Sports

O’Neil gave today’s players respect for the game’s history

If you want to know Buck O’Neil’s influence on today’s player, look no further than the most talked-about player of today’s generation — Barry Bonds.

Bonds, you might recall, was to be honored by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in 2002 at the museum’s annual Legacy awards. Problem was, Bonds never showed up. He never even returned calls from the museum.

But that’s when fate, or rather Buck O’Neil, stepped in a year later.

The Giants were in Kansas City for a series, and Bonds wound up visiting the museum, finally. Bonds got a special tour from Buck.

Bonds’ viewpoint of baseball and his own career may have been changed forever.

“I was in tears,” Bonds said later. “I was, like, shocked. I saw all these pictures.”

During the All-Star weekend in 2003, Bonds displayed his newfound respect for the game’s history.

“I’m just saying to future minority athletes, please go to the Negro Leagues Museum,” Bonds said. “Please learn about your history; please learn about the guys that came before you. Because we are an extension of that generation. And without that, it’s going to be wiped away.”

Bonds wasn’t finished.

“You have a Negro Leagues Museum over here in Kansas City, and you have a Hall of Fame over here (in Cooperstown, N.Y.), and yet you tell me there’s no segregation in baseball?” Bonds said. “Why isn’t there one institution? … We could put our stuff in the regular Hall of Fame, too, but we are an extension of that Kansas City museum. So, if you want to see Barry Bonds, go to that museum.”

That’s the kind of influence Buck O’Neil had on today’s players. He made them appreciate their past.

“If you wanted to know something about Babe Ruth, you could go to the library and look him up,” O’Neil used to say. “But if you wanted to know something about Josh Gibson, you’d have nowhere to look it up (except the Negro Leagues Museum).”

Many players today have taken the message to heart, including Oakland’s Frank Thomas.

“It started somewhere, and those guys were pioneers for us,” Thomas said. “Of course, today’s younger players aren’t going to know that much.”

But they should, O’Neil would say.

Former Royal Bip Roberts once said: “Every time I met Buck, I would think of his past. I’ve always been honored to meet him. We think we have it tough sometimes when fans are on us. But to have a whole world against you at the same time? It just had to be like the world was on their shoulders.”

The true beauty of Buck O’Neil, however, was that he never preached. The message about his past came through loud and clear through the simplest of words.

“He used to tell me stories of hotels not letting him in just because God made his skin darker than the guy running it,” the Royals’ Mike Sweeney said. “That breaks it down to its simplest level.

“The man was a saint. He was a man who loved, who encouraged and a man who changed lives with his inspiring presence. He’s the man we’d all like to be.”


To reach Jeffrey Flanagan, call (816) 234-4330 or send e-mail to jflanagan@kcstar.com.
  Comments