The house on 32nd Street has seen better days.
The gutters need repair. Its light green siding has faded, and the deck is crumbling. Inside, the kitchen and plumbing need fixing.
Vacant for years, it sits in southeast Kansas City’s historic Santa Fe neighborhood among similar homes all painted in pastel hues. But longtime neighbors know what makes this one special.
It was home to baseball legend Buck O’Neil for the better part of his adult life.
Now it has become the pilot project of a nonprofit called Friends of Community Preservation, a group that hopes to restore old iconic homes. The O’Neil home is their first effort.
“For his home not to be a gem for the city and for that community, to me, was a travesty,” said Pearl Fain, a board member.
Not that it will be easy. The home needs about $100,000 worth of repairs. But work has already begun.
Lorene James, a retired Kansas City Public Schools administrator and an officer of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Buck attended, is board president for the preservation group.
After Buck died on Oct. 6, 2006, James learned that he had willed the house to the church. Some in the congregation wanted to sell the property. Others, like James, wanted to revamp it, to turn it into something worthy of the massive fingerprint Buck left on the city. So she set out to create a non-profit that could tackle the project.
“I felt obligated for us to do whatever we could to bring it back up to a standard that everybody could be proud of,” James said.
One by one, she called on friends to help restore Buck’s house. They come from all walks of life. Fain, for example, serves as director of the Office of Community Complaints at the Kansas City Police Department. John Gardner is a financial planner with J.L. Gardner & Associates. Chuck James is a retired executive from Kansas City Power & Light. Phyllis Ragsdale is a retired educator with the Kansas City Public Schools.
The group has been working together for just under two years, alternating between fundraising and using the money collected to finish one part of the project at a time. Slowly, progress can be seen in things like the home’s new roof, which was completed last year thanks to donations of labor and materials from local businesses.
Once the house is renovated into the “gem” that Friends of Community Preservation think it should be, they’ll give the church ideas about how to use the property. While Bethel has the final say in that decision, the group has plenty of options at hand.
Among them: a learning center with a computer lab, a tutoring space, a home base for Little League or scouts, a tour destination for baseball fans, an office for city council members, a space to rent out for events or meetings — or some combination of a few of these things.
Lorene James has stacks of blueprints that map out options for remodeling the two floors and renderings of the exterior renovations.
“We started out being novices, but we have learned,” she said.
At the heart of it all, of course, is Buck himself. The board members all have their stories to tell about him. Chuck James, Lorene James’ husband, was a batboy for the Kansas City Monarchs when Buck played for them. He remembers shining shoes and handling bats and pestering Buck for the dollar he was owed at the end of each game he worked.
“Through the years when I would see him, I would tease him and say, ‘You still owe me a buck,’ ” Chuck James said, laughing.
Phyllis Ragsdale, who has lived in the neighborhood near Buck’s home for more than 60 years, said Buck was a family friend — he was her husband’s godfather. Ragsdale has memories of O’Neil eating dinner at her aunt’s table on Sundays.
The group has hit its fair share of roadblocks, funding among the most serious. They had no money to begin the project when they started out, and in addition to organizing fundraisers — three so far — they’ve had to pull from their own pockets to finance the renovation.
But they’re quick to thank those who helped them from the get-go: the electricians, construction companies, architects and unions that stepped in to offer donations, supplies and reduced-cost construction.
“One way or another, we’re going to get it done,” Fain said.
They make sure to mention the names of the people assisting them with fundraising efforts. Among them is two-time World Series champion Joe Carter and his wife, Diana, who are reaching out to former teammates of Buck’s to ask for donations.
Or Benny Shelby, owner of the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Juke House and Restaurant, who has opened his doors free of charge for the group to hold fundraisers on Sundays.
“This is a tough group here,” Gardner added. “We’ve had every opportunity to walk away or quit, and I almost got to that point a couple of times, but just to see the commitment from the group and on the part of Lorene — she’s really been the catalyst in pulling this organization together.”
The group has faced a few other wrinkles. It faced what seemed to be a setback when they weren’t allowed to use Buck’s moniker — which is owned by the family — in the name of their organization, but it allowed them to broaden their vision.
The group talks about working with the mayor, with other organizations and with residents themselves to not only restore the homes of iconic Kansas City figures, but to spur community revitalization.
“It started out with Buck’s house, but that’s not where it ends,” Lorene James said. “It needed to be more impactful than just one house.”