At the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, a statue of Buck O’Neil resting his weight on a wooden bat sits in a shadow. The bronze statue of the late O’Neil sits behind chicken wire fence — a symbol of the barriers Negro Leagues players faces in reaching the majors — and looks onto a field of statues of the most notable Negro League legends who are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
There’s Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and a handful of others scattered in their positions around the field.
O’Neil is the one that — Bob Kendrick knows and baseball fans know — got away from the Negro League Committee when they voted 17 people connected to the Negro Leagues into Cooperstown in 2006, just months before O’Neil’s death. For 10 years, O’Neil has stood in bronze form, in that shadow,looking at those in the Hall of Fame.
When the vote was over, it seemed the door had slammed shut for good on O’Neil’s chances for the Hall of Fame.
But on Saturday, though the details are still unclear, the doors opened back up again for O’Neil, and for so many other Negro Leaguers.
According to a release from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Negro Leaguers will again have a chance to enter the Hall.
“I had just accepted that that was it for the Negro Leagues in the Hall of Fame,” said Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “Today’s announcement provides that ray of hope that other players will be recognized, or at least get that consideration.”
Tucked away in his billfold was a list of Negro League players who O’Neil believed should be in the Hall of Fame. At any moment, he could pull it out and rattle of a handful of Negro League players who deserved a shrine in Cooperstown.
When O’Neil didn’t make what was thought to be the final Negro Leagues class in the Hall of Fame in 2006, he was content. In fact, he was happy; happy for the 17 others who made it into the Hall of Fame that year and would be recognized and represent the Negro Leagues forever.
O’Neil wasn’t even on his own list that was folded up in his wallet.
“Obviously he wanted to be in the Hall of Fame, but he did not need the Hall of Fame,” Kendrick said. “He was very confident in his place in history and what he had done for the game of baseball and what he had done for all of us at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
“It was never about Buck. It was about these other guys who deserved recognition”
O’Neil’s path to a spot in Cooperstown is still unclear. While the Hall of Fame did announce that “Negro League stars will still have an opportunity to have their careers reviewed, but with less frequency,” there is no time frame for that review quite yet.
But when the time comes, there seems to be no Negro Leaguer who has a better chance to enter the Hall of Fame than O’Neil when the next class is inducted. Eventually, the Hall of Fame can do more than erect a statue for O’Neil or name a lifetime achievement award for him.
Now, O’Neil might finally get a spot in the Hall of Fame.
“It means something that, here we are 10 years after his passing, and he still has a presence in this game,” Kendrick said. “That, to me, is just as meaningful as his spot in the Hall of Fame: That Buck O’Neil is not being forgotten.”