Our Time With Buck O’Neil Is Precious

By Joe Posnanski
Updated: September 17, 2006

KANSAS CITY — Buck O’Neil looks old, and that’s new. Though he’s 94 years old, and almost 95, he has all his life been young and vibrant and alive. There was this time we were in a hotel ballroom in Gary, Ind.

It was before a luncheon of some kind. A barbershop quartet began singing, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” Before the first verse ended, Buck jumped in the middle of the group. He sang in his rich baritone. He danced in step.

“That sounded like old times!” he shouted when the song ended, and sweat made his face shine in the chandelier lights. In that moment, age was meaningless. He was 93. He could have been 14.

Buck does not look anything like that now. He has lost weight. His face has thinned so his glasses now seem too large for his eyes.

He grabs my arm, pulls me close and he speaks, but that beautiful voice of Buck’s, the deep voice that made people hold hands and sing, has dissolved into a soft whisper. Doctors aren’t quite sure why.

“What … … …?” “I’m sorry, Buck. I couldn’t hear you.” He pulls me a little closer.

“What were those Royals players fighting about in the dugout?” he asks.

And Buck smiles, leans back and closes his eyes while I tell him that I didn’t know all the reasons pitcher Runelvys Hernandez and catcher John Buck scuffled — we would need a team of psychiatrists to get to the bottom of that one — but I had heard it was mostly over what pitch to throw. Buck shakes his head, and he seems to whisper, “Oldest story in the book,” but it’s hard to hear for sure.

Two months ago, Buck felt unusually tired. It had been a long year. He had been going about his usual schedule — speaking about baseball and the Negro Leagues across America, appearing at every charity function in Kansas City and all that.

This year, though, he also had to deal with the Hall of Fame headache. Many thought he would be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was not. There was a fair amount of outrage. And people kept asking Buck how he felt.

Buck checked into the hospital. That set off a pretty decent little panic in Kansas City — he’s so beloved in this town. Rumors swirled. Gossip buzzed. Someone said Buck had congestive heart failure. It wasn’t true. An anonymous caller claimed he was close to death. He was not.

The Negro Leagues Museum had so many calls that marketing director Bob Kendrick held a news conference to announce that Buck was not dying. Kendrick felt ridiculous — he thought it was like the airport having a news conference to announce that planes landed safely — but that’s how much people care.

All the while, Buck kept feeling tired. Buck has lived a very public life — he was a ballplayer, a manager, a coach, a scout and a spokesman for baseball — but in a sense he has always been a private man. Certain feelings and certain emotions are his own. And he does not want people to see him at less than his best.

He quietly faded out of sight. Doctors told him to rest. He rested. He postponed all his speaking engagements. He canceled his out-of-town trips. Most telling, he didn’t get around Kansas City much.

I think that was the hardest part. Buck always got around town. I would imagine 90 percent of the people I meet around town have their very own Buck O’Neil story. Meeting people helped Buck feel young.

Rest may be good for his body. But it’s hard on his soul. The people closest to Buck best know that he has to do. He has to talk, sing, hug, laugh, teach, remember and dance — he’s a man of verbs. “Moving is the opposite of dying,” he has told me.

And when I see him again, I see how much leaner he looks. I hear the whisper that his bass-drum voice has become. I know how hard it is for him to be away.

“I gotta get out,” he says. “I gotta get stronger. There are things I still gotta do.” His voice may be weak, but Buck O’Neil still laughs. He has his sharpness and his memory. He wants to talk about things, life, sports, and how he had to turn away from the television when he saw Chiefs quarterback Trent Green’s head bounce off the turf.

He talks about good Cajun food, the great multiracial baseball team that played in Bismarck, N.D., in the 1930s and how kids today have so many more ways to go wrong than ever before.

“You have to watch them,” he whispers. “You have to lead them right.” He looks me in the eye, this beautiful man I’ve become friends with, this beautiful man all of us have become friends with, and I remember again how much we have to treasure our time with Buck O’Neil. He is our gift.

He was denied so many things in his long life — denied an education, denied a chance to play and manage in the major leagues, denied an exalted place in the game he celebrated and honored — and he let the bitterness go. He fought hate with love. Can anyone do more than that?

He tries to do more. Buck has a big project. He raises money for the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center, which will be an interactive baseball experience and a Negro Leagues library.

What excites Buck even more, though, is that it will bring the lessons of baseball and the Negro Leagues to schools. He says this center — which will be built at Paseo YMCA, where the Negro Leagues began — could be the greatest thing he has ever done in his life. “We’re going to teach those kids,” he says.

You can help Buck by going to the Negro Leagues Museum Web site (www.nlbm.com) and clicking on the “Thanks a Million Buck” logo. Also, there’s a fund-raising event indoors at Starlight Theatre on Nov. 11 in conjunction with Buck’s 95th birthday.

Details are still being worked out, but one thing for certain is that women will be asked to wear red dresses. This goes back to a story I’ve told about this time in New York when we were walking back into a hotel. Just outside the door, we passed a young woman wearing a bright red dress.

Next thing I knew, Buck was gone. I looked around but couldn’t find him. Finally, I looked back and saw Buck talking to the woman in the red dress.

They talked and laughed for a long time, and finally Buck hugged her and walked into the hotel. He asked me if I had seen that woman. I said that I had. He shook his head.

He said, “Son, in this life, you don’t ever walk by a red dress.” It’s one of the great lessons I’ve learned from Buck O’Neil. You don’t walk by life. You live it. I ask Buck how he feels about all the red dresses that will be there at his birthday party. He smiles. And he whispers: “I’ve got to get well. I’ve got to see that.”