The late John “Buck” O’Neil loved to visit black churches in Kansas City and encourage young people to set high goals for themselves — and give some of the church ladies a hug, too.
On Sunday, choirs from four of those churches returned the favor. It was a spirited finale to a celebratory weekend honoring what would have been the 100th birthday of the Negro Leagues baseball great and Kansas City favorite son who died in 2006.
For 90 minutes, the Gem Theater in the heart of the 18th and Vine Jazz District became the rousing Church of Buck.
“I’ve met him several times,” said Jessie Beck, a choir member from the Palestine Missionary Baptist Church of Jesus Christ. “You never felt like you were a stranger and he always had a hug for the ladies and a big smile.
“He was very religious and I think the celebration today is marvelous. He didn’t get inducted into the Hall of Fame, but he’s wearing his crown today and smiling.”
Betty Brown, chairwoman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, did double-duty. She also sings with the choir from the Paradise Baptist Church.
For Brown, Sunday was the crescendo to a centennial celebration that began Friday when area First Watch restaurants donated their proceeds to the museum; a Saturday that began with a 5K race at the historic Paseo YMCA and ended with a gala musical event at the Gem attended by several members of O’Neil’s family; and then Sunday’s gospel tribute.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said. “We had a night of celebration and remembrance of Buck. Buck liked a party and he would have been very pleased.”
In addition to Palestine Missionary and Paradise Baptist, the other choirs were from Deliverance Temple Church of God and Christ, and Metropolitan AME Zion Church. Singer Andrea Tribitt also performed an original song she dedicated to O’Neil called “Dare to Believe.”
When not singing themselves, members of the choirs were standing, swaying and shouting their approval to those on stage.
Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, introduced the performers while plugging what he referred to as “Buck’s museum.”
“He was the grandson of a slave who became baseball’s grand ambassador,” Kendrick said. “It’s very appropriate for the man who preached the gospel of Negro League Baseball to have a gospel salute.”