he called you son
    your relationship is special for sure but I really love that you make us all feel like we are all one of his children, that he loves and cares for all as such
    always good and sometimes beautiful is the Poz, going thru some s**t with mine right now, love when you write about fathers and sons
    maybe turn him on to your writing but he reads science fiction and text books, who really knows what reaches him, Poz touches me, has for years, the writing feels like an old friend almost daily
    much love and thanks from Taiwan
    Greg Elle

  8. David in NYC says:

    “No, I think Buck told those stories to honor … us. He thought WE should know about Oscar Charleston. He thought knowing that such a great baseball player once roamed the outfields of the world would make OUR lives a little bit richer, a little bit fuller, a little bit more colorful.”

    I think you hit the proverbial nail right on its proverbial head.

    I had the great fortune (and it really was just dumb luck) to ride one of the “official” buses from the hotel to Comiskey Park during the 1983 All-Star Game festivities (big deal because it was the 50th anniversary of the first ASG); IIRC, it was on the way to the Old-Timers game on the afternoon of the actual All-Star Game.

    I say “great fortune” because I happened to be on the same bus as Buck O’Neil — who regaled the entire bus for the entire trip with his stories. Aside from the coolness factor (“Hey, I’m on this bus listening to Buck O’Neil!”), there was just something else about that ride that was special. I’ve never been able to adequately explain how I felt to anyone I have told this story.

    Well, Joe, thanks to you, I now know how to explain what was so special. You may have been lucky to have Buck as a subject for your first book; he was just as lucky to have you to write about him.

  9. Laszlo says:

    Boy, I was really ticked off by Sam Mellinger’s column today. He deserves a Posnanski tongue lashing, even if it comes in the form of “I love you buddy, but…”
    The column was poorly reasoned, contradicted itself, and ultimately had nothing more to say except “Sam Mellinger doesn’t know who Roland Hemond is.” I guess some days you have to write a column even when you don’t have anything insightful to say.
    Maybe Mellinger will read your post and learn a little about Hemond.

  10. NMark W says:

    Great column, Joe.

    While it is a travesty that Buck is not an actual member of MLB’s HOF, that fact is now seemingly making his career, his love for humanity and everything that was Buck O”Neil that much more significant.

    I’m with you, never let the HOF induct him posthumously unless he’s the ONLY inductee for that year.

  11. Carl says:

    Roland Hemond is one of the sweetest, most decent people to ever be associated with major league baseball. I still regret the day in 1985 when Jerry Reinsdorf shunted him aside for Hawk Harrelson.

    It means a lot to know that younger baseball men value Hemond’s expertise today. Like Buck O’Neil, he is more than happy to continue contributing to this game he loves.

  12. Kansas City says:

    Agree completely with NMark W.

    Love Joe. And a very well written and entertaining post as always.

    BUT, Joe missed the obvious point of Sam’s excellent column. It was not that “Sam’s point is that while Hemond is a perfectly fine choice, he’s not a sexy choice, not a show-stopping choice, and that is a disappointment.”

    Sam obviously argued for the choice of a deserving Black person, who could best honor and stimulate support for one of the big loves of Buck’s life – the Negro League Museum.

    I think race premised selections/decisions are almost always bad for America in 2011, but this might be the very rare exception where making sure the pick was black would be a good thing. It is a hard call, and the truth is that both Hemond and, for example, Ernie Banks would have been very good choices. But in this case, I think Ernie Banks who in some ways is the successor to Buck would have been a better choice.

    Of course, if Hemond is half the man that Joe and others say, he likely will make it a beautiful day when he accepts the award and accomplish much of what Mellinger suggests would have been accomplished with the selection of a black. And, they can pick Ernie Banks next year.

    As an aside, it appears the issue of race is still so controversial that neither Joe nor any of the comments thus far were willing to recognize that as the issue. Buck was a non-racial person who made vast contributions to improving our country on the issue of race. I think Mellinger wants the award to continue that part of Buck’s work. Ernie Banks would have been a great first choice.

  13. Michael E. says:

    Well, an Ernie Banks selection might have made everyone feel good, and he is a nice guy, he really doesn’t have the track record of involvement that warrants his selection. After retiring from the Cubs, he really hasn’t been involved in baseball stuff, in the Cubs front office, or in the greater Chicago community.
    And if Mellinger was arguing that the choice should have been black, he should have said so straight out and not mealy-mouth around the edges with wafer-thin arguments.

  14. Kansas City says:

    God, look at who Sam suggested should have received the award. He obviously was suggesting a deserving black choice to help support the Negro League Museum. One might argue that Buck transcended race so Mellinger is wrong, but there is nothing mealy-mouth or wafer-thin about his arguments.

  15. JH says:

    Joe, just about everything you write is great, but you really turn it up to 11 when you write about Buck O’Neil. Thanks for another great one!

  16. There was once a man who rescued me from a crocodile attack when I was on fire. The only man I hold in higher esteem is Buck O’Neil.

    +1 Joe

  17. Briefly wondered what the new intern would think if I just started crying at my desk. Wonderful stuff Joe. Buck couldn’t have asked for a better carrier of his message.

  18. Frankie B says:

    @Charlie hit it on the head. I love it: The Nancy.

    And of course, Joe, you knocked it out of the park, as usual.

  19. s says:

    Joe is a 15 WAR writer.

  20. David in NYC says:

    @s —

    On his bad days.

  21. Kansas City says:

    What a love fest for a guy who, this time, missed Sam’s point about how there could have been a better selection to help support one of the loves of Buck’s life – the Negro League Museum. Oh well, Joe has earned his royal status, and he certainly writes beautifully about Buck.

  22. Charlie says:

    Thanks for the nod @Frankie B. We should make this a campaign: The Nancys.

    I assume most here know that story, but on the off chance one does not, google “Buck O’Neil Nancy” for another good one.

  23. KenWo4liFe says:

    roland hemond is one of the most genuine people i have ever met. he always attends soxfest and tells a ton of stories- some of which i’ve heard multiple times… but its always an honor to hear them. he is so touched that the sox won both games 3 and 4 on his birthday in 2005 (if you remember game 3 went past midnight). great guy.

  24. Jon says:

    How do they name a lifetime achievement award after the guy, and not elect him into the Hall? Bunch of hypocrites, says I.

  25. Captain says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more – did not understand Sam’s column at all – it seemed he was trying to drive to a different legacy than the one Buck wanted.

    Glad I’m not the only one who thought so.

  26. jeremykane0 says:

    In the summer when I was eight years old my family took a road trip vacation across much of the country. I was a big baseball fan after having seen the Ken Burns baseball documentary. The thing I remember most about that trip was our stop by the Negro League Museum. On my way through the museum I ran into Buck O’Neil giving a personal tour to some friends. He let me join the tour and get firsthand accounts of his life in baseball and love for the game. It was a remarkable experience for a child, made possible by a remarkable man.

  27. Michael E. says:

    If Mellinger had stated that he believed a prominent black ball player should have gotten the award, he should have said so. he named candidates who were black, but didn’t say the award should be connected to their skin color. That is dodging the issue. If that’s what he believes, he should say that directly. Instead he strains to puff up their “do-good” credentials with run-of-mill stuff in an effort to show that their contributions are comparable to Hemond’s. And he implies that by picking Hemond, the Hall has somehow disrespected Kansas City. That is asinine.

  28. KHAZAD says:

    I love it when you write about Buck.

    In a person’s lifetime, there are very few people you meet that are such good, genuine people that you are actually a little bit shocked by it, and you wonder why you are not a better person yourself. For me, I can count them on one hand, and Buck O’Neil was one of them.

  29. As long as there are bats and balls, Buck O’Neil will be remembered as the best voice in a great documentary about the game, as a welcoming statue at Cooperstown, for this award named in his honor, and as the subject for a terrific book by Joe Posnanski.

  30. xing says:

    It seems that SMellinger wanted the award to go to someone tied to Buck and to honor Buck himself. Pos’s point is that that’s not want Buck would have wanted. I don’t think Pos missed SMellinger’s point at all; he’s gentlely mocking it for being too superficial (as his columns tend to be).

  31. NMark W says:

    I have been thinking more about the Sam Mellinger column and Joe’s response and then very much enjoyed reading the many wonderful BR comments.

    I think Michael E. above has it about right. Does Mellinger want this award to go to a prominent black player (he only named black players in his suggested list) in order to help or better draw attention to the Negro League Museum in Kansas City? From what I’m learning about Buck O’Neil and Roland Hemond, that stance of Mellinger’s totally misses the point of the award and about who Buck O’Neil was and the kind of character Roland Hemond has shown as a complete baseball guy. Can we finally get past this asinine skin color test when a person’s life is examined or compared?

    One final thought…I’m willing to bet that Roland Hemond might be the best thing that could have happened for the Negro League Museum. Hemond is almost certainly aware of the small “racial controversy” that his selection has created and if he isn’t then I’ll bet Joe Pos will be informing him soon. Let’s see what Roland then does with that information. I can see him doing more to help the struggling museum in the coming months and years than a long ago retired ballplayer with no ties to Kansas City ever could. If Hemond is as honored as is reported for being named the first recipient of The Buck O’Neil Award and if Hemond is still the baseball character man that he has been all of his adult life, he could create more buzz about the museum and the one and only Buck O’Neil than Sam Mellinger could ever imagine. Let’s wait and see what happens in the coming months. I don’t live in or near KC so keep us informed Joe and you other BRs from that area.

  32. Jason says:

    Amazing article Joe, I love when you talk about Buck.

    As far as the award goes, if the award is meant to honor a man who transcended race, then the award should to.

    That said I have no issue with the selection. I also approve of the lag time between the establishment of the award and it being awarded. I would like to see it be given, not on a yearly basis but when necessary. Buck O’Neil was a once in a generation person, the award should honor similar people and, obviously, they don’t come around that often.

  33. Dorasaga says:

    Dear Mr. Posnanski,

    I get your point, agreed, but, I am still skeptical of giving to a Major League executive such an award that honors those “who broadened the game’s appeal and whose character, integrity and dignity is comparable” to a Buck who loved you, who loved people, regardless of race, wherever you are from.

    It’s people who loves “People.”

    Who are upper management, the VPs and owners in Major League, or any pro. sports? Win-driven? or Profit-driven?

    Major League owners and high executives are the sugar-coated version of Enron and Donald Trump. Smart, vicious, and all those things that make them powerful and successful at first place.

    Why isn’t Curt Flood deserving for the award, or someone like him, say that lawyer who helped put the Player’s Association to its foot?

    Or one of the ladies from the Women’s Baseball teams, AAGPBL, who still served her community?

    I don’t know, I’m just skeptical about this whole deal. It might be dangerous for the public to buy that Cooperstown helping baseball, rather than down-to-earth, but by making rich and powerful people famous, glorified, and suddenly, more of “us” like the AAGPBL or Curt Flood or the lawyer kind who protected labor rights, as I mentioned, will be forgotten.

  34. NMark W says:

    @Dorasaga – Perhaps you need to widen your view of people connected to professional baseball who “work for a living”. It’s not just ballplayers, union lawyers and the like that you seem to hold in such esteem. If you don’t accept the idea that someone in “upper management” (your term) cannot possibly be a wonderful human being of the utmost integrity who worked and dedicated their entire adult life to the game of baseball then I guess you’ll never accept the idea that a man of Roland Hemond’s character is even humanly possible. That’s actually very sad. Take off your blinders – There are genuine people of the highest integrity in all walks of life and Buck O’Neil must have accepted that fact very early in his life for him to have become the incomparable fellow with the incredibly positive attitude that Joe Pos describes so wonderfully. Sure, then there are also people all over the globe doing all manner of things who wouldn’t pass the smell test. Put some trust in Joe’s integrity and knowledge when it comes to MLB character types as well as some other commenters of this post. Roland Hemond is a superb choice for this award.

    To suggest that Hemond can’t possibly be considered because he must have been or still is a vicious and devious man if he was a successful MLB executive makes my head hurt. Maybe you need to take your head out of your backside and/or not comment on subjects you know so little
    about. Oh, the union lawyer that you might be speaking of…Was it Marvin Miller? Mr. Miller certainly belongs in Cooperstown, no question, but to suggest that his history as the most powerful leader of the MLB Players Association somehow equates with the character of Buck O’Neil is just laughable. Oh by the way, many would also say that Mr. Miller The Lawyer was quite a “smart, vicious, and win-driven man” himself. Now how can that be possible for a man who protected labor rights?

  35. Dorasaga says:

    NMark W,

    You completely looked the other way. Had I made a single criticism of Hemond or his achievement? No.

    What I was saying is that higher management are already successful and popular, beyond their peers. Maybe not all earned global or national attention, but I know business. I have a family business that goes three generations, and we meet A LOT of rich and powerful people.

    More than not, high management are there due to a lot of reasons.

    Furthermore, I don’t like how you speak AGAINST Miller. How can his character be described as “laughable”?

    I didn’t even say who SHOULD receive an award. I want people to know that BEYOND the upper management and the high profile people, there are still good characters “underrated.”

    Won’t you say Curt Flood is still underrated? The guy had a clear mind and he was an established artist, for crying out loud. He left us a heritage of popular portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr., just as an example.

    Watch out whom you are pointing your fingers to. I hope you are poking with intentional venom.

  36. bree says:

    it brings me back in time.!!!!!!!!!!!

  37. […] elected the final 17 Negro Leaguers to Cooperstown in 2006. (Outrageously, the committee omitted Buck O’Neil; I suggest reading Joe Posnanski‘s The Soul of Baseball to fully appreciate why […]

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