I've learned many lessons from watching, listening to and knowing Buck O'Neil over the years.Yet it's the lessons I learned Monday on how to handle disappointment that I'll take to my grave. I had been pacing the floor and wringing my hands as I waited for word from a committee of historians considering whether O'Neil was worthy of induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Like much of this town, I was pulling hard for O'Neil. "Calm down, Steve," O'Neil told me at noon. "Everything is going to be all right." About 12:35 p.m., Bobby Kendrick, spokesman for the museum, received the phone call that everyone had been waiting for. The committee had selected 17 to the Hall of Fame. But astonishing for everyone present, O'Neil wasn't one of them. "We didn't get enough votes," Kendrick told O'Neil sadly. At that moment, I felt like someone had hit me in the stomach. The lights to this city's party had been put out. Sadness fell across the room, encompassing everyone except Buck O'Neil. "All right," O'Neil said matter-of-factly. "That's the way the cookie crumbles." Then O'Neil clutched the hand of his close friend Evelyn Belser. "This doesn't change a thing with me," O'Neil said. "This is just a happening in my life. It doesn't change a thing." Don Motley, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, wasn't so understanding, choosing to vent for a moment or two. Forever calm and collected, O'Neil eased the tension. "Relax, Mr. Motley," O'Neil said. "Life goes on." As Kendrick broke the initial news to the media, he also became emotional. Not O'Neil. He was cool and calm. The names of the inductees were read one by one to O'Neil. "Oh, man. This is good," O'Neil exclaimed. "I'm glad we got that many in. This is wonderful." Here's why he's so special. Here's why you can campaign for him. Here's why so many people have the blues today. On the ballfield inside the museum, Kendrick and O'Neil addressed the media and friends who had gathered. "It's still a celebration," Kendrick said. "This museum is about baseball's unsung heroes. And today, 17 of those individuals are going take their rightful place in Cooperstown." O'Neil told the audience that he realized there was a chance he wouldn't be inducted. "I'm not as surprised as you are," O'Neil said. "But I'm still going to be Buck. I'm just so pleased for the guys that are in there." As people are aware, I also argued that J.L. Wilkinson, the late owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, should be inducted. The committee agreed. After the news, I spoke with his son, Richard Wilkinson, who lives in Prescott, Ariz. "I'm sure if dad were alive he'd say Buck should be in there," Wilkinson said. "I'm thinking maybe they didn't put Buck in because he's still alive." Wilkinson said his father would be extremely proud of his selection. "I'm sure dad would be very pleased," Wilkinson said. "Not many people hold that honor. But I'm sure sorry Buck didn't make it. I'm sure dad is in heaven waiting for Buck to arrive someday." No lack of a Cooperstown celebration for O'Neil will ever diminish my admiration for him. He's a Hall of Famer in my eyes and those of many other Kansas Citians. That's a distinction that no special committee of historians can ever take away. To reach Steve Penn, call (816) 234-4417 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
October 1, 2006 1:24 PM