For love of the game
Buck O’Neil steps up to the plate to tell fans the story of the Negro Leagues and its museum

By Deborah Reinhardt
Managing Editor

Published: Mar/Apr 2001



John “Buck” O’Neil shares a story in the Negro League Baseball Museum, located in Kansas City./ NLBM photo
With 70 years in baseball, John “Buck” O’Neil has forgotten more than the average fan will ever know.

Baseball is in his blood, yet he never made during his career what today’s lowest-paid major league player makes in a season. Youngsters trading baseball cards perhaps never heard of him, despite having four .300-plus seasons at the plate during the 1940s. In April, a new baseball season will begin. It’s an appropriate time to remember those who have helped to shape the game’s history.

O’Neil played in the Negro Leagues during an era when social lines between blacks and whites were as prominent as the white chalk lines on a green ball diamond. Until about a decade ago, most baseball fans didn’t know much about that era in history. That’s all changing, thanks in part to O’Neil and his tireless efforts to tell and retell the stories, and a museum in Kansas City that holds much of Negro League history.

No regrets

Born in Carrabelle, Fla., southwest of Tallahassee, O’Neil was introduced to baseball by his father, who played for local teams. His dad nicknamed his son Buck after the co-owner of the Miami Giants, Buck O’Neal.

O’Neil, 89, joined the Kansas City Monarchs in 1938, was named player/manager in 1948 and continued his association with the club through 1955. The first baseman was a Negro American League All-Star three times and played in two Negro American League World Series. What better man to serve as chairman for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum? O’Neil played and lived during the height of Negro League baseball. He says the message shared by the museum is not one about inequality and segregation, but one of hope and progress.

“I want the young people to know the wonderful changes that’s happened in this country,” O’Neil said. “I’m old enough to see these wonderful changes.

“A kid might ask ‘Who is Jackie Robinson?’ Now, how is he going to know about Buck O’Neil or Josh Gibson when a teacher tells him to go to the library and there’s nothing there? This is what we’re trying to do–teach every kid about the Negro Leagues and that era.”

The Negro Leagues, which were organized in 1920 by Andrew "Rube" Foster in Kansas City, existed because black men weren’t allowed to play major league baseball. Despite that, O’Neil and many of the former Negro League players harbor no bitterness. Baseball, O’Neil said, gave him a great life. Many media portrayals of that era are not accurate, he added.

“A lot of people thought we lived hand-to-mouth, but that wasn’t the Negro Leagues,” O’Neil said. “It was outstanding. They were my family. After a ballgame, baseball players all went to the same place. We would be in, say, Memphis, and we’d all go out to eat. The Memphis team would be there and we’d eat, drink some beers and talk about the game or our families or new girlfriends–anything.

“It’s not there today. After a game today, a kid’s agent has got him going someplace else to make more money.”

The game will survive

O’Neil has strong opinions about the state of baseball today. When asked about recent record-setting salaries–particularly the deal shortstop Alex Rodriguez made with the Texas Rangers–O’Neil didn’t mince words.

“As far as salaries are concerned, they’re out of hand,” he said. “A lot of these owners are on an ego trip. Many wish they could have played ball, but never did, so this is their way to participate. But this will have to change.” He has faith that it will.

O’Neil, who in 1962 became the first black coach (Chicago Cubs) in the major leagues, also believes opportunities for blacks to coach and manage teams will continue to improve. The real key, however, is getting more blacks in the front offices.

“Managers don’t hire or fire people,” he said. “General managers have that ability. Managers work with a team that’s given to them. I tell young black guys that whatever they’re studying in college, take at least one course in sports management. They might get a chance to be a general manager one day.”

O’Neil, with his warm smile and genuine personality, seems to get a lot of his energy from young people. He worked as a Kansas City Royals scout for about 10 years and was named Midwest Scout of the Year in 1998. He likes the team the Royals have on the field. “It’s a real ball team made up of kids who love to play,” he said. When asked if he’d like to see another I-70 Series between the Royals and St. Louis Cardinals, he chuckled.

“Well, we’re a few years away, but that would be alright,” O’Neil said.

Little time for golf

O’Neil's role in baseball now is more of an advisor. In addition to the work with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, he is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee in Cooperstown, NY, and does some public relations work for the Royals. He travels around the country, speaking to a variety of people about Negro Leagues baseball. He’s met President Bill Clinton–among many notables–and has appeared on national television, including “Late Night With David Letterman.” Many people remember O’Neil’s compelling narration of the Negro Leagues as part of Ken Burns’ well-known baseball documentary. It’s a schedule that keeps O’Neil–and his appointment secretary–pretty busy.

“I thought I’d retire and be able to play a little golf,” he said, laughing.

He’s lived in Kansas City since 1946, and although family lives in Florida and New York, O’Neil doesn’t think of moving anywhere else.

“Kansas City is a good family town. It’s home. I like the Midwest. Our values are a little different than the hustle and bustle of the east coast,” he said.

What was his favorite town to visit when he played ball?

“Oh, New York,” he said, quicker than a 6-4-3 double play. “Harlem in the 1930s and ‘40s, oh man!”

He’d like people to remember him as a man who died learning. “You keep living, you keep learning,” he said with remarkable simplicity.

When asked to share something he’s recently learned, O’Neil thought for a second and replied, “I learned that a man who can hit a ball and catch a ball can make more money than the president of the United States. Only in America,” he said with his famous grin.

If you go

Buck O’Neil and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum are true treasures. The museum, founded in 1990, has been in the 18th and Vine Historic District since its establishment. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m.–6 p.m., and Sunday from noon–6 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $2.50 for children under 12 years. For more information, including museum membership, call (816) 221-1920, or visit online at www.nlbm.com.

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