They met in Memphis, and like so many things that happened in Buck O’Neil’s life, it was like something out of a movie.
The day was Easter Sunday, 1943. The Monarchs were playing in Memphis. That afternoon, O’Neil would hit for the cycle.
Thing was, Buck’s day was just getting started. Later that day, he met Ora Lee Owen.
“When I cracked the door in the hotel, I looked right into her face,” O’Neil has said. “I said, ‘My name is Buck O’Neil. What’s yours? And I tell you what. We did 51 years together.”
Buck and Ora’s timing wasn’t quite right, though. Buck was called to serve with the Navy in the South Pacific from 1943 to 1945. He would write to Ora Lee every day. On the day he was discharged, he went straight to Memphis and looked Ora Lee up. She was waiting for him.
Buck and Ora married in 1946. If there was one thing Buck O’Neil knew, it was love.
Buck endured many forms of racism during their years together, but a seemingly small story about Ora Lee stuck with him the most.
She would go hat shopping in downtown Kansas City. But she was not allowed to try on the hats. If Ora Lee touched a hat, she had to buy it. That’s why Ora Lee and many African-American women started making their own hats.
“So degrading,” Buck would say. “So degrading.”
Like Buck, Ora Lee fought racism with actions, not words. She got her master’s degree in education from UMKC and taught in the Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City school districts for 29 years.
Buck and Ora Lee shared a love for children, but one thing always surprised longtime friend Jim Wilson. They never had any kids of their own.
“I thought they were the closest couple in the world to not have kids,” says Wilson, 82, a member of the Enshriners with O’Neil. “Kids tend to bring families together. In Buck’s instance, his wife was his family.”
In 1982, a year before Ora Lee retired from teaching, she was diagnosed with cancer. Buck would call her years of fighting the disease “the greatest 15 years of my life.”
That’s because during that time, Buck and Ora Lee became even closer. He has described Ora Lee as “having the prettiest round head” after losing her hair during treatment.
It was during those trying years that the O’Neils put the wheels in motion on the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
“I’d almost have to say she was his partner in trying to get it going,” Wilson says.
Ora Lee had put in plenty of work on the museum. As her health began to deteriorate in 1997, she told Buck that she only wanted to live long enough to see it complete.
Ora Lee didn’t let Buck down. The museum was opened on Nov. 1, 1997. Ora Lee died the next night. It was a bittersweet time for Buck.
“She said, ‘I made it,’ ” Buck has said. “And she died in my arms.”
For the last nine years, Buck O’Neil’s East 32nd Street home has seemed a bit empty.
Ora Lee’s master’s degree in education still hangs on the wall, and on the mantel is a picture that reads, “I loved to see you smile.”
“That’s my favorite picture of her,” O’Neil has said.
Ora Lee’s home-cooked meals were replaced with frozen dinners.
“When you went to their house,” Wilson says, “she would make it her business to make you feel like you were a king.”
Since Ora Lee’s death, Buck has often had to speak about the museum’s success. He can’t help giving credit to Ora Lee.
“This is all for you, Ora,” he has often said, tears in his eyes.
Buck and Ora Lee were always a team. Buck has spoken at many cancer benefits in her honor. At a Celebration of Life Rally, O’Neil stepped up to the microphone and sang “I Believe” a cappella, drawing tears from the crowd.
“I know you believe; that’s why you survived,” O’Neil said. “This thing is about love, and that’s what it’s all about.”
To reach J. Brady McCollough, sports reporter for The Star, call (816) 234-4363 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org