Buck O’Neil and the Cubs: Kansas City icon left a legacy in Chicago

Buck O’Neil (left) had a tremendous influence on Cubs’ Hall of Famer Ernie Banks (right). “He saw something in me that I didn’t know I had,” Banks said in an interview with The Kansas City Star in 2006. “And he nurtured me all the way to the Hall of Fame.”
Buck O’Neil (left) had a tremendous influence on Cubs’ Hall of Famer Ernie Banks (right). “He saw something in me that I didn’t know I had,” Banks said in an interview with The Kansas City Star in 2006. “And he nurtured me all the way to the Hall of Fame.” Courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Nearly 60 years later, Billy Williams can still remember the make and model of the car. It was a Plymouth Fury — always a Plymouth Fury — and on that particular day in 1959, it was pulling up a driveway in rural Whistler, Alabama. The car sat long and low, like a big ole slab on wheels, and as it rolled toward the house, Williams knew exactly what it meant: Buck O’Neil was here to see him.

“I saw him driving up,” Williams says. “And I said, ‘Hell, I’m in trouble now.’ ”

It was the summer time, and Williams, a future Hall of Fame outfielder who would play 18 seasons with the Chicago Cubs, had gone AWOL from his minor-league team in San Antonio. He had retreated back to the family home in Whistler, a tiny town near Mobile, Ala. He had sworn off baseball, at least for a moment.

Before he would become synonymous with the Cubs, that lovable franchise on the north side, Williams had faced brutal discrimination in the minor leagues, absorbing the taint of segregation and bigotry. As the burden grew, he sought relief. So on a lark, he hopped a train and headed to see his brother back home.

He didn’t know how long he’d stay. But in this moment, baseball meant pain. So after a few days of this, the Cubs sent O’Neil, then a respected scout, to Whistler, Ala.

O’Neil, a former player and manager of the Kansas City Monarchs, had not signed Williams. But he had served as a mentor to him and a collection of other young African-American players in the organization. He had scouted most of them, in fact, including future Hall of Famer Ernie Banks. And he would track their careers while traversing the country in his Fury. Even during spring training, he kept a watchful eye. On most mornings, maybe 5:30 or 6 a.m., O’Neil would bust through the door and let out a holler.

“Come on, shake those sheets,” he’d say, his voice booming. “Let’s go out and play some baseball.”

“That was him,” Williams says.

Back in Whistler, O’Neil would camp out for days, spending time with Williams and slow-playing his hand. Finally, O’Neil asked Williams to take him to Pritchard Park, the spot where he had played baseball as a young teenager. When they arrived, Williams says, a collection of old friends approached and asked what had happened. Where had he been? What was he doing? As Williams tried to explain that he had left professional baseball behind, leaving his friends incredulous, O’Neil slunk off to the side, letting the conversation play out.

“Buck was just standing back laughing,” Williams says. “He knew what he was doing.”

Nearly 60 years later, Billy Williams is standing inside a dugout at Progressive Field in Cleveland. It is Tuesday night, and the Chicago Cubs are about to play in their first World Series since 1945, and it seems like there are a thousand people on the field, watching batting practice in the cool fall air.

Williams keeps thinking about all his former teammates, all those who couldn’t be here for this. Ernie Banks would have loved this, he says. Ron Santo would have loved this. And yes, Buck O’Neil would have loved this, too.

“It’s a great thing to be here,” Williams says. “Haven’t been here in 71 years.”

Ten years after his death, it is easy to remember Buck O’Neil’s baseball legacy in Kansas City. You can visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at 18th and Vine, and you can sit in the Buck seat at Kauffman Stadium, and you can traipse around the town he called home for most of his adult life. But as the World Series returns to Wrigley Field on Friday night, with the Cubs playing host to the Cleveland Indians in Game 3, here is another chapter to explore.

In the 1950s and 1960s, O’Neil was a pioneering force for the Chicago Cubs, taking a job as a ground-breaking scout and then becoming the first black coach in major-league history. And for the rest of his life, O’Neil would hold onto the feelings and relationships from those Cubs days.

“He obviously lived and died with the Royals,” says Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and a long-time friend of O’Neil. “But he also lived and died with his Cubs. And he did die a lot with his Cubs.”

O’Neil joined the Cubs organization in 1956, as the sport’s integration was starting to make the Negro Leagues obsolete. Cubs general manager Wid Matthews tapped him to mine for hidden talent in the country’s predominantly African-American high schools and historically black colleges.

O’Neil would steer Banks to the Cubs after a short stint with the Monarchs. He was also instrumental in signing future Hall of Famer Lou Brock, who was infamously traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, in addition to pitcher Lee Smith and first baseman Joe Carter. Before he died last year at the age of 83, Banks credited O’Neil with birthing his career.

“He saw something in me that I didn’t know I had,” Banks said in an interview with The Star in 2006. “And he nurtured me all the way to the Hall of Fame.”

By 1962, O’Neil had moved into an unofficial coaching role in Chicago. Later that season, the Cubs made the move official, hoping to fight off umpires who objected to his presence in the dugout. Years later, O’Neil would say that, in the moment, he didn’t fully understand the social significance of the hire. But in the days that followed, his name had appeared on the pages of Sports Illustrated and Ebony Magazine, in addition to newspapers across the country.

O’Neil would remain on the staff during the Cubs’ ill-fated “College of Coaches” days, when the club elected to rotate three or four men through the manager position, believing the role was too much for one mind. Yet by the end, O’Neil was never given an opportunity to occupy the top spot. The major leagues would not see a full-time African-American manager until Frank Robinson was hired by the Indians to be a player-manager in 1975.

“Progress in organized baseball was painfully slow,” O’Neil wrote in his autobiography, “I Was Right On Time.” “(It) still is.”

On the field, O’Neil played the role of surrogate father to Banks, Williams and outfielder George Altman, guiding them through the layers of professional baseball. He lectured them on fashion, on social norms, on the best places to get a good meal. Off the field, he took a liking to Chicago — the bustling streets and hotels, the music and the culture.

“He talked so glowingly about life on the South Side,” Kendrick says, “when the South Side was indeed the South Side. The place was jumping.”

Sixty years later, Kendrick imagines O’Neil would be enamored with this latest era of the Cubbies. Once he felt a part of something, it was hard to stop. That was his way. On Tuesday night in Cleveland, center fielder Dexter Fowler led off the World Series and became the first African-American member of the Cubs to appear in the Fall Classic. One night later, shortstop Addison Russell was the first to single. And on Friday, Billy Williams, the man whom Buck came to see in Alabama, will pack his memories, remember his friends and head to Wrigley Field to watch the World Series.

“Come on, shake those sheets. Let’s go out and play some baseball.”