By In Stuff

The Room Where It Happened

KANSAS CITY — Not that it matters much, but I don’t believe that I’ve been in this room for 10 years. It’s smaller than I remember.

Ten years. It seems impossible that much time has gone by. But calendars reject sentiment. Ten years ago today, Buck O’Neil died. He was 94 years old. He was a month away from 95. He had been sick for two months. Somehow, it still felt sudden.

And here we are, sitting in a small conference room on the second floor of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and this was the place where Buck O’Neil taught his enduring lesson of grace. There is something jolting about sitting in here today.

Buck O’Neil was a fine baseball player in the Negro Leagues — a good fielding first baseman who cracked enough line drives that he won one batting title and just missed a second. Buck was a tremendous Negro Leagues manager, respected and admired and beloved. Buck was a pioneering Major League scout; he signed Lou Brock and Joe Carter and Lee Smith and Oscar Gamble and, for all intents and purposes, Ernie Banks. He was Banks’ first professional manager and the man who facilitated Mr. Cub’s journey to the Chicago Cubs. More than any of that, Buck was Ernie Banks’ inspiration.

“Let’s play two,” Ernie Banks would say many times. “That was Buck O’Neil.”

Buck was the first African-American coach in the Major Leagues. He was the force behind the building of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He was the game’s ultimate storyteller, the conscience of the sport, the keeper of the Negro Leagues flame. And more than any of that, he was the most big-hearted person I’ve ever known.

All of this led to that day, February 27, 2006, the day Buck O’Neil was going to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I wrote a little something about that day already but being in this room, the room we were sitting when Buck found out that he did not get enough Hall of Fame votes, makes me think of something a little bit different.

That year, I was writing the book “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.” It was my first book, and I had no idea how to do one. I kept doing these crazy outlines to map it out. I’d take out colored markers and draw all these lines. I’d take index cards and put them in dizzying shapes. I kept drawing arrows and thought bubbles. It goes without saying that I was getting nowhere.

But one thing I knew: Buck O’Neil getting into the Hall of Fame was the big finish. That was the crescendo. When the movie version of the book came out (starring Morgan Freeman!), when the Broadway show came out (still pitching Lin Manuel-Miranda) it would end with sweeping music, with Buck O’Neil on that stage in Cooperstown, with Buck singing his theme song (“The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you!”) and everyone singing along, and this wonderful man finally getting his due. It had to end that way.

Then, of course, it didn’t. No, I was sitting in that chair over there, to the left, and Buck was sitting 10 feet away from me against the far wall, and Bob Kendrick — now President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum — looked ashen as he said, “Buck, we didn’t get the votes.”

And Buck did this little shudder. It was tiny, barely noticeable, lasted  a tenth of a second, if that. I often try to shake that shudder from my mind. Then he quickly said, “Well, that’s how the cookie crumbles.”

I was so angry. A part of me wants to be angry again as I return to this room. It was just so WRONG. This man had lived the greatest baseball life the world had allowed him. Could he have been a big Major League Baseball star? We’ll never know. Could he have been Casey Stengel as a manager? We’ll never know. What we do know is that he had played with heart and managed with soul and dedicated himself to finding the next baseball stars, to bringing new fans into this sport he loved more than anything, to be sure that great players cheated by history were never forgotten.

And even at the end, at the very end, they told him he wasn’t good enough.

The anger subsided. Buck made sure of that. Barely two minutes after being told he was not voted into the Hall of Fame, he said that he would be willing — honored, even — to speak on behalf of the 17 deceased Negro Leaguers who were elected. I was shocked.

“You’d do that?” I asked him.

“Son,” he said, “what has my life been about?”

Two days after that, he called me and asked me to write a column thanking everyone for their support. “I never felt more loved,” he said. And I realized, more slowly than I should have, that this man didn’t need the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame needed him.

And the Hall of Fame has embraced Buck. There’s a statue of him inside the museum. The Buck O’Neil Award, given to people around baseball who embody his spirit, is given out every other year. And along the way Buck O’Neil received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, numerous other awards. Thursday, on the 10th anniversary of his death, Kansas City’s Broadway Bridge — one of the iconic structures in town — was renamed the John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil Bridge. It was touching and fitting. Buck O’Neil often talked about bridges. He used to say that we often honor the people who cross that bridge — Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso and so on.

And we don’t often enough honor those who built the bridge.

But even after I realized that Buck’s Hall of Fame snub was no tragedy — and it had no impact on his grand life — there was still a matter of how to end my first book. I no longer had that stirring, Disneyesque final scene. I thought about ending it with his beautiful Hall of Fame speech for the 17 dead, a testament to his spirit. I thought about ending it with one of my favorite Buck O’Neil stories, the red dress story or the Nancy story or the Billy Williams story or … there are a million.

In the end, unfortunately, there was only one way to finish the book. On  October 6, 2006, we bought a new piano. Our oldest daughter was 4 then, our youngest was just 1, and we wanted them to grow up in a house of music. That night, I was pressing piano keys in some tuneless melody when the phone rang. Buck was gone.

And I ended the book like so.

Buck lasted a week longer than friends and doctors expected. Buck O’Neil died that October night I was trying to play jazz on a shiny new black piano. Baseball and jazz, he had always said, were the two best things in the world. Of course, I was just plinking keys on a piano. I wasn’t really playing jazz.

“It’s all jazz,” Buck had said.

Buck was ninety-four years old, almost ninety-five. He asked me not to cry when he died, but I did anyway.

Ten years. I still think about Buck O’Neil at least once every single day.

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39 Responses to The Room Where It Happened

  1. Stephen says:

    Thank you for this.

  2. invitro says:

    I still haven’t read The Soul of Baseball, the only one of Joe’s books I haven’t read, but he convinced me a long time ago. It’s good to know that Kansas City has honored Buck about as well as he can be honored. Maybe one day there will be a Posnanski Bridge, too.

  3. Bob Peterson says:

    It can’t be that long ago! And tomorrow, it will be twenty years, time has a way of slipping by. I only met him a few times, but THERE is a man who left a legacy.

  4. PhilM says:

    One of the best things Joe has done to honor Buck’s memory is to spread his story. I miss Buck, too: yet I never met him. But although I never had the pleasure of knowing him, I know ABOUT him and all that he achieved and stood for thanks to the efforts of Joe and others like him who will never let his memory die. Hard to believe it’s been a decade: time does march on, relentlessly. So let’s recall Ernie and Buck and play two!

  5. Larry Schmitt says:

    The Hall of Fame is not just about statistics, it’s also about making contributions to baseball. Managers who barely played, or played badly, and executives who never played, are in. Buck should have been voted in, no doubt about it.

    • invitro says:

      The main crime is that while Buck was alive, the 17 who were elected were dead, and most of them were completely unknown to almost all baseball fans, unlike Buck. Indeed, I think at least half of them had no business being anywhere near the Hall of Fame. I’m curious how many of the 17 the readers of this article could name right now.

      • Not Jennifer Gibbs says:

        Effa Manley is the only person whom I remember getting elected through that ballot. I am familiar with several others who were elected then (e.g., Willard Brown, Biz Mackey, Cum Posey, Mules Suttles, Cristobal Torriente), but I didn’t remember that they were elected on that ballot without looking it up.

  6. Not Jennifer Gibbs says:

    Has there ever been an explanation as to what happened with the Hall of Fame vote? At the time, I thought that the special election was being done as a way to get Buck O’Neil in the Hall, so I was shocked that he didn’t get elected. Since then, I’ve never heard or read a detailed explanation as to why the committee didn’t elect him.

    • MikeN says:

      Could it be they resented him?

      • Rob Smith says:

        I think it was a sense that Buck was a great guy, a very good player, and obviously contributed in many ways to the history and the game of baseball… but not necessarily at the top of the talent heap. A Hall of Very Good player in the current vernacular. Negro league statistics are pretty spotty, but what comes across is that Buck didn’t have a lot of power, nor did he hit for more than a respectable average as a good fielding 1st baseman. I’m not saying I agree. But I believe that’s the rationale. I personally think Buck’s contributions to the game far outweigh his playing day contributions. He was the voice of a generation of negro league players that were not around nearly as long as he was to recount the stories. He wasn’t just telling stories either since he was actually there.

        • Not Jennifer Gibbs says:

          That’s a reasonable theory, but it doesn’t account for the fact that about 1/3 of those elected in that election were not elected for their playing abilities or on-field exploits but were elected for their contributions to the game. I don’t understand why the committee would elect an owner or “pioneer” for his/her contributions to the game but at the same time fail to elect Buck O’Neil for his contributions. Can we really say with any certainty that Sol White was so demonstrably better than Buck O’Neill as a player that one deserves enshrinement but the other doesn’t?

          So we’re clear: I realize that you are not advocating for the committee or its actions and that you’re just trying to come up with a reason why something happened.

  7. Robert says:

    I hope I live long enough to earn a friend like Joe.

  8. Alan says:

    Thanks, Joe. I have the book you signed, “It’s all jazz!” I’m glad this world has Buck O’Neil and Buck O’Neil stories to hear. Also, I’m glad this world has Joe Posnanski and Joe Posnanski to tell these stories.

  9. John Autin says:

    Buck was my bridge to Joe. Bridges run both ways, y’know.

    The HOF vote was the wrong outcome for real life, but the right one for great art — like Rocky losing the first fight with Creed. And Buck’s measured response — “Son, what has my life been about?” — moves me like the voiceover quote at the end of “Gandhi”: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won….”

    Compassion, and faith in humanity, are the greatest challenges. We cherish exemplars like Buck. And writers like Joe.

    • MikeN says:

      Gsndhi’s quote sounds quite naive, except maybe he is saying that history and thus truth is written by the victors.

      • invitro says:

        You know who had the most truth and love of anyone in history? Timur the Lame.

      • John Autin says:

        I shortened the quote in the interest of brevity. The full quote is:
        “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.”
        You can call that optimistic, but not naive.

        • MikeN says:

          I was thinking of that quote when I wrote it. Richard Grenier replied
          “not being a Hindu and not expecting reincarnation after reincarnation, I am simply not prepared to wait them out. ”
          What comfort is it to North Koreans who have been under one ruling family for seventy years?

          • invitro says:

            I don’t think it’s legal for North Koreans to know who Gandhi is.

          • MikeN says:

            No, they absolutely want their subjects to follow Gandhi.
            If Gandhi had been anywhere else but a subject of the British Empire, his statements would be a footnote in history, as the tyrants would have killed him shortly after he spoke of how they would eventually fall.

          • invitro says:

            Interesting viewpoint, and I think mostly correct.

          • John Autin says:

            MikeN, I’m sure Gandhi’s philosophy is no comfort at all to North Koreans. But does that make it utterly useless throughout the world, at all times?

            I mean, good grief, already. We can pick apart anyone’s philosophy. Why don’t you espouse one publicly, and we’ll all have a crack at that for a while?

  10. Leland Smith says:

    I didn’t think I would cry reading this……but I did.

  11. […] Posnanski: The room where it happened, a recollection of the writer’s friendship with the late Negro Leagues star Buck O’Neill, who […]

  12. Astorian says:

    Nice column, Joe. But…

    Buck O’Neil’s numbers do not merit inclusion in Cooperstown. You can only make a case for him by resorting to the sort of emotional appeals you and your fellow stat-lovers roundly mock when made by other fans.

    Moreover, while I’m quite prepared to believe Buck O’Neill was a wonderful man, you and your fellow stat-lovers invariably laugh at the idea that character should ever really count in Hall of Fame voting. You’re the ones who keep telling us that Pete Rose’s bad character is unimportant, and that only the numbers matter.

    You can’t now turn around and tell us a very good but not great player like Buck O’Neil deserves to be inducted for his saintly disposition.

    • BearOn says:


      I think you are trying to twist something to serve your own purpose here (which appears to be to dig at Joe, specifically, and statisticians, ostensibly) … Readers of Joe know that his belief that Buck O’Neil should have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame centers entirely on O’Neils contributions to the game…which Joe has long quantified as having little to do with his career (which Joe always gives a respectful tip of his cap to … but always states that it was more of a “good” career than a “great” or “legendary” one…) and much more to do with his groundbreaking role as a scout, coach, and ambassador for Negro League players of the past and of the game of O’Neil’s present.

      Yes, obviously Joe respected O’Neil to the point of almost reverence, and yes O’Neil was by every account a fiercely gentle and humorous man with immeasurable patience (he’d like chuckle at your response above…) and an ability to always find the good to highlight. However, I think it is fairly obvious that Joe’s argument is not that Buck should have been (and should be) in the Hall because of his “saintly disposition.” That is merely a bonus to his lifetime devoted to making baseball better.

    • PhilM says:

      And let’s not forget: everyone is a “stat-lover” — we just love whatever stats we feel are truly important/relevant/meaningful. That brush is too wide to tar with.

      • Astorian says:

        Joe is much nicer than his pal Mike Schur, but the fact remains that both men regularly mock the idea that character is important, or that any player really contributes” things that don’t show up in the stats.”

        They also mock the idea that induction into the Hall of Fame is an honor. “Go ahead and put Pete Rose in,” they say. “It’s just a museum.”

        Okay… but if it’s NOT an honor, why does Buck’s exclusion hurt Joe so much?

        Well, then, if it’s N

        • invitro says:

          ‘“Go ahead and put Pete Rose in,” they say. “It’s just a museum.”’ — I don’t think Joe has ever expressed an opinion like that. The opposite, if anything. Anyway, I’ll kill time by stating the fact that the Hall of Fame is not a museum. It is separate from the museum. The Hall of Fame is a shrine, if anything, or a chapel, adjoining the museum.

        • SDG says:

          Mike Schur on Pete Rose:

          The short version is, he’s very against betting on the game and thinks Pete Rose should absolutely not only not go in the Hall.

          It’s possible to believe enshrinement should be decided by both stats (as a way to determine the best baseball players) AND ALSO not breaking the rules of the game/the law. Those aren’t mutually exclusive. How is it hypocritical to say that, regardless of talent, you have to obey the posted rules? That’s completely different from saying “let’s elect mediocre players on the basis of vaguely homoerotic narratives I make up about Derek Jeter’s calm eyes.”

    • SDG says:

      That’s not an apt comparison. Buck O’Neil wouldn’t be inducted as a player. For PLAYERS, it makes sense to look at stats and stats alone, but for managers (which O’Neil was) there’s no real way to do that except wins, and the KC monarchs when Buck managed certainly qualified as a dominant team. (They elected Wilkinson on the same basis). The Hall has inducted pioneers and contributors, and Buck would arguably qualify there. It’s pretty easy to make a case for Buck going by the more subjective standards we apply to managers, execs, umpires, pioneers, etc.

  13. Mike says:

    Great column. I’ve never been to the Hall of Fame, and I never met Buck O’Neill. As much as I love baseball and it’s history, I regret never having had the chance to talk to Buck far more than any trip to the Hall. But thanks to your writing, I feel that at least second hand I know a little about who he was. No goodbyes, just good memories. Thanks for sharing yours.

  14. Karyn says:

    Dang it, Joe. I have a head cold, and crying only makes it worse.

  15. Bert says:

    Before I read the first word of this post, just by reading the title, I knew what the subject would be. Still a travesty in my opinion. Good job Joe.

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