Time for others to step up to the plate

DAVID PULLIAM | The Kansas City Star
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at 1616 E. 18th St.

Buck O’Neil is irreplaceable, but Negro Leagues Baseball Museum leaders hope former and current stars can keep his dream from languishing.

O’Neil has been seen for years as the public face of the museum. When he was ailing, museum officials quietly began to put together a blueprint for filling the void.

“Trying to replace a Buck O’Neil is like trying to replace a Walter Cronkite,” said attorney Mark Bryant, who is president of the museum’s board of directors.

Both Bryant and museum spokesman Bob Kendrick said that is why a team approach is best. Still, the museum hopes to tap a former All-Star to succeed O’Neil as chairman of the museum’s board.

“We will pick and choose. It won’t be one guy running around all the time on behalf of the museum,” Kendrick said. “We think the blueprint is in place.

“No one individual will ever replace Buck O’Neil. But it is incumbent on all of us collectively to carry on his dream.”

Museum officials thought it was inappropriate to make inquiries — even discreet ones — while O’Neil was living. But now they plan to put their plan in motion.

Past greats Dave Winfield, Lou Brock, Ernie Banks, Joe Carter, George Brett, Ozzie Smith and Joe Morgan and current stars Barry Bonds, Dontrelle Willis, Jacque Jones, Derrek Lee and Torii Hunter are among those who museum leaders hope will help out. The Chicago White Sox’s general manager, Ken Williams, has already pledged to help “keep the memories fresh.”

Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary made O’Neil famous, but his tireless efforts and peppy zeal for the museum kept him in the national spotlight. O’Neil knew about the board’s efforts for “life after Buck” and approved of them, Kendrick said.

Bryant said: “You are better off thinking about it in advance than while you are grieving for your loss.”

The museum’s annual Legacy awards are part of the blueprint. Besides drawing much-needed attention, they also help build “meaningful relationships” that the museum can lean on now.

And that has already paid dividends. Williams received in January 2006 the Legacy award for executive of the year. He was so wowed by the museum, he mandated that every White Sox player tour it when they came to KC in April.

Hall of Famer Dave Winfield received a 2006 award for his philanthropic support of the museum.

“Do not let this legacy die,” he said. “It isn’t just for people of color. It’s for all of America. Absorb it. Embrace it. Love it. Support it. And let’s keep rolling with it.”

Kendrick said the museum hopes Winfield will play a major role in the museum’s future post-Buck. Winfield could not be reached for comment, but officials for the San Diego Padres, where he is now a vice president and adviser, said Winfield believes wholeheartedly in the museum.

Bryant said museum leaders know what they are looking for in their future ambassadors.

“The museum will need someone who is able to enjoy the respect and admiration of Major League Baseball’s commissioner, the owners, players, fans and the community at large,” he said. “It will need someone who has the ability to raise funds to endow the museum’s continued operations. It will need someone who has the time and energy to devote to this cause.”

The board and staff are also committed, he said. Besides turning to goodwill ambassadors, the museum is working to stay in the national spotlight through its “Untold Truth” line in conjunction with Nike shoes and an upcoming hip-hop compact disc. Willis has served as the spokesman for the “Untold Truth” line.

Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes said the museum can count on significant support outside of baseball to continue O’Neil’s vision, such as completion of the education center named in his honor.

“I do believe there are enough people and organizations in the Kansas City region and around the country that understand the importance of the Negro Leagues,” she said. “Fundraising, public relations and research will require a substantial number of people and organizations coalescing together to move forward, and I’m confident that will happen.”

But it won’t be easy.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Kendrick said. “There never will be another Buck O’Neil in terms of championing this cause. Those are tremendous shoes to try to fill.”

To reach DeAnn Smith, call (816) 234-4412 or send e-mail to