Vahe Gregorian

Spirit of Buck O'Neil helps NLBM president cope with vandalism

In this 1997 photo, Negro Leagues great Buck O’Neil poses with a statue of Satchel Paige at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
In this 1997 photo, Negro Leagues great Buck O’Neil poses with a statue of Satchel Paige at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. File photo

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick is about as effervescent and optimistic as a person can be — not to mention passionately dedicated to feeling a calling to be more like Buck O’Neil, the poet laureate of the Negro Leagues, ambassador for baseball and a founding force of the NLBM.

But sometimes even Kendrick labors to reconcile what the world serves up. Vandals on Friday cut a water pipe on the second floor of the Buck O’Neil Research and Education Center in the former Paseo YMCA building that let loose flooding through two floors.

Most likely, the $100,000 parquet floor of what is now a ballroom will have to be replaced, and who knows how much more it will cost to fix the drywall and other damage, and to what degree insurance will cover this.

To say nothing of the emotional ramifications of the mean-spirited act.

“It’s disheartening; it leaves you questioning humanity, and you don’t want to be that way,” Kendrick said Tuesday, managing a laugh and adding, “You want to carry that Buck O’Neil spirit, which is that spirit of forgiveness: As he would always say, ‘I never learned to hate.’

“I am trying to be more Buck-like. I’m not there yet. I am still a work in progress.”

But the delightful man who has extended O’Neil’s legacy, who has helped so many appreciate the treasure that is the NLBM, also is getting some profound reassurance as he considers the impact of this being done to the building where the Negro National League was founded in 1920.

That starts, naturally, with the symbolic intervention — or perhaps some other sway — of Buck himself.

Somehow, the water stopped short of a panoramic exhibition of O’Neil in various stages of his life.

“Buck — undamaged,” Kendrick said, smiling. “The display is standing there in its full glory. It didn’t get touched.”

Which sounds about right for the indestructible heart and soul of O’Neil that Kendrick referred to as he spoke of the impending finish of the project in 2016.

“It’s a building that will certainly perpetuate his memory,” Kendrick said then. “You can’t help but think that ol’ Buck, somewhere in that great somewhere, is smiling looking down at the reality that his dream is not a pipe dream, that it is going to happen.”

So it’s only a pipe nightmare in this moment, Kendrick knows, and even as he processes it and wants to know why and who did it he is beginning to find a way to see something positive in this.

As heartbreaking as it was, the rapid and profound response from the community has been even more inspiring.

Numerous consoling messages on social media have touched Kendrick, no doubt including the one suggesting “love can outweigh the hate” and calling for the NLBM’s 7,000-plus Twitter followers to donate $20 apiece.

Also uplifting have been calls from the city and from the Royals, who asked “what we think our needs are.”

“It’s been heartwarming, the overflowing amount of concern,” said Kendrick, who attributed to “strange coincidence” a water-pipe bursting at the NLBM itself the same night, causing minor damage, and the recent suspicious fire that destroyed the home of the legendary Satchel Paige. “People have already expressed a willingness to want to help, whatever that is, whether it’s with labor or financially.

“It’s the Buck O’Neil spirit. He’s seemingly always brought joy out of despair, and I think that’s what we’ll see here. And (the vandalism) has put (the NLBM and its work) back on the tops of people’s minds. …

“And that’s without a call to action.”

Not a direct one, anyway, and Kendrick is waiting to see if that’s necessary as he awaits a report on the full damage and considers whether this could be covered through NLBM reserves and help from the city, a partner in this, and what insurance might cover.

“I mean, we always need support, and we could always channel it in a different direction, but I don’t want to take people’s money if we don’t have to,” he said. “Because you always want to a good steward of people’s resources.”

The most powerful and encouraging point here, though, is that no call to action will be necessary unless it’s just to formalize.

Because from just about the day of O’Neil’s death on Oct. 6, 2006, this has meant so much to so many, and still does.

A few days after O’Neil’s death, the Kansas City Enshriners coalition of businessmen chaired by Ollie Gates voted to contribute $50,000 toward jump-starting the YMCA project as part of a “Thanks A Million, Buck” fund drive that had been initiated weeks before he died.

A gift of $1 million was pledged by Julia Irene Kauffman at O’Neil’s memorial service.

“We will put Buck’s dream into reality,” she said that day. “Thank God for Buck.”

Moreover, as Kendrick put it, when “Mr. Gates (volunteering as project manager) opened those doors and started the cleaning-up process,” people from all over the community showed up and put on old jeans and hard hats and started moving debris and sweeping and cleaning and doing whatever they could to help out.

Damage to the Buck O’Neil Research and Education Center is still being assessed after the structure was vandalized. But community leaders should use the incident as an opportunity to further galvanize around a baseball legend.

“There was so much community pride in this,” Kendrick said, later adding, “Not only do we feel like we were violated, many in the community feel like they were violated to have this happen.”

So Kendrick still can’t help but wonder why, wonder if somebody was angry about something or just spewing venom or who knows what else?

But he knows the answer that matters ultimately is this:

Be more Buck-like. Have a resilient, forgiving heart. Make a way when there is no way. And somehow see the good in this.

“Buck’s spirit still looms very large in this town,” he said, smiling and later adding, "We're not going to let someone derail Bucks' dream."