Did feud sabotage Buck O'Neil's bid for Hall?

The Kansas City Star

Buck O'Neil posed in front of the Anthony Ramos painting "Oilcan Boyd" on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2006, at the Negro Leagues Museum.
Buck O'Neil posed in front of the Anthony Ramos painting "Oilcan Boyd" on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2006, at the Negro Leagues Museum.

As Bob Kendrick tours the country with an exhibition of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum memorabilia, one question keeps popping up.

How was Buck O'Neil excluded from the Hall of Fame? They asked the question in Seattle; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; and Anaheim, Calif. Kendrick, marketing director of the museum, expected to hear it again when the exhibit hit Arlington, Texas, this weekend.

"The fan reaction, the media reaction has all been the same," Kendrick said. "With every media person, the conversation shifts to Buck's not getting in the Hall of Fame, and they've already surmised on their own there had to be something other than Buck's credentials that kept him out."

Officials at the museum are equally suspicious. It's been more than two months since a special 12-member committee selected 17 former Negro Leagues players and executives to the National Baseball Hall of Fame but rejected O'Neil, a former Negro Leagues all-star, pennant-winning manager, successful scout and the first black man to coach in the major leagues.

But bad blood and bruised feelings continue to fester among those at the museum who are convinced that O'Neil did not get a fair shake. They contend that some members of the committee - including Larry Lester, the museum's original director of research - harbored personal biases against O'Neil's candidacy stemming from past disagreements with the museum, of which O'Neil is chairman and its most visible icon.

"My opinion is they had a problem with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Buck, and that's what it boiled down to," said Don Motley, the museum's executive director.

In a recent interview with The Star, Lester denied any kind of conspiracy against O'Neil by those with bitter feelings toward the museum.

"Buck may be the face of the museum, but he does not create power for the museum," Lester said. "That is held by the executive director, Don Motley. Any issues we have would be with him, not with Buck O'Neil. I don't have a problem with Buck."

After the vote was taken Feb. 27, the 12 committee members agreed not to reveal their votes or the percentage of votes for each candidate. Another voter, Leslie Heaphy, a Kent State University professor, said she had gone into the meeting with an open mind.

 "It's interesting to me that we're not being asked on any other candidates how we voted, and I find that particularly intriguing."

Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent, who was chairman of the committee but did not have a vote, said he "would be astonished" if there had been a power play against O'Neil.

Vincent, however, did ask the committee to reassess O'Neil's candidacy after a straw vote on the finalists had shown that O'Neil lacked the necessary nine votes. Long after the final vote, Vincent said he was "really surprised" that O'Neil had fallen short.

"If you would have asked me beforehand," Vincent said, "I would have said that I thought Buck would be elected."

All of this is overwhelming for the man caught in the middle, the 94-year-old O'Neil.

"The entire baseball world thought I was going to be a shoo-in," O'Neil said recently. "This is why all this stuff has come up."

So who among a panel of Negro Leagues scholars and experts would not vote for Buck O'Neil? He not only was an important figure in uniform, but in his later years became the face for Negro Leagues baseball and helped champion the cause for most of the 18 Negro Leaguers currently in the Hall of Fame.

The seeds of hard feelings originated with differences between Motley and Lester when they both worked at the museum in its formative years. Lester and Motley had a falling-out after rare tape recordings of interviews with some of the Negro Leagues' biggest stars were loaned to the museum in 1993 and subsequently disappeared. When the owner of the tapes, John B. Holway, wanted them returned, the museum said it did not have them.

Holway, a leading Negro Leagues researcher and author from Springfield, Va., sued the museum in 2004. Lester testified that he had delivered the tapes to the museum; Motley said he did not recall seeing or receiving them. The museum, in turn, sued Lester, though it subsequently dismissed him from the lawsuit without prejudice, which meant the museum could later sue him had Holway won.

On Feb. 9 - 18 days before the Hall of Fame vote - a jury ruled in favor of the museum. Holway is appealing.

The case exacerbated a strained relationship between Motley, who became executive director in 1993, and Lester, who resigned from the museum in 1995 but continues as a historian and collector of Negro Leagues memorabilia.

"Larry and Don Motley apparently had bad rapport with each other," Holway said last month. "Maybe Larry wanted Motley's job, and Motley didn't want to give his job to Larry. It was inevitable they would break."

If there's anything about which Motley and Lester agree, it's their contempt for each other.

"Don Motley and I have a different view on quality of life," said Lester, who still lives in the Kansas City area and works as an information technology specialist. "I would not work in the kind of environment where people use profanity, where people talk down to teach other."

Motley said their differences had to do with his attempts at getting Lester to conform to a budget and adhere to a newly implemented accounting structure.

"He controlled the checkbook, he controlled buying, he controlled the museum," Motley said. "I began to make him accountable for everything. "Maybe Buck said it best: Whoever would have taken over this position, (Lester) probably would have disliked. He felt like this was his baby."

Lester was not alone in his dislike for Motley. Three other members of the Hall of Fame voting committee - Dick Clark of Ypsilanti, Mich.; Sammy Miller of Crestview Hills, Ky.; and Heaphy - have gone on record as being critical of Motley and in support of Lester.

"I do not like Don Motley at all, period, but it has nothing to do with Buck O'Neil," Clark told The Star last week.

Clark also wrote a scathing letter about Motley that was published in a Society of American Baseball Research newsletter. The museum threatened a libel suit, and the organization sent Motley a written apology and subsequently printed a retraction.

Clark, Miller and Heaphy also wrote letters that were published in the Feb. 24, 2005, issue of The Pitch in response to a story that the weekly paper had run about the misplaced tapes and Lester's bitterness toward the museum.

Here are excerpts: Clark: "Buck O'Neil has done a tremendous job of promoting the Negro Leagues, the museum and Buck O'Neil. However, I honestly believe he made a big mistake in choosing Motley over Lester years ago." Miller: "Larry Lester is the only one I have fostered a friendship with, and I will hold on to the items I want to donate to the museum until the administration changes." Heaphy: "The Negro Leagues Museum would be much better served in its efforts to fulfill its mission and purpose by turning its attention to improving its policies and collections rather than attacking the reputation and character of such a highly respected researcher as Larry Lester."

A few months later, Motley expressed concern about Lester's appointment to the selection committee in a meeting with Hall of Fame President Dale Petroskey in Kansas City. In a letter following the vote, Motley implored Petroskey to review the ballots, writing, "By no means am I suggesting that Mr. Lester did not vote for Buck, but I do believe his influence swayed other committee members."

In response, Petroskey cited Lester's qualifications as a historian and said no concerns had been raised before the vote about Clark, Heaphy or Miller by anyone on the museum staff, any fan or anyone involved in the academic study of Negro Leagues baseball. While not agreeing to review the ballots, Petroskey conceded that the Hall of Fame was "hit with widespread criticism" for O'Neil's exclusion.

"I don't think anybody on the committee would have been upset if Buck had gotten in," Lester said. "We all love him. However, there are reasons the committee did not think he was in the top 1 percent. Buck knows how I voted. Buck knows me."

Asked point-blank if he had voted for O'Neil, he replied: "Ask Buck." O'Neil wishes he knew. "Larry knew me more than anybody else on that panel," O'Neil said. "I don't know how he voted. I know I thought how he should have voted."

Upon arriving in the King Fisher Room of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 26, Lester told Ray Doswell, curator of the museum and one of the 12 committee members, that O'Neil faced an uphill battle. Lester cited mock elections across the country among Society for American Baseball Research chapters, and only the Kansas City chapter voted O'Neil into the Hall of Fame.

Lester also pointed out that James Riley, the museum's current director of research, had compiled on his Web site a list of Negro Leaguers who should be in the Hall of Fame, and O'Neil was not included. "If their own research director doesn't think he's Hall of Fame material," Lester said, "you can see why I'm telling Ray, `This is a hard sell,' because people who study the history don't think Buck O'Neil is in the top 1 percent."

Riley said his list was strictly for players, and the Hall of Fame "blew it by putting (O'Neil) in the wrong category" as a manager. Though O'Neil was nominated as a manager, Vincent made sure the committee evaluated his entire body of work. Doswell was mystified that hardly anything negative was said by committee members when O'Neil's candidacy was discussed. That's why he was so surprised O'Neil missed the cut.

"With all the candidates, we made a point to talk about the positives and the negatives," Doswell said. "If anyone had any negatives, they didn't speak up. Unlike all the other discussions, his was different in that way. Since no one said anything demonstratively against Buck, I'm as befuddled as anyone.

"I don't have any proof to say this, but I think ultimately it centered on Larry Lester. They (museum critics) think Larry should have been the head of the museum, they're friends of Larry, he has helped them in their research, vice versa, and ultimately he is coloring the vision of the museum."

Lester contends the only voting member who spoke negatively was Doswell, who opened his remarks by allowing that while O'Neil was not a Hall of Fame ballplayer, his total contributions should be taken into account. Vincent echoed those sentiments, according to Clark and Miller.

"Then Ray went into his speech and made an excellent presentation," Lester said. "He was dealing with a knowledgeable group of professional scholars. We know more about Buck than any of the other 38 candidates, so if there is anything negative, we already knew about it.

"We waited to discuss Buck O'Neil and Minnie Minoso last because they were living, and we probably spent more time on those two candidates than anyone. ... We voted our conscience."

In an odd coincidence, the ninth annual Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference is scheduled for July 6-9 in Kansas City, just three weeks before the class of 2006, minus Buck O'Neil, is inducted in Cooperstown, N.Y. Part of the event is to salute the 100th birthday of Hall of Famer Satchel Paige. A luncheon will feature O'Neil. And what may prove to be the highlight of the conference will be an educational roundtable on July 7, in which leading scholars and educators will hold an informal discussion and take questions.

Among those scheduled to appear are several members of the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame committee, including Lester, Clark, Heaphy and Adrian Burgos. Kendrick expects them to face a barrage of questions.

"I don't have any problems at all with people complaining or voicing their concern, opinions, whatever, about people who didn't get in," Clark said. "I don't have a problem with people being upset that we didn't put Buck O'Neil in. "That's perfectly logical; they should be upset. ... I was as surprised as anyone that Buck didn't get in."

In the end, this might have been the last chance for O'Neil to gain election to the Hall of Fame.

"This was intended to review those candidacies as a one-time consideration," said Brad Horn, a spokesman for the Hall of Fame. "It doesn't mean there's not another opportunity in the future, if and when more research emerges. "But this was a project to evaluate those individuals who really stood out. It's not intended to be a yearly event."