Politicians Pay Attention When Mr. O’Neil Goes To Washington

By Joe Posnanski
Updated: November 16, 2005

WASHINGTON, D.C.— The Senate National Parks Subcommittee hearing was going along pretty much like you would expect. There was talk about amending the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area Act. There was talk about a bill that would help improve sites honoring past U.S. presidents.

Apparently, the Chester A. Arthur site is in need of massive renovations.

No, that is not a joke.

Anyway, the hearing was every bit as riveting as you might expect, and then the microphone slid to a one John Jordan Buck O’Neil.

“I would like to have my comments entered into the record,” he said.

“I’m 94 years old,” he said for the record. “Good black don’t crack.”

What a day. Tuesday, Mr. O’Neil went to Washington. He went, officially, to speak about a bill, Concurrent Resolution 60, which would give national designation to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City — essentially, the bill would make it America’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Unofficially, Buck went to Washington to do something he had never done before. He gets so few chances after 94 years. Buck played baseball against Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson. He scouted baseball all over America. He was friends with Satchel Paige. He was the first African-American coach in the major leagues. He appeared on David Letterman. Next year, he might be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Buck had never before testified before Congress.

“This is some kind of place,” Buck said in the morning as he arrived at the Russell Building, where many senators have their offices. The day was a blur. Here are the parts I remember. Buck and Missouri Sen. Jim Talent held a press conference to talk about the Negro Leagues Museum. Talent is sponsoring the bill in the Senate. Buck told everybody how the museum started in a $200 a month room back in 1990. He told them how it grew. He told them how his wife, Ora Lee, stricken with cancer, wanted only to live long enough to see the museum move into the big building it now occupies on 18th and Vine.

Ora lived long enough. She died the night after the grand opening.

“She said, ‘I made it,” he told those reporters. “And she died in my arms.”

Buck signed a few autographs. He said a few more words. He then made his way through a maze of hallways and elevators and ended up on the little subway that looks like a kiddie ride at an amusement park and takes people over to the Capitol.

“Whee!” Buck shouted as the subway traveled some 500 yards.

Lunch. Talent took O’Neil to the Senate Dining Room. Buck ate the famous Senate bean soup — everybody in the Capitol had told him he had to have the famous Senate bean soup — and he looked around. There was Samuel Alito, the nominee for the Supreme Court. There was Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and Indiana’s Evan Bayh and New Mexico’s Pete Domenici. At some point, Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum came over to shake Buck’s hand.

Buck did not know them all. He really didn’t know any of them.

He just knew he had arrived.

“Look at me,” he said. “Senator O’Neil.”

After he ate the last bean, Buck rode the subway again. He wound through more halls, took more elevators and ended up in the Dirksen building, where the National Parks subcommittee was meeting. These hearings can look so impressive on C-Span, but, at least in this case, nobody seemed to be paying attention at all. Various people testified about the bills, and most of the time only one senator, Hawaii’s Daniel Akaka, was even present. To his credit, he valiantly tried to look interested.

Then, it was Buck’s turn. Suddenly, Talent emerged. Suddenly, Ohio Sen.Mike DeWine, whom nobody expected, showed up. “I’m here to listen to Buck O’Neil,” he explained. Suddenly people around the Capitol turned up the volume on their televisions.

Suddenly everyone, including the other people testifying, was captivated.

Buck explained that black players, shut out of the major leagues, made their own league. He detailed how great those players were. He talked about how Jackie Robinson integrating baseball kick started the civil-rights movement in America. Buck said that he had dedicated his whole life telling the Negro Leagues story, and now at 94, he understood that he only had another 25 years to do that.

He then entered into the official record that he had hugged Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“This is the greatest country in the world,” Buck said. “I’ve been all over the world. But you can’t beat the U.S. of A. Here, you can be whatever you want to be. I’m living proof of that.”

At the end of the testimony, DeWine asked for an autograph and announced he wanted to co-sponsor the bill. Others with wide-ranging titles and jobs came over to shake Buck’s hand. There was a buzz in the subcommittee. “That was amazing,” Talent said. “These hearings are never like that. They are usually so, you know, dry.”

In the end, this whole thing was more or less just for display. Dog and pony show, the Washington people call it. Talent and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City, who is sponsoring the bill in the House, believe the museum will get its national designation, and there shouldn’t be a big fight. The bill does not ask for money, just a little national recognition for the Negro Leagues and a museum that Buck helped start 15 years ago in that tiny room. They didn’t need Buck O’Neil to get this thing passed.

But, with steroids and baseball still in the news, with the image of Rafael Palmeiro shaking his finger and insisting that he never used steroids still fresh in the mind, with Terrell Owens in the news, there was a good reason to have Buck here.

“Washington could use a lot more of Buck,” Talent said.

At the end of the day, though, Buck had had enough Washington. The mazes, the elevators, the walking, the talking, the constant whispering among aides, the nonstop pace, it all wore him down. Buck was wiped out. Earlier, he had gone to visit one of his favorite huggers, Hillary Rodham Clinton, but she had been tied up with something or other and could not see him. Buck was asked if he wanted to try again. He shook his head no.

“I’ll see her the next time I testify before Congress,” he said. “Let’s go home.”