It was a wonderful ride we shared with Buck O’Neil.
And what a thrill for folks in Kansas City to have a front-row seat for it all, as he went about his fast-paced life with its ups and downs, its joys and disappointments, all fielded with grace and dignity.
I enjoyed many special moments with O’Neil over the years, and I told him more than once that he wasn’t just a subject to write about — he was my friend.
And I saw how much he cared about this community. As much as we all loved him, he returned that affection many times over.
I witnessed his generosity just after the Coda Jazz Fund was launched in 2002. O’Neil donated $2,000 of his own money to the fund, which pays burial and funeral expenses for jazz musicians whose families can’t afford the cost.
“I knew all those guys that played down here at 18th and Vine,” O’Neil said. “Many of them were my close friends.”
A couple of years later, he served as emcee at the Coda Jazz Fund Benefit Concert. Naturally, he was a huge hit.
And when he would see the fund’s advisory committee meeting at the American Jazz Museum, he would peek his head inside the door and proceed to hug and kiss all the women in the room.
He also was a big supporter of the Kansas City chapter of the NAACP. In the 1980s, O’Neil often used his influence to persuade Royals players to buy a table at the group’s annual banquet.
“Buck would make the Royals’ black players sponsor the Monarchs at the NAACP events,” said Don Motley, executive director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “I remember watching Chili Davis of the Royals writing a check to Buck for an entire table.”
Not many people knew O’Neil had a part in sprucing up the local landscape as well. He was an active member of the Enshriners, a group of men who pool their resources and raise money for civic projects.
The organization is responsible for the Going to Kansas City Plaza at 12th and Vine streets, a project dedicated last year. The Enshriners’ first official project was the Spirit of Freedom Fountain, which was dedicated in 1981.
“Buck has been involved with the Enshriners since the inception,” Ollie Gates said recently.
Gates and O’Neil were close friends and golfing partners. Together, they traipsed over many a golf hole, all the while accumulating memories.
“Buck would always like to say, ‘I don’t hit them far. But I hit them straight right down the geometric center,’ ” Gates recalled. “That was his saying.”
“Back in our younger days, Buck was someone all the guys envied,” Gates said. “And today, we all have the same idea. We want to be like Buck.
“He was a hidden discovery that we didn’t find until late in life in Kansas City. I guess to find a jewel, you have to dig deep.”
Gates said he and his pals realized long ago that O’Neil was not only a personal friend to them.
“He was also an ambassador and a personal friend to all Kansas Citians, period,” Gates said. “Anybody that knew Buck in his later years automatically just took to Buck. He was a good symbol for old black guys.”
O’Neil lived an active life. If someone needed him to speak, he was there. If he was needed at a mall, a grocery or a ballpark, he made time.
Bobby Kendrick, spokesman for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, is one of the few people who knew just how much time, money and energy O’Neil gave to the community.
“Buck understood that it took that kind of a commitment to make our city be the great city we want it to be,” Kendrick said. “And he did his part, whether it was time or money. He did a lot on the ‘down-low.’
“For Buck, it was never about him lauding what he did for these organizations. There are literally hundreds of organizations in Kansas City that Buck has supported over the years.”
The moments I spent with O’Neil now seem precious. Forever etched in my memory will be the day I hung out with him as the results from a special committee considering figures from the Negro Leagues for induction into Cooperstown.
And I will always wonder if the disappointment he felt that day weighed more heavily on him than he let us know.
We’ll never know, for he handled the decision with class and dignity. No cursing or stomping his feet. No pounding the table in disgust.
He expressed joy for those chosen. As for being left out? “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” he said.
O’Neil would want us to move forward. But we can continue to advocate for O’Neil’s rightful place in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
And someday, future generations will ask us what made him special.
It’s up to the people who knew him to explain what they missed.
He may have been born too early to play in the majors. But for people who knew and loved him, and for this community that gained so much from his energy and generosity, Buck O’Neil was right on time.
To reach Steve Penn, call (816) 234-4417 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.