On Friday, October 6, 2006, baseball lost a great ambassador, personality, and storyteller when John "Buck" O'Neil passed away a few weeks short of his 95th birthday. O'Neil had been admitted to the hospital on September 16th with extreme fatigue. O'Neil's was a life in baseball, and his love for the game is something that those that knew him and baseball fans everywhere will always remember.
Buck O'Neil was born in Florida in 1911, and spent part of his youth hanging around the spring training camp of the great Yankees teams of that era. He barnstormed with Satchel Paige and other great Negro League stars as a young man, and later starred in the Negro Leagues, twice winning league batting titles. As a manager for the Kansas City Monarchs he led the team to five pennant winning seasons and two Negro League World Series victories.
In 1962, just a few short years after Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier, Buck O'Neil became the first black coach in the majors, with the Chicago Cubs. Later, as a scout for the Cubs, he helped sign future Hall of Fame players Lou Brock and Ernie Banks, as well as future stars Joe Carter and Lee Smith. He also served as a scout for the Kansas City Royals, and as a member of the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee.
If O'Neil's contributions to baseball had ended there, he would still have been considered a major contributor to the game. They did not, however, not by a long shot. O'Neil has spent his life sharing his love of the game and more stories than can be counted about his time in the game. He was one of the leading advocates for the preservation of the history of the Negro Leagues.
A popular fixture in Kansas City, where he was chairman of the Negro League Baseball Museum that is located in that city from it's opening until his death, O'Neil was launched into the national spotlight in 1994, when he played a prominent role in filmmaker Ken Burns' epic "Baseball" series.
Vivacious and very lucid to the very end, Buck was a master storyteller, spinning many yarns about his time in the Negro Leagues, keeping the memory of his fellow players alive for younger generations. Part of what made O'Neil so well loved, in addition to his abilities as a historian and a master storyteller, was his optimism and wit. Kept from playing in the major leagues because of the color of his skin, O'Neil was never bitter or resentful. When he was asked many years after the fact if he'd wished he'd been born later so he could have played in the majors, he famously replied no, that he had been "just on time".
Early in 2006, the Baseball Hall of Fame commissioned a panel of experts to vote in a special election to honor Negro League greats with induction into the hall. Many expected Buck O'Neil to finally be honored, but it was not to be. O'Neil fell one vote short, while 17 others, all deceased, were elected. Again never bitter, O'Neil spoke at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in July.
Even though he was not elected, he, as always, handled the situation with grace and an amazing sense of perspective "Shed no tears for Buck," he said. "I couldn't attend Sarasota High School. That hurt. I couldn't attend the University of Florida. That hurt. But not going into the Hall of Fame, that ain't going to hurt me that much, no. Before, I wouldn't even have a chance. But this time I had that chance. Just keep loving old Buck."
Later in July, O'Neil became to the oldest man to appear in a professional baseball game when he batted leadoff in both the top and bottom halves of the first inning of the Northern League All-Star game.
Buck O'Neil fought against prejudice and against many odds to lead a great life in baseball, and he shared that life with so many fans of the game that, while it seems odd to say about a man who was almost 95 years old, it feels like was taken from us too soon. So seldom are we blessed to have someone like O'Neil share his or her lives experiences with us. Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, upon hearing of O'Neils' death, summed it up far better than I ever could dream of by saying "What a fabulous human being. He was a blessing for all of us. I believe that people like Buck and Rachel Robinson and Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa are angels that walk on earth to give us all a greater understanding of what it means to be human. I'm not sad for him. He had a long, full life and I hope I'm as lucky, but I'm sad for us."