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Still Left Out: Baseball Icon Buck O’Neil Wont Be On Hall Of Fame’s List of Negro League Inductees
LOS ANGELES — By Sunday, there will be 35 individuals affiliated with the black baseball era enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame. Buck O’Neil, generally considered the foremost ambassador and a living history of that bygone period, will not be among them.
For many who saw O’Neil play well over half a century ago and others who have since seen and listened to his passion for the game, that’s an injustice.
“I’m a big fan of Buck O’Neil,” baseball Commissioner Bud Selig wrote in an e-mail. “He is a charismatic figure who, throughout his life, has been a wonderful promoter of our great game. He is a true baseball legend.
“He should be in the Hall of Fame. As far as I’m concerned, he is a Hall of Famer.”
O’Neil had a 16-year career as a first baseman and manager with the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the Negro leagues’ storied franchises. He was a three-time All-Star and led the Negro American League in batting once, but his true measure probably came after his career with the Monarchs ended.
He became the first black coach in Major League Baseball, helped start the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., and rarely has missed an opportunity to promote the game that has defined his life and that he has helped define.
“He has all of the qualifications.
Professionally. Historically,” said Ulysses Hollimon, who grew up watching O’Neil play and later pitched against him while playing for the Birmingham Black Barons.
A special committee established to make a final selection of players from the Negro leagues and before in February chose 17 individuals to join the 18 who are already in the Hall. Ultimately, O’Neil did not make the cut.
As he has for most of his 94 years, John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil handled that disappointment without rancor.
“To me, whatever they do is going to be all right,” O’Neil said. “But to get into the Hall of Fame, that’s the top notch for every ballplayer. I was hoping that I got there, but the fact that I didn’t means that I shouldn’t be there.”
O’Neil will be at the induction ceremony Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., and will speak on behalf of the black baseball era and this year’s Hall of Fame class. None of the 17 being inducted are still alive.
“The thing about Buck is that he’s handled it easier than everybody else did,” said Jesse Rogers, a former outfielder and catcher with the Monarchs under O’Neil. “He’s been on committees and understands how those things work, so he’s not really too upset over it. He said for him to wake up every morning makes him a Hall of Famer.”
O’Neil said that his only complaint was that the 12-person committee was made up only of Negro leagues historians and authors, no former players.
“None of the people on that committee ever saw me play,” said O’Neil, who played for the Monarchs from 1938 to 1955, spending his last eight seasons as a player/manager.
“They could have had players still alive, but they weren’t on there. That’s what gets me…. But that’s all right; I’m going to Cooperstown and I’m going to represent the guys right.”
Things have not been going too well for the Kansas City Royals lately. They’re on pace to finish with more than 100 losses for the second consecutive year and will finish among the worst teams in the league in home attendance.
But on a recent hot, muggy Sunday afternoon, Kauffman Stadium was packed with excitement for a celebration of O’Neil and the Negro leagues.
“Buck is probably the best ambassador for not only the Kansas City Royals but for the entire city of Kansas City, period,” said Billy Cutchlow, who was among a large crowd that stood in line for more than two hours to get an autograph and handshake from O’Neil before the game.
“Any event that he shows up, people are generally interested and supportive…. There’s no doubt in my mind that he should be in the Hall of Fame. He has done more for the Negro baseball ballplayers than anyone.”
To many, O’Neil has been the face of Negro leagues baseball for decades. Known as one of the greatest historians and storytellers of the era, O’Neil’s celebrity status took off after he was featured in Ken Burns’ documentary “Baseball” in 1994.
Last Tuesday, O’Neil became the oldest player to appear in a pro baseball game when he was intentionally walked to lead off the Northern League All-Star game in Kansas City, Kan. He had been signed by the Kansas City T-Bones, who then traded him before the bottom half of the inning. O’Neil was walked again, but not without taking a swing that spun him around and nearly put him on the ground.
The T-Bones have been campaigning for O’Neil since the balloting was announced and say they have more than 10,000 signatures on petitions to have O’Neil enshrined.
“There have been plenty of people who have made commitments to the Negro leagues, but because of him being who he is, that’s why the history of the era is so popular now,” said Raymond Doswell, curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. O’Neil, who is board chairman of the museum, was instrumental in getting it off the ground.
“He was able to not only tell the story but tell the story well,” Doswell said. “He’s a former coach and a leader. He’s just been doing what he always does.”
O’Neil played an important role in earning pensions for former Negro leagues players and is a primary reason the Negro leagues museum has been such a huge success. He had proposed its creation for years before its founding in 1990, collected merchandise, drew attention to the cause and raised funds.
The museum has moved from a single office to a state-of-the art facility that has sparked a real estate revival around Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine Street district.
“The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is my pride and joy,” O’Neil said. “That’s the top of the line for my life. We’re telling the story, the history, of not only Negro league baseball, but of the segregation era. That was the reason we had the Negro leagues, because we couldn’t play in the major leagues, so we organized a league of our own, which was outstanding.”
Cuban-born pitcher Diego Segui, who played 15 years in the major leagues, skipped a paid autograph session to support O’Neil at the recent festivities in Kauffman Stadium.
“He helped open the door for me to be here,” said Segui. “If there’s anything for Buck, I’m going to be there. He has helped so, so many people. Players today don’t even understand what he’s meant to the game.”
In a final attempt to recognize outstanding individuals from the black baseball era, Major League Baseball gave the Hall of Fame a $250,000 grant to look into the history of African Americans in baseball from 1860 to 1960.
The next year, more than 50 experts on the black baseball era began compiling names to consider for induction. In 2005, the group produced a roster of 94 candidates that was cut to 39 by a five-member screening committee. A final 12-member special committee then reviewed the history of each candidate before voting earlier this year, with 75% approval needed for induction.
Seventeen individuals met the requirement: players Ray Brown, Willard Brown, Andy Cooper, Biz Mackey, Mule Suttles, Cristóbal Torriente, and Jud Wilson from the Negro leagues; players Frank Grant, Pete Hill, José Méndez, Louis Santop and Ben Taylor from before the Negro leagues took shape in 1920; Negro league executives Effa Manley, Alex Pompez, Cum Posey and J.L. Wilkinson; and pre-Negro leagues executive Sol White.
Although the results of the voting have never been released, most people acknowledge that O’Neil barely missed out.
“Any time that you put together an electoral process, you design it to be open, thorough and fair,” said Dale Petroskey, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum since July 1999.
“Sometimes the result of the election may not be the results that people hope for, but we have to live with [them].”
The Hall of Fame has been criticized for leaving O’Neil off the list. But ultimately, the committee decided O’Neil’s performance on the field wasn’t quite good enough for a spot in the Hall of Fame. He was a solid first baseman, but, with the exception of his batting title season, he generally hit in the .250 range most of his career.
“When we set this process up five years ago … our goal was to have an election that would put one time, everybody who deserved to be in, in and not wait another day to get into the Hall of Fame,” Petroskey said.
Among those contending that O’Neil should have been included were all 17 U.S. senators and members of the House of Representatives of Missouri and Kansas, who wrote the commissioner’s office asking that O’Neil be inducted under special circumstances.
“We’ve always held open the light that if more information was made available on any player, we would consider them for election down the road,” Petroskey said.
But he added that “it would take some extraordinary circumstances” for an individual, such as O’Neil, to be inducted now.
Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent was chairman of the special committee, though he didn’t have a vote, and said the committee “spent an extraordinary amount of time” on O’Neil.
There were claims that a previous dispute between the Hall of Fame and the Negro leagues museum over an audiotape worked against O’Neil, but Vincent stressed that the process was untainted by anything beyond an individual’s qualifications.
“It’s fair to say that Buck was not viewed widely as Hall of Fame caliber as a player, nor was he viewed widely as Hall of Fame caliber as a manager,” Vincent said. “But he was viewed as a Hall of Famer as an ambassador for the sport….
“Some felt that it’s not good enough to be an extraordinary person off the field and being a good spokesperson. Some may have felt that you had to be extraordinary within baseball. Reasonable people can differ on that.”
Said Petroskey: “Everybody loves Buck, I love Buck, he’s an American treasure, really. Baseball is better off and our country is better off by his contributions to the game….
It isn’t surprising to see that he got this type of reaction around the country.”
Although disappointed, O’Neil has never criticized the decision. That’s not his style.
“I came along in an era where everybody played baseball,” O’Neil said. “There were so many great ballplayers, so for me to break in with the Monarchs was just outstanding…. We knew that we were the best athletes in the world. I was just trying to do my part.”
O’Neil, who joined the Monarchs in 1938, spent his entire Negro leagues career in Kansas City, except for a two-year duty in the Navy during World War II.
O’Neil managed Kansas City to four league titles and coached game-changing players Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Ernie Banks before they joined the major leagues. O’Neil also was instrumental for former Monarchs Elston Howard, George Altman and Hank Thompson, who also went on to have standout major league careers.
“Naw, it doesn’t bother me,” said O’Neil, who, in 1956, was hired by the Chicago Cubs as a scout and helped sign future all-stars Lou Brock and Joe Carter. In 1962, the Cubs made O’Neil the first African American coach in the majors.
“This is special to see people still getting recognized,” O’Neil said. “But the thing is, every year, we’re losing more players…. The year before last, Bob Boyd was here, we lost him this year. Last year, Doc Horn was here, we lost him [on June 8]. We’ve got to do it while we can do it, because these are old men.”
O’Neil then paused and smiled.
“Or should I say, older men like me.”