As part of turning JoeBlogs into a membership site, I created three tiers. The first is called “Nancy.” The second is “Maybe His Kid Is Sick.” And the third is “The Red Dress.” All three of them, you probably know, relate directly to Buck O’Neil stories that I have told dozens of times — Buck told the Nancy story THOUSANDS of times.
What the heck, let’s tell them again.
(The Nancy tier is built around the PosCast; members get various perks, including a monthly Q&A PosCast, access to the PosCast discussion board on Discord and a monthly newsletter).
The thing I love most about the Nancy story is that Buck told it differently, depending on the company he was in. It’s a slightly naughty story from a time when people used the word “naughty.” In the company of men, Buck told it one way. Around women, he told it another. With children around, he adjusted it even more.
Nancy was a beautiful young woman who came to see the Kansas City Monarchs (featuring Buck and Satchel Paige) play in Sioux Falls. She sat behind the dugout. “Why did she sit there?” Buck used to ask. And he would answer: “It was because she knew, everybody knew, that Satchel would talk to a dead tree.” Satchel was Satchel Paige, of course, the greatest pitcher of his time and one of the most colorful characters in the history of American sports.
Satchel did talk to Nancy; it wouldn’t be much of a story if he didn’t. They talked the whole game. Sometimes Satchel would see an inning end, he turned to Nancy and said, “Be right back.” Then he would go out to the mound, do his thing, and promptly go back to talking with Nancy.
“You know,” Satchel said as the innings ran out, “we’re going to Chicago next week. You should come along.”
Nancy said that she would, in fact, love to come to Chicago. She had family there. Satchel gave her train fare and said to meet him at the Evans Hotel on the South Side.
When the day came, Buck and Satchel were in the lobby of the Evans — “Sippin’ on a little tea,” as Buck always said — when through the plate-glass window they saw a taxi pull up. Nancy stepped out. “Pretty as a picture,” Buck recalled, and Satchel — who so famously said, “Avoid running at all times” — sprinted to the cab, where he took Nancy by the arm. They greeted Buck and then headed up the stairs.
Buck returned to his spot and his tea. Moments later, he watched another taxi pull up. And out stepped another beautiful woman. You haven’t yet met Lahoma. But she was Satchel Paige’s fiancée.
Now it was Buck who moved fast. He raced to the car, took Lahoma by the arm and said — I can still hear Buck say the exact words — “Lahoma, it is so good to see you. Satchel has gone off with some reporters, but he will be back presently. Why don’t you sit here with me, and we will sip some tea until he returns. I will go over and have the bellman take your bags up to the room.”
Buck took Lahoma’s bags to the bellman, handed him a dollar and whispered, “Hey man, you better get upstairs and tell Satchel that Lahoma is here. You put Nancy and her bags in the empty room next to mine.” The bellman did the deed and a few minutes later, Satchel Paige walked through the front door of the hotel. “Lahoma!” he said. “It’s such a pleasant surprise to see you.” Satchel had snuck down the fire escape in the back of the hotel.
That night, Buck stayed awake. He knew that Satchel would have to figure out a way to get Nancy out of there, and he was eager to find out his plan. Then, he heard Satchel’s door creak open. He heard Satchel’s footsteps. He listened as Satchel quietly tapped on Nancy’s door. “Uh huh,” Buck thought. “It’s going down now.”
“Nancy,” Satch whispered. But there was no answer.
Satchel tapped a bit harder and said a little louder, “Nancy.” Still no answer.
Then he rapped on the door. “Nancy!” he said in full voice.
And the door opened all right … but it wasn’t the right door. Instead, Lahoma’s door opened, and Buck, before he even thought about what he was doing, jumped out of bed and opened his own door.
“Satch,” Buck said, “you want me?”
And Satchel Paige, brilliant man that he was, surveyed the scene in an instant — the hour of the night, the fiancée in the doorway, the consequences of the moment. And he hit the beat.
“Yes Nancy,” Satchel said to Buck. “What time does the game start tomorrow?”
For the rest of his life, Satchel Paige called Buck O’Neil “Nancy.”
Maybe His Kid Is Sick
(The Maybe His Kid Is Sick tier provides full access to JoeBlogs and all the crazy stories that fill the thing. Also included is access to a special Baseball 100 discussion board and a monthly newsletter).
I revisited this story a few weeks ago when talking about that guy in Chicago who took a lot of heat for not giving a baseball to a kid when, in fact, he’d already given several baseballs to kids. I wrote about how I fell for the cynical version of that story. Buck would not have. Here’s that piece:
We were in Houston, and it was hot. There were only a couple of times during our travels together for The Soul of Baseball that Buck would show his age. This was one of those times.
He was barely watching the ballgame. That didn’t seem like Buck; everybody commented on how he had seemingly endless energy. And he did. But when you watched Buck closely, you realized that even he had tricks. At 93, you need tricks. Buck would take long and perpetual naps. He would excuse himself early from events. He would find a few quiet moments to reenergize. That day in Houston, he didn’t get to do any of that. And it was hot. He wanted — needed — to go back to the hotel, and he said as much.
When an inning ended, Jason Lane of the Astros tossed the ball into the stands. He threw it in the general direction of two people. One: A man, probably mid-30s, with a sport coat and a loosened tie. Two: A boy, maybe 10 or 11, wearing a Craig Biggio Astros jersey.
The man reached over the top of the kid and caught it. He celebrated his conquest like he had just stolen a home run in Game 7 of the World Series.
“What a jerk,” I said.
“What’s that?” Buck said. He had not been paying attention.
“That guy down there caught the ball over a kid …”
Buck looked down. The guy was still celebrating. It was infuriating.
“Don’t be so hard on him,” Buck said. “He might have a kid of his own at home.”
That was Buck O’Neil in just a few words. “He might have a kid of his own.” That’s how Buck saw the world. He chose — and it was a choice, a conscious choice — to believe in the goodness of people. Buck had seen the bad. He had endured the bad. You can’t even begin to count the ways that racists had tried to thwart him, hinder him, stomp on his dreams, from the white high school that wouldn’t take him to the white baseball league that wouldn’t give him a chance to play or manage. In his day-to-day life, simple courtesies were denied him for no reason other than the color of his skin. He was not blind to this. He was not naive about this.
But he chose, just the same, to have inexhaustible faith in people. I saw it again and again, and it sometimes brought me to tears — how could this man, THIS man, who had endured so much, still believe in people so deeply? It shamed me too. I had immediately thought of the baseball snatcher as the villain, and Buck had immediately thought of him as a father who had just gotten a baseball for his kid at home and … wait a minute.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “If this jerk has a kid, why didn’t he bring the kid to the ballgame?”
Buck smiled. He did not hesitate.
“Maybe his kid is sick,” he said.*
*Looking back at the original version of the story in The Soul of Baseball, I realize now that Buck actually said, “Maybe his child is sick.” But that doesn’t sound as good to me for the name of the tier.
The Red Dress
(The Red Dress tier is everything — PosCast, blog access, chat board, monthly newsletter and a couple other cool things I’m trying to put together. Can you say PosCast and JoeBlogs merch?)
One of the great moments of my life was the first time I got to tell the Red Dress Story … and Buck O’Neil was on stage with me. Buck died months before The Soul of Baseball came out. The last time I saw him, in the hospital room, he asked me to come back and read it to him. I told him I would. That was, I’m told, his last good day. He died a few days later.
A couple weeks earlier, I was at an event with Buck — I think it might have been a Buck O’Neil roast or something like that — and I told the Red Dress story for the first time. He laughed and laughed. I’ll never forget it.
We were in New York, and it had been a terrible day. There were not many terrible days in my adventures with Buck O’Neil — truth is, that might be the only one. Buck had appeared on a shock jock radio show in the morning, and they had treated him very badly. It was awful to watch as they harassed him and challenged him and insulted him. It threw Buck’s equilibrium off all day. The manic chaos of New York, mixed with the lingering nastiness from the morning interview, turned Buck cold. He barely spoke.*
*I will say, though, that his aura glowed as ever. That was the day that we were on an elevator and a young woman who looked as if life had beaten her down stepped on. She had this “Don’t even talk to me,” look, but Buck always plowed through such things.
“I’m Buck O’Neil,” he said softly, “What’s your name?”
She looked away at first, but he repeated the question, and she said her name was “Swathy.”
“Swathy,” Buck said, “you are a beautiful young lady.”
And then he told her how lucky she was to live in the city, and how he had always wished that he could, and that she must be doing so well to be a New Yorker at such a young age. By the time the elevator reached the ground floor, she was smitten. She jumped into his arms and hugged him tightly.
And this was on one of Buck’s ever-so-rare BAD days.
At the end of the day, we went back to the hotel and Buck said something astonishing. He said he wasn’t hungry for dinner and he was going to sleep. Buck NEVER skipped dinner; he was a two-meal a day guy, and dinner was his favorite of the two. That was the time when he most loved telling stories, listening to stories, sippin’ a little tea. But he had nothing left for the day. Buck and Negro leagues president Bob Kendrick and I got out of the car and headed to the hotel, Buck moving slower than I’d ever seen him move.
To our right was a woman wearing a red dress. I’ve tried hard through the years to describe what the dress looked like, what the woman looked like, but the truth is you already know. Think Marilyn Monroe, think candy apple red, think Beyoncé, think a dress that would stop traffic.
When I got into the hotel, I turned around to say something to Buck … and he was gone. Disappeared. I still don’t know how I lost him. I looked back to the car. It was gone. I said to Bob, “Where’s Buck?” He shrugged.
Then we both looked outside to a corner of the courtyard. And there was Buck talking to the woman in the red dress. She was not alone; a man was with her, maybe her husband or boyfriend, and the three of them talked for a long time. They hugged. They laughed. By the time they finished, Buck all but floated to the hotel lobby.
“Come on!” Buck said, now full of life and bounce. “Let’s go get something to eat.”
So we walked to the hotel restaurant for Buck to get his steak, but all of a sudden he stopped and grabbed my shoulder. He looked me squarely in the eyes. And he asked me, “Did you see the woman in the red dress?”
“Yes,” I said.
Buck shook his head. And he said those words I’ve thought about 10,000 times in the years that have gone by since he died. He said: “Son, in this life, you don’t ever walk by a red dress.”