He won respect, on and off the field

Buck O’Neil’s slick fielding skills at first base earned him a spot on J.L. Wilkinson’s Kansas City Monarchs, who often went on barnstorming trips (below).
Sure-fielding Buck O’Neil wowed the crowds and fellow players alike at first base for the Kansas City Monarchs.

It was 1946, bases loaded, two outs, game six of the Negro Leagues World Series, and Buck O’Neil hammered the pitch to the right-center field gap. Off the bat, O’Neil was sure he had a double at least, maybe a triple.

Jim Wilkes, whom all the guys called Seabiscuit, was playing center field that day for the Newark Eagles. He had other ideas.

“Seabiscuit took off and caught that ball just before it got to the fence,” said Monte Irvin, who was playing for the Eagles that day. “Buck later said, ‘Well, if you hadn’t had Seabiscuit, if you’d have had one of those lesser horses, I’d have been the hero.’ ”

In some ways, that story is a pretty good approximation of what baseball historians and O’Neil’s contemporaries describe as a good, if not brilliant, playing career.

O’Neil had a reputation as an outstanding fielder with very good range and terrific hands around first base. He hit .353 and won the 1946 Negro American League batting title after returning from two years with the U.S. Navy. He had other seasons in which he hit .358, .345, and .330.

He wasn’t a tremendous power hitter, but he was known as a reliable clutch performer — witness two home runs in the ’46 World Series (including a grand slam) and a .353 average as the Monarchs swept the Homestead Grays in the 1942 Series.

Baseball historian Bill James compares O’Neil with Mark Grace.

“That’s about right,” said Dick Wilkinson, whose father, J.L., was the longtime owner of the Monarchs. He termed O’Neil a “very reliable player. Steady, very steady.”

O’Neil made the all-star team three consecutive seasons. He began his pro career with the Miami Giants in 1934, later playing with the New York Tigers, the Shreveport Acme Giants, the Memphis Red Sox (where he played outfield), and the Zulu Cannibal Giants (where he was paid handsomely).

He also played with Almendares in the Cuban League and Obregon in the Mexican winter league, and he was part of the Satchel Paige All-Stars, which toured with Bob Feller’s All-Stars in the 1940s.

“He was not a power hitter, but he hit the ball around to all fields,” Feller said. “He was a very good first baseman and field leader. He knew the fundamentals. I think he just loved the game of baseball, like all kids did back then, and made himself into a good ballplayer. I don’t think he had all that much natural ability, but he made himself into a good ballplayer.”

One report described O’Neil as having “average speed, but a smart runner and graceful player, with an average arm.”

He was also remembered as a definite team leader, illustrated by his immediate transition from player to manager. He was never the best player on his team, not with Cool Papa Bell, Turkey Stearnes and Newt Allen around.

But he was one of the team’s most respected players and personalities.

“Even when he was just a player, he was just a good all-around person,” Irvin said. “Someone you could always go to and get the right answer. You know, advice. ‘What do I do in this situation?’ That kind of thing.”

Wilkinson remembered O’Neil much the same way.

“That was one of his big assets: he had a wonderful personality and he knew baseball,” Wilkinson said. “He grew up in baseball, just like my dad did. I remember the day he reported to my dad. We were there at 18th and Paseo.

“He looked like all of us looked as a 20-some-year-old, just a rail-thin type of fellow. I asked my dad, ‘I wonder who this guy is?’ He said, ‘I think this is the fellow from Shreveport.’  ”

Buck O’Neil by the numbers


League-leading fielding percentage in 1952, at age 40


Negro American League-leading batting average in 1946


East-West all-star game appearances


Home runs in the 1946 Negro League World Series