He was 82 when Buck O’Neil achieved a national stardom he never knew during 12 seasons in baseball’s Negro leagues.
In September 1994 filmmaker Ken Burns premiered a nine-part documentary titled “Baseball” on public TV. O’Neil of Kansas City stole the show.
In an oral history as moving as it was amusing, O’Neil recalled the pride that came with being a Kansas City Monarch. He said local churches of all faiths would move some services up an hour so worshippers could attend afternoon games.
“Came straight to the ball game, looking pretty,” said the team’s first baseman-turned-manager. “And we loved it.”
O’Neil seasoned his storytelling with “Mm-hmm. That’s right,” and his eyes sparkled.
What sealed America’s affection was when O’Neil looked squarely into Burns’ lens, grinned and sang, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
“Buck had a generosity of spirit that I have never seen in any other human being I’ve ever met,” Burns said in 2007, a year after O’Neil’s death.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the 18th and Vine District owes its existence to O’Neil, chosen president of the infant organization in 1990. From that time on he gave hundreds of talks, working without a salary, to raise money for the facility. It opened in 1997.
He was a fixture there even in his 90s, often appearing in a snappy suit and dress hat. He stretched his arms out to patrons he didn’t know, imploring them to “Give it up.”
That meant let’s hug. Feel joy. Why hold back?
In his final 15 years — some of them scouting for the Royals — O’Neil’s visibility and rhetorical gifts kept us feeling like a spirited baseball town even when the major-league club languished.
His greatest gift may have been an ability to be joyful about his baseball life when he could’ve been bitter.
“He very vividly demonstrated that you can get further in life with love than hate,” said museum president Bob Kendrick. “That Buck was a great baseball player was really secondary.”
The major leagues were closed to Negro leagues stars until 1947, when Jackie Robinson — once a teammate of O’Neil’s — broke baseball’s color barrier. By then O’Neil’s best playing days were behind him.
His friends would say, Buck, you were born just a bit too early.
He answered with a memoir titled “I Was Right on Time.”
Born early enough to see Babe Ruth play spring ball in Florida. Hit his prime to join the legendary Monarchs in 1939. Managed them later. Then became a scout for the Chicago Cubs and, in 1962, the first black coach in the majors.
Finally, O’Neil lived long enough to see a revival of the Negro leagues in our collective consciousness.
His stories were sincere but also effective in drawing a wider audience into the history of black baseball, said cultural historian Daniel A. Nathan. In a 2001 paper, Nathan of New York’s Skidmore College wrote that “O’Neil assuages white guilt about segregation (and) reassures us...we are making progress.”
We remember him during televised Royals games when the camera fixes on the local do-gooder in the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat. Conceived by team president Dan Glass, the seat has been filled for every home game since 2007.
John Jordan O’Neil Jr. was born in Carrabelle, Fla. He said that in the Jim Crow South, “no black family was immune from injustice,” but through his love of baseball he found kinship and self-esteem.
Moving with his family to Sarasota, Fla., Buck worked the celery fields and played semi-pro ball as a teenager.
He was barred from attending all-white Sarasota High School, so he enrolled in a junior college to earn his high school diploma.
Education was the one area of life in which O’Neil spoke of feeling wronged. Sarasota High would come to realize it, too, and awarded him an honorary degree the year after Burns’ baseball documentary made O’Neil famous.
He said at the lectern it was one of the happiest days of his life.
But not the best day, which he later revealed to sportswriter Joe Posnanski: On Easter Sunday 1943, O’Neil hit for the cycle — a single, double, triple and homer — against the Memphis Red Sox. That night he was introduced to Ora Lee Owens, a teacher who would become his wife of 51 years.
“That was my best day,” O’Neil told Posnanski. “I hit for the cycle and I met my Ora.”
She died in 1997 after a struggle with cancer, which justified O’Neil’s responses to questions about the things in life he detested.
“I hate cancer,” he’d say. “I hate AIDS...Sept. 11...I hate hatred. But I hate no human being.”
Showing up for O’Neil’s 94th and final birthday was Hall of Famer Lou Brock, who was signed to the Cubs when O’Neil was the team scout.
“Buck saw a transformation of people, of society, of country,” Brock told The Star. “Somebody’s got to be around to tell that story. I think he has been preserved for that purpose.”
O’Neil hung in long enough to deliver one more astonishing act of love at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., three months before his death.
He decided to go through with giving the keynote speech honoring 17 Negro leagues executives and stars deemed worthy of induction into the hall by a special committee. O’Neil had been snubbed in the secret balloting, to the surprise of many.
He could’ve given a bitter speech. Instead, he told the crowd:
“I want you to do something for me. I want you to hold hands. Come on, you Hall of Famers.”
He then led his audience in a rendition of “The Greatest Thing,” his favorite tune.
“Everybody hooked up? Well then…The greatest thing — come on everybody! The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.”