Many years ago I, along with my teen-aged nephew and father had the honor of meeting John “Buck” O’Neil. At the time we were visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. On this particular day he just happened to be there.
We were simply awestruck. I was impressed that he took the time to talk with us. “Buck,” as he is affectionately referred to was a very busy man. He encouraged my nephew to stay in school and maintain good grades. Because he and my father were from the same generation, they talked like long-lost friends. And I was grinning from ear to ear. I finally came back down to earth and asked for an autograph. He graciously gave us all one. Of course that is one of my special treasures.
JUST WHO IS JOHN “BUCK” O’NEIL?
He was born on November 13, 1911 in Carrabelle, Florida. He was an African-American baseball player who started his career at the young age of 12. The first team he played for was the Sarasota Tigers.
From 1934 to 1938 he played on various teams in the Negro Baseball League. While playing for the Memphis Red Sox in 1937 he earned $100 per month. He settled in Kansas City for a 4 year stint with the Kansas City Monarchs. During this time they won four back-to-back American League pennants.
Buck led the Monarchs to a four-game sweep against the Homestead Grays in the Negro World Series. He also won batting titles in 1940 and 1946.
In 1956 he served as a scout for the Chicago Cubs. He made history in 1962 by becoming the first black to coach in the major leagues. He stayed with the Cubs organization until 1988. At that time he returned to Kansas City. One year later he became a scout for the Kansas City Royals.
Buck O’Neil was co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. This position gave him many opportunities to speak all over the country. He became rock star in status.
In 1956 he published his story in the autobiography entitled I Was Right on Time: My Journey From the Negro Leagues to the Majors. He was also a member of the Veteran’s Committee of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Although a nominee to be inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in February of 2006, he was one vote short. His fans were not happy. He responded by saying the following in The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum brochure, “Baseball fulfilled me like music. I played most of my life and loved it. Waste no tears for me. I wasn’t born too early. I was right on time.”
As impressive as these feats are, there were many other things he accomplished in his lifetime. But the one thing that I will always remember about him was his contagious smile. He had a humble and caring spirit.
He not only made a contribution to the sport of baseball but most importantly to mankind.
John “Buck” O’Neil passed away on October 6, 2006.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum brochure