Buck O’Neil: The face of the Negro Leagues

If anybody in baseball ever had every reason to be surly and sullen during his life, Buck O’Neil is that man.

Instead, nobody ever saw O’Neil when his face didn’t look like a template for the yellow smiley face.

The first time I saw him was when the Cincinnati Reds played an interleague series against the Kansas City Royals. I visited the Negro League Baseball Museum and he was there, a broad smile splashed across his pleasant face.

When I told him how sorry I was that he was never afforded the opportunity to display his talents in the major leagues because of his skin color, the smile broadened and he said, “You’ll never hear me complain about anything because I’ve had a wonderful life and I’m still living a wonderful life.”

At the time, he was in his 80s and as sharp as ever. And he remained that was into his 90s, a man whose memories of life in the Negro Leagues were lucid, vivid and highly entertaining.

After chatting, he handed me a Kansas City Monarchs cap, like the one he wore as a first baseman for the Negro American League team and I cherish it to this day.

Few people, even knowledgeable baseball people, ever heard of O’Neil until he was 84 years old and Ken Burns used him as the spokesman/historian for his documentary, “Baseball.” And a legend was born.

As an ambassador to baseball, there was none better than Buck “Nancy” O’Neil — and this from a guy who never smelled the hot dogs or walked on the grass as a major-league player.

Instead, he spent his life playing in the segregated Negro leagues, mostly for the Monarchs, playing with and against such legendary black stars as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and ‘Double Duty’ Radcliffe. And it was Paige who gave him the nickname of Nancy.

When Branch Rickey broke the color barrier in 1947 by signing Jackie Robinson, O’Neil says there were players in the Negro Leagues who were better players than Robinson.

“But those other players would not have stood what Jackie stood,” he said. “Jackie had a black cat thrown on the field in front of him. Had they done that to Willie Wells, he would have picked up the cat, walked into the stands and shoved it down that sucker’s throat. But Jackie knew that he had 21 million black folks riding on his shoulder.

“Jackie was as fiery as any man who ever lived,” said O’Neil. “He would knock you on your butt. But he had to play a role that wasn’t in his character whatsoever. Everything got holed up inside because that’s what Mr. Rickey wanted and demanded. And that’s why Jackie died so young.”

What O’Neil didn’t say was that he was 37 when the color barrier toppled, but still he refused to be bitter and he entitled his autobiography, “I Was Right On Time.”

O’Neil’s father was a semi-pro player on all-black teams and Buck served as a batboy, but not for long. By the time he was 12 he was playing semi-pro ball.

At one time he played on a barnstorming black team called the Zulu Cannibal Giants, a team owned by a white man who made the team wear demeaning grass skirts.

In 1937, he was signed by the Memphis Red Sox in the new Negro American League and sold to the Kansas City Monarchs in 1938. He played until 1950, appearing in four All-Star games and two Negro League World Series.

He was an excellent clutch hitter, leading the league in hitting in 1940 with a .340 average and a career-best .358 in 1947 (while Robinson was playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers). In 1948, while Larry Doby became the first black player in the American League, O’Neil became the player-manager of the Monarchs in a fast-disappearing Negro Leagues and won titles in 1953 and 1955.

O’Neil, though, was a barrier breaker in his own right. In 1962, the Chicago Cubs hired him as the first African-American coach.

In 2006, 17 people were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame from “The Era of the Negro Leagues.” O’Neil missed by one vote — although two white people were elected.

Once again, O’Neil turned the other cheek.

“Ever since they made their decision, people keep callin’ me and asking me about it,” he said. “But I can’t complain because I’m having a wonderful life.”

The injustices began during his childhood when he lived in Sarasota, where African-Americans were not permitted to attend the all-white schools. And there were only four black schools in the entire state of Florida, and they were called negro schools.

O’Neil had to move in with relatives in Jacksonville, Fla. where he could attend Edward Waters College and obtain his high school degree.

O’Neil once told an interviewer, “I’ll tell you what hurt me more than not being able to play major league baseball. First, you have to realize I thought I was playing the best baseball in the world in the Negro Leagues. What really hurt me was not being able to attend Sarasota High School and the University of Florida, although my father was paying taxes to support those institutions just like the white man. But the white man was thinking, ‘If I keep him dumb, I can work him for a dollar a day.'”

O’Neil’s snub by the Hall of Fame was somewhat rectified in 2007, one year after his death, when The Buck O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award was established, an award given every three years to a baseball figure. The 2011 award goes to long-time baseball executive Roland Hemond, whose name goes on a plaque on a life-sized bronze statue of O’Neil at the Cooperstown Hall of Fame.

To those who were touched by O’Neil and viewed his infectious smile, Buck O’Neil was the face of Negro League baseball.