We—baseball fans, America, humanity—lost a great man recently.
John "Buck" O'Neill, one of the true greats in all of baseball history, passed away Friday (6 Oct 2006) at the age of 94.
If you are a true baseball fan, then you might know who Buck O'Neill was, and why he rates notice on the sad occasion of his passing.
If you are a casual fan, or not a fan at all, then know this: Buck O'Neill ranks among the greatest players to never play even one inning in Major League Baseball. By all accounts, O'Neill was one of the best hitters professional baseball ever saw. He won batting titles, anchored championship teams, played and managed with some of the greatest players ever, and witnessed the Golden Age of Baseball from the dugout and his familiar position at first base.
But there is a melancholy twist to this tale. For Buck O'Neill was black. And for that reason, Buck O'Neill played in the "seperate but equal" Negro Leagues of the 30s and 40s alongside such legends as Satchel Paige and Josh "Homerun" Baker and Cool Papa Bell. By the time integration finally came to baseball in 1947 with Jackie Robinson, O'Neill was already long past the point of being able to play.
But that's where his story starts to really achieve grandeur. Rather than curl up in disgust for opportunities missed (or denied), O'Neill retained his trademark warmth and joy, becoming one of the great ambassadors of the game. Not "the white game" or "the black game"—just "the game of baseball."
He became one of the first black baseball scouts for a major league team, helping the Cubs find such talents as Ernie Banks. Later, O'Neill would become the first black coach at the major league level, taking an assistant job with the Cubs in 1962.
Later, after his playing and coaching career ended, old #22 just kept on preaching the gospel of baseball. O'Neill became the face of the Negro League, offering thousands of speeches and talks on his experience in that wild and wooly time, when baseball was still more game than business, regardless of skin color. He became the living breathing soul of the Negro Baseball Hall of Fame, that timeless link to a past which few of us can understand but none must be allowed to forget. Anyone who ever heard Buck O'Neill speak realized that they were in the presence of someone truly touched by a grace and dignity to which many aspire yet few will attain.
Yet for all his achievements and efforts and acclaim, Buck O'Neill never won admittance into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. This past January, for reasons that have never been explained or justified, O'Neill was not voted in, leading an army of baseball fans to howl in protest. Current and former major leaguers asked the question fans asked: how could Buck O'Neill be denied such a undeniably deserved honor? For many of us, it was an indefensible outrage, yet Buck would have none of it:
"Don't weep for Buck," he smiled. "Just feel happy, like I am, being thanful, like I am, that I can do and have done the things that I did do."
If you don't know about Buck O'Neill, please — please — Google his name and read a paragraph or two, and maybe pause to consider what a difference it can make to live a life with dignity and honor rather than anger and regret. If you've never heard O'Neill's beautiful rumbly southern drawl talk about Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and Satchel Paige and Josh Baker and that wondrous game of baseball wherein all great truths are revealed upon a field of green, then again use Google to track down a video or audio online and see if you don't feel your heart swell a little when you hear what true love sounds like, for if Buck O'Neil leaves us any legacy, it's love: love for baseball, love for friendship, love for hope.
In his autobiography, I Was Right On Time, O'Neill explained why he never felt or expressed even a tinge of regret over the fact that he missed a chance to play in the major leagues:
"There is nothing greater for a human being than to get his body to react to all the things one does on a ballfield. It's as good as sex; it's as good as music. It fills you up. Waste no tears for me. I didn't come along too early -- I was right on time.
"You see, I don't have a bitter story. I truly believe I have been blessed."
Godspeed, Buck. And thanks.