Buck O'Neil's legacy continues to grow through realization of his dream
Ten years ago Saturday, 94-year-old Buck O’Neil and dear friends sat in a conference room in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in anticipation of a mere formality being made official.
The vote of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Special Committee on the Negro Leagues was being cast that day.
And O’Neil seemed the surest of candidates for such immortality, largely because of his role as the radiant poet laureate of the Negro Leagues who had somehow continued to animate and perpetuate the extinct enterprise years after its demise.
With his suitcase packed for an imminent flight to Tampa, Fla., where the committee was convened, O’Neil amiably entertained as congratulations were streaming in.
Then came the unfathomable, excruciating phone call from the Hall of Fame’s Jeff Idelson:
O’Neil had fallen short of the nine votes he needed from the 12-person committee.
It’s still hard not to feel crushed when you envision this cruel emotional ambush about to descend on O’Neil, who died a few months later from complications of congestive heart failure and bone marrow cancer … even if friends such as Ollie Gates and Bob Kendrick would later say a broken heart contributed, too.
“Medically, I don’t know if that’s possible,” said Kendrick, now the museum’s president. “What we do know is science is one thing, will is a whole other thing.”
But a decade later, this isn’t just a sad saga about what happened to O’Neil because of a clunky process that proved to be dominated by wonky interpretations of the task and suspected by some to have been influenced by petty grudges.
Because a decade later, O’Neil’s irrepressible spirit still thrives.
The jilting was only a prelude to his truly ever-lasting legacy, one that no plaque can illuminate and one that explains why his story will be passed down through generations.
It’s easy to still fixate on that exclusion, of course, but to be Buck-like would be to think of it this way:
There was more to cherish and be uplifted by in what was to happen next — and what has come since — than there was to condemn or mourn in the committee’s decision to leave out a man who became a national sensation at 82 through his role in Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary.
Let’s start with the Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball beautifully atoning for the omission by commissioning a life-sized bronze statue of a smiling, dapper O’Neil holding a KC Monarchs hat that since 2008 has greeted visitors to the Hall. O’Neil’s name also is now entwined with MLB’s lifetime achievement award.
“It shines in many ways a more unique and larger spotlight (on O’Neil) than there maybe would have been if he had been elected with 16 others,” said Idelson, now the president of the Hall of Fame.
Even if it’s not quite the same, even if remains a shame that O’Neil didn’t live to see that, it’s also entirely true: How perfect is it that Buck O’Neil now welcomes all who enter the baseball cathedral in Cooperstown?
“As a matter of fact,” Kendrick said, “it may in many ways be even more significant than him getting the plaque on the wall.”
But that’s just one of many ways O’Neil’s presence still reverberates, from the Royals’ Legacy Seat program that honors community members who serve in his spirit to the flourishing Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which expects record attendance again this year.
The museum is soon to further replenish the 18th and Vine District with the ongoing renovation of the former Paseo YMCA into the John “Buck” O’Neil Education and Research Center, due to open later this year.
And the corridor will be further energized by the museum’s partnering role with the Royals, the city and others in the forthcoming formation of the Kansas City MLB Urban Youth Academy.
These are the sorts of things that kept driving O’Neil to preach the gospel of the Negro Leagues, the sorts of things that were being engaged even as he died on Oct. 6, 2006.
Days later, the Kansas City Enshriners coalition of businessmen chaired by Gates voted to give $50,000 toward jump-starting the YMCA project as part of the “Thanks A Million, Buck” fund drive that had been initiated weeks before his death. The lead 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.”
The project has taken longer than expected, but Kendrick is hopeful that the center will be open at least in part by late summer — and that O’Neil’s aura within will loom as large as the image of him that now adorns the south wall.
“It’s a building that will certainly perpetuate his memory,” Kendrick said. “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.
“And that hopefully if we do our jobs properly it will impact particularly young lives inspired by the teachings of Buck.”
Maybe no teaching of O’Neil’s would be more profound than his last lesson, the one that came in the wake of one of the most agonizing moments of his long life.
“Instead of us consoling him, he was consoling us,” Kendrick said. “He reached out his arms and wrapped them around that entire room and said, ‘It’s OK.’ …
“I still think it’s one of the most amazing displays of strength of character I ever witnessed and likely ever will witness.”
What could be more lasting and poignant than the humanity that defined him in this most vulnerable of moments and scenes?
“He’s a unique human being, and he showed it all his life,” said Fay Vincent, the former MLB commissioner who chaired the Special Committee but had no vote. “But that performance that he put on after he was rejected was ultimately one of his greatest moments.”
The committee of scholars and historians that day selected 17 to the Hall of Fame, including five executives, out of a group of 39 finalists culled from an original pool of 94 with no limit on how many could be elected.
As Vincent recalled by telephone from Florida on Thursday, he understood the group had reservations about O’Neil because his credentials as a player and manager were good but not great. But Vincent tried to make it clear that O’Neil’s broader contributions to the game, including his ambassadorship and his time as a respected scout and coach with the Chicago Cubs, were part of his resume.
“We could apply whatever standard we wanted,” he said, “and I felt that Buck belonged in the Hall of Fame.”
In the ensuing emotionally-charged search for why O’Neil was snubbed, the forensics were inflamed by publicly expressed issues with then-museum director Don Motley by at least four committee members and an accompanying perception by some of bloc voting.
Those who sensed something fishy were further incited by the committee conducting secret ballots, a disbelief that they weren’t given the tallies themselves and the voters’ agreement not to reveal their own picks.
“If you didn’t think he was good enough, if that’s truly how you feel, I disagree, but I can’t be angry with you if that’s your conviction,” Kendrick said. “I can’t be mad at you for that, but you should be able to stand up and tell people why.”
The crux of the problem, though, was a less-than-precise process and mandate, something for which Hall of Fame board members later apologized to Vincent, he said.
Kansas City historian Larry Lester, who made key contributions to the museum in its formative years only to come into conflict with Motley, was on the committee and declined to revisit the matter, referring instead to his extensive comments in a 2006 Star story.
But in his email forgoing the interview, Lester noted he was saddened to have been portrayed as a force in “keeping my dear friend Buck out of the hall.” He later followed up to affirm the process, in part: “Please note, all of my favorites did not get into the Hall of Fame, and others that did not receive my vote were so honored.”
It’s been widely reported that O’Neil missed by one vote, but Lester and Vincent said they had no specific knowledge of that.
“One cannot know as the vote was secret,” Vincent said in an email. “I never saw the votes.”
Exasperated and saddened as he was by the result, having sat through it all and heard any debates, Vincent said, “I don’t think there was any malice, no. …
“I think it was a straight call … I don’t think there was anything illegitimate or that it was tainted. I think it was (done) on the merits.
“It’s just that … I don’t like the way it came out.”
Idelson’s phone call that day 10 years ago was a sucker-punch to the gut of Kendrick, who returned to the conference room, sat at the table and grappled to compose himself.
Then he broke the news to O’Neil, telling him “we didn’t get enough votes.”
With fury and bafflement ricocheting around the room, O’Neil looked up at Kendrick, smiled and said, “That’s how the cookie crumbles.”
Then O’Neil asked how many had made it.
Seventeen, Kendrick told him, a point that had only made Kendrick madder … and left O’Neil startling him by thumping the table in jubilation.
Next thing you know, O’Neil was wondering if he’d be asked by the Hall of Fame to speak for them because, well, none of the prospective inductees was alive.
This left in disbelief Kendrick and former Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski, who had spent the 2005 baseball season roaming the country with O’Neil — as delightfully chronicled in his book, “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.”
“This was no more than three minutes after he’d been told that he had not been elected to the Hall of Fame,” Posnanski wrote in a column for NBC Sports. “This was no more than three minutes after the last great rejection in a life that had been filled with rejections.”
Incredulous, Posnanski asked, “You would do that?”
“Son,” O’Neil said, “what has my life been about?”
As Kendrick made what he called the longest walk of his life from the second-floor conference room down to the Field of Legends, where hundreds waited to celebrate, Kendrick was telling himself over and over, “you can’t cry” even as tears were filling his eyes. As he mustered the words, he saw a room full of the types of shocked faces you might see in times of crisis.
But then came O’Neil to make a concession speech that implored them not to be angry or harbor ill will.
“Now, if I’m a Hall of Famer for you, that’s all right with me,” he said. “Just keep loving ol’ Buck. Don’t weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful.”
That was hard for anyone to do because O’Neil had lived in such a way that many not only were outraged but saw him as a cause.
That’s quite a legacy, too, to inspire others to take up for you.
And so they did, from the more than 50 newspapers and websites that wrote scathing criticisms of the process … to the likes of talk-show hosts Steven Colbert and Keith Olbermann … to the group of kids and a teacher from Seattle who rode their bikes here trying to deliver to O’Neil 10,000 signatures from fans who believed he belonged in the Hall.
As it happened, O’Neil’s last public-speaking appearance would be at the Hall of Fame that summer, giving a triumphant speech for the voiceless 17.
He finished that joyous talk as he often did, by asking all in the crowd to hold hands — even “you Hall of Famers,” he said — and sing along with him.
“The greatest thing … come on, everybody! … The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you,” he sang, repeating the chorus several times.
For all the other ways that O’Neil remains with us, tangible and intangible, this is the essence of why:
A final example he left despite the anguish, and perhaps even anger, he had to feel inside 10 years ago Saturday but wouldn’t let consume him or sway him from his kind, merciful way.
“Sui generis,” said Vincent, invoking the Latin phrase for “in a class of its own; not like anything else.”
“What he clearly demonstrated,” Kendrick said, “was you can get further in this life with love than hate.”