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.
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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.