WASHINGTON | Buck O’Neil was celebrated Friday at the White House as Kansas City knew him for decades: A baseball legend who made America a better place.
“A beautiful human being,” President Bush said as he posthumously bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on O’Neil. Nine others also received the medal at an East Room ceremony.
O’Neil, who spent 16 years playing in the Negro Leagues and a lifetime ensuring they never would be forgotten, died in October at 94. His brother Warren O’Neil — also a Negro Leagues veteran — accepted on his behalf.
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The indomitable spirit that carried O’Neil on his journey from manual laborer in the celery fields of Florida to international icon filled the ornate room as Bush recounted O’Neil’s athleticism and grace, saying that “he never did slow down” after his Negro Leagues playing career ended.
O’Neil was Major League Baseball’s first black coach, for the Chicago Cubs. He also was a scout for years.
“Buck O’Neil is also remembered as one of the game’s best historians and ambassadors,” Bush said. “He was the driving force behind the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; he was proud to be its chairman. But he once said: ‘It never should have been, a Negro League. Shouldn’t have been.’ Buck O’Neil lived long enough to see the game of baseball, and America, change for the better. He’s one of the people we can thank for that.”
The 10 honorees sat on a raised stage, under portraits of George Washington and Martha Washington, flanked by massive, decorated Christmas trees. They faced a roomful of guests and dignitaries, including first lady Laura Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and several Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress, including Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri.
“You know, Buck would have lit that room up,” said Bob Kendrick, director of marketing for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, who attended the ceremony. “He lived for that kind of occasion.”
Warren O’Neil, in his 90s, locked his arm in Bush’s to steady himself as he stood to accept the medal. After a military aide read the citation honoring Buck O’Neil, Bush handed Warren O’Neil a box holding the medal and gave the old catcher a pat on the back.
Returning to his seat, O’Neil studied the gold medal for some time before closing the box with a loud snap.
“He enjoyed the moment,” Kendrick said. “I’m not sure he really understood how big Buck was. … I think the magnitude started to hit.”
After the White House ceremony and reception, museum officials had a reception at a nearby hotel attended by Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri and columnist — and noted baseball fan — George Will.
The medal will remain in the O’Neil family for some time, but museum officials hope to eventually bring it to Kansas City.
Also receiving the medal: historian David McCullough, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Truman stands as the definitive portrait of the man from Independence, the country’s 33rd president.
In lauding McCullough’s work, Bush quoted Truman: “The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.”
Other medal recipients were historian Paul Johnson; bluesman B.B. King (who urged the crowd to “keep clapping” when he received his medal); human-rights activist Natan Sharansky; columnist William Safire; politician Norman Mineta; Nobel Prize-winning scientist Joshua Lederberg; Xavier University of Louisiana President Norman Francis; and literacy activist Ruth Johnson Colvin.
“Some of the finest citizens the Almighty has ever produced,” Bush said as the ceremony ended. “God bless you all.”
The citation honoring Buck O’Neil with the Presidential Medal of Freedom:
“Buck O’Neil represented excellence and determination both on and off the baseball field. Rising above the injustice of a segregated country and sport, he served his Nation in World War II, was a talented player and manager in the Negro Leagues, and was Major League Baseball’s first African-American coach. As a co-founder of and inspiration for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, he served as the Museum’s Chairman of the Board and worked to ensure that generations of baseball legends would not be forgotten. The United States posthumously honors John “Buck” O’Neil for his generous spirit, devotion to baseball, and unyielding commitment to equality.”
@ Go to Kansas City.com to see video of the ceremony.
To reach Matt Stearns, call (202) 383-6009 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.