The flowers have come from black fans and white, from young and old.
People have come here, to this table in a back corner of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, from all over Kansas City and all over the demographic chart, to say goodbye to their dear friend.
But this is no funeral. No, this is more celebration, if it’s possible to celebrate somberly. Buck O’Neil, right up until the moment he died about 9 p.m. Friday of complications from congestive heart failure and recently diagnosed bone marrow cancer, always made people smile.
He told friends that he hoped nobody would be sad when he died. They tried to keep that spirit. That’s why they gathered around his bed on the third floor of Research Medical Center on Friday night and sang the same words he had sung at Baseball’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony over the summer.
“The greatest thing in all my life is loving you,” from “The Greatest Thing,” by Mark Pendergrass.
“Shortly after that, he left,” says Debbie Douglass Sauer, a friend who was in that hospital room. “He was getting some well-deserved rest, is the way I saw it. That well-deserved rest that he’s earned. That guy could just go and go and go.”
A few hundred friends and fans came and went from the museum Saturday. Former Royals first baseman John Mayberry was there. So was Richard L. Berkley, former Kansas City mayor, and Joe Watson, who played center field for O’Neil on the Monarchs.
Baseball greats Lou Brock, Ferguson Jenkins, Dave Winfield and Dave Stewart all called. Commissioner Bud Selig thought enough of O’Neil to ask for a moment of silence before Saturday’s playoff games.
“The one thing I can tell you, because I was visiting him in the hospital, and visited him a couple days ago, Buck O’Neil wasn’t dead until he died,” says U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. “He lived every moment during his 95 years. And he taught us a lot of lessons. He taught us how to be graceful in the midst of disappointment. He taught us racelessness. He taught us humility.”
Big John Mayberry remembers a friend and mentor. O’Neil played first base, just like Mayberry, and was the slugger’s first call whenever he found himself in a slump.
“My encounters with Buck O’Neil — Mr. O’Neil, I call him — … I always felt better going than I did coming,” Mayberry says. “It’s just like the feeling of my father passing away. It’s a sadness, but you know it’s God’s choice. Nobody lives forever. And make sure you put this down: Mr. O’Neil was in a class by himself.”
The souvenir shop was buzzing at the museum as hundreds of people came through. It wasn’t the busiest day in the museum’s history, but it sure wasn’t normal, either.
The crowd ran the full gamut of race and age and also each of the steps of grief. An older black man, perhaps in his 50s and dressed in black, wiped a tear from his eye as he stared at a painting of O’Neil. Another older man, white with gray hair, wore a Monarchs jersey with O’Neil’s No. 22 on the back and smiled as he posed for a few pictures in front of that same painting.
A younger black woman, perhaps in her 30s, laughed with a friend as they exchanged O’Neil stories. Meanwhile, Evelyn Belser, O’Neil’s close friend, couldn’t make it at all. It was just too much.
Ollie Gates, owner of a local group of barbecue restaurants, said: “Buck was a constant friend you could count on whenever things weren’t going well, if you needed someone to talk to. Whenever he was around, he always kept your spirits up. Buck has set a standard about what it means to be an ambassador for our community.”
Bob Kendrick, the museum’s marketing director, and Mark Bryant, board chairman, repeated over and over on Saturday that “Buck prepared us well” for continuing his vision.
Even so, they realize something unusual and utterly irreplaceable has been lost.
“It’s hard to take Buck being gone, and yet you knew it was coming,” says Don Motley, the museum’s executive director. “He knew both sides of it. It’s hard to find someone who knew both sides of being in the Negro Leagues, and organized (major-league) baseball. Yet, he’s left a legacy here for people to know.”
Much was made of O’Neil not being named to the Baseball Hall of Fame in a special election last February. O’Neil always seemed the least affected by it. “If I’m a Hall of Famer to you, that’s all I need,” he said. He also told friends that he thought his Hall of Fame, his lasting legacy, would be the $15 million Education and Research Center that was his vision and will bear his name.
“If people want to continue the charge to get Buck in the Hall of Fame, God bless them,” Kendrick says. “But let’s focus those energies on getting this lasting monument built. That’s what he really wanted.”
It all seems to come back to the Hall of Fame with O’Neil, at least lately. Off to the side of that table in that back corner of the museum, there was a homemade poster with a picture of O’Neil and these words:
“Thank you for making the world a better place, Buck. Heaven just got the greatest Hall of Famer there will ever be.”
Heaven’s gain is Kansas City’s loss — at least that’s the way it felt to some on Saturday. Berkley, mayor from 1979 to 1991, said the community lost “a person to look up to, someone to admire, an inspiration, and a positive attitude.”
Eventually, those feelings of loss will subside. O’Neil’s friends and fans will begin to remember his message and his purpose and forget about the hurt they feel. There’s an old saying: Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.
“I’m really happy for Buck right now. I truly am,” said Rick Sutcliffe, a former major-league pitcher and Van Horn graduate.
“I’m embarrassed for baseball (because) he was told he couldn’t get in the Hall of Fame. But I’m happy for him now, because there’s a place that’s been waiting for him for a long time. I think God’s got his arms wide open waiting for Buck.”
•Public visitation for Buck O’Neil will be Friday on the Field of Legends at the Negro Leagues Museum from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. The next day, there will be a private funeral followed by a public ceremony. Details of those events will be worked out this week.
•In lieu of flowers or other gifts, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is asking that donations in Buck O’Neil’s memory be made for construction of the Education and Research Center that was his vision and will bear his name.
Tax-deductible donations can be made by calling (888) 221-6526, sending a check to 1616 E. 18th St., Kansas City, MO, 64108; or through www.nlbm.com.
The Star’s Steve Kraske contributed to this report. To reach Sam Mellinger call (816) 234-4365 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.