Sports

Buck's best shot for Hall of Fame is now

This is the time. For many years now, there have been good people all over America who have worked to get Buck O'Neil into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Television and radio personalities in big and small towns have made the case. Newspaper columnists in cities from Seattle to Miami, Phoenix to Boston - most recently our own Steve Penn - have beaten the drum.Mostly, though, it has been people who don't work in sports taking up the cause. Almost 50,000 folks signed a "Get Buck into the Hall" petition four years ago. I can tell you now, that was just the start. I've seen it. I am spending this summer traveling America with Buck O'Neil. I am writing a book.And I have seen Buck argue Jackie Robinson's story with a shock jock in New York City. I have heard him sing gospels with a quartet in Gary, Ind. I've watched him talk spitballs with Tony Oliva in Minnesota and eat barbecue with Willie Mays in Kansas City and argue golf with Juan Marichal in Houston. I've seen him hug Lynda Carter, Wonder Woman, in Washington, D.C.I've seen Buck hug a lot of people across this great land of ours.More than anything, though, I have seen how much people love him everywhere. Many of them don't know his accomplishments, don't know about his 70 years of baseball, his time spent as a player and a manager and a scout and as the first black coach in the major leagues. They don't need to know the details. They can sense his greatness.With some people you just know.And they wonder why Buck O'Neil is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. No, that's not right. Most of them assume he is in the Hall. In Minneapolis, on Buck O'Neil Day, they introduced him to the crowd as a Hall of Famer. That's how they introduced him to 40 people on metal folding chairs in Nicodemus, Kan., too. The voice of Harlem said he was a great Hall of Famer, and so did a radio talk show host named Bulldog from, Buck was told, "somewhere in the Northwest."The truth is, of course, that Buck is not in the Hall of Fame, not yet, but this is the time. A window has opened. The Hall of Fame has announced that next year - probably for the last time - they will have a special election for Negro Leagues candidates. The Hall had received a $250,000 grant from Major League Baseball to study the Negro Leagues. They put together a talented group of historians and researchers to do the most comprehensive study ever on the Negro Leagues.The study is done now, and the group will create a Negro Leagues Hall of Fame Ballot in November. Then in February, a 12-member panel - including Negro Leagues Museum curator Raymond Doswell - will vote on who remains that belongs in the Hall of Fame. Nine will have to vote yes for any player or to make it in.This is the chance.This is the last chance.This is the time to get Buck O'Neil into the Hall of Fame.You can help. The Hall of Fame wants to hear from you. They offer an e-mail. They give out an address. They want you to write in. But before I give the information to you, I want to make the Buck O'Neil case one more time.First this: Many people seem to misunderstand what the Baseball Hall of Fame is. They think it is (or should be) a building for only the baseball playing immortals: Stan Musial, Frank Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Babe Ruth ...Well, we need to pop that bubble right here. This is nowhere close to the truth. Yes, the Hall of Fame is where you will find Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Tom Seaver, Walter Johnson. It is also where you will find George Kelly, a remarkably plain first baseman from the hot-hitting 1920s. He was, more or less, the Wally Joyner of his time.Fred Lindstrom is in the Hall of Fame. He was a perfectly fine player in the 1920s who once led the National League in hits. That's pretty much his whole resume. Our man Kevin Seitzer also led the league in hits once.Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance are all in the Hall of Fame, mostly because of a poem called "Tinkers to Evers to Chance." They were fine players. None of the three had Hall of Fame careers. None of them had even close to Hall of Fame careers.Oh you can go on and on. Chick Hafey, Lloyd Waner, Ray Schalk, Jesse Haines, Ross Youngs, Travis Jackson, Rube Marquard, they are all in the Hall of Fame without particularly impressive Hall of Fame credentials. And there are many more.This is not to say these players don't belong. Each man has his own special case. It's just we have to demystify the Hall of Fame a bit. People think Hall of Fame and immediately think Mickey Mantle. We have to free our minds. The Hall of Fame is for players and executives and umpires and all sort of people who have made the game better and deserve to be remembered forever. Candy Cummings is in the Hall of Fame because he might have invented the curveball. He also might not have invented it - at least 10 other people have a claim. But the Candy-man is in the Hall.Will Harridge is in the Hall of Fame, mostly for helping conceive the All-Star Game. Larry MacPhail is in the Hall of Fame for introducing night baseball into the major leagues (five years after Negro Leagues owner J.L. Wilkinson introduced it) and for figuring out that plane travel was a good idea. Tommy McCarthy was an OK hitter who probably invented the hit and run. Tom Yawkey is in the Hall, apparently for the uncanny knack of being the Red Sox owner for 44 years and never winning the World Series.And when you look at Buck O'Neil's entire life in baseball, it's hard to find anyone more deserving of baseball's highest honor. He will tell you right off that he was not a Hall of Fame player. He was a good player who once led the Negro Leagues in hitting. He was by all accounts a very good defensive first baseman. He was probably as good a player as George Kelly, but we'll never know that for sure, and anyway that's not the point. His playing days are only the start.Buck was an excellent manager. In a different time, he certainly would have been a major-league manager and probably a great one. He led the Monarchs to five Negro League pennants. He was a remarkable teacher. Ernie Banks says that when he arrived with the Monarchs, he was just a shy kid from Dallas who did not even like baseball much. After some time with Buck O'Neil, Banks became one of the most sensational personalities in baseball history, Mr. Cub, the man known for saying "Let's play two!"Buck was a remarkable scout. Scouts, sadly, have not been elected into the Hall of Fame, but this is part of the baseball life. Buck doesn't know if he was the first full-time black scout in the major leagues, but he was one of the first, and he was usually the only black scout around when he signed Banks, Lou Brock, Joe Carter, Lee Smith, Oscar Gamble and many more.More than anything, Buck has been the great spokesman for the game the last half-century. He has dedicated his life to keeping the memory of the Negro Leagues alive. He has traveled the country to promote the game. He talked Hall of Famer Billy Williams back into the game when a disheartened Williams had decided to quit the game. He hugged Albert Belle and talked sense to him when Belle was considered baseball's biggest jerk. He was the driving force behind the Negro Leagues Museum, the singular force in getting indisputable greats like Bullet Rogan into the Hall of Fame.Who has done more? This summer, I've seen his optimism and joy seep into people; he makes them believe in the goodness of people and, just as much, the goodness of baseball. Is there anyone else doing that?The Hall of Fame is incomplete without him.There are other Negro Leaguers who deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, too - Buck keeps a list of 10 players with him wherever he goes. I certainly hope that deserving men like Biz Mackey, Mule Suttles, J.L. Wilkinson and others get in. But let's be brutally frank here. They are all dead.Buck, meanwhile, is very much alive. He's more than alive - he's running me into the ground. There will never be a day in Cooperstown like the day they induct Buck O'Neil into the Hall of Fame. This is the time. This is our chance.I'll leave you with a final story - hey I have to save some for the book. We were watching a game in Houston when a foul ball went into the stands. Two people went after the ball - an adult and a young boy. The adult got the ball and showed it to the crowd like he was some sort of superhero."What a jerk," I said to Buck. "He should give the ball to the kid.""Don't be so hard on him," Buck said. "Maybe he's got a young boy of his own at home."That's Buck. He never lets his hope down. He is optimistic about life every minute of every day. He's faced racism. He was turned away from restaurants. He was segregated in the U.S. Army. He was blocked from the major leagues because, as he says, of his beautiful tan. But he will always believe in the best of people. It is the greatest quality I know. Still, I looked at the smug guy holding that ball and couldn't take it."Come on Buck," I said. "If this guy has a young boy at home, why didn't he bring him to the game?" Buck looked over at the guy who was still showing the baseball to friends. Buck smiled."You don't know," he said. "Maybe his boy is sick."And I learned again what everyone learns about Buck O'Neil. You can't beat him.

To reach Joe Posnanski, call (816) 234-4361 or send e-mail to jposnanski@kcstar.com.
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