Remembering Buck O’Neil

By Tony McClean
Updated: October 7, 2006

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — I met him once just in passing. But for that brief moment, he made me feel like I’ve known him forever. We may have talked for just a few minutes, but I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.

Buck O’Neil has now left us, and I like many others are deeply saddened by this news. The fact that God allowed him to grace us with his presence for nearly 100 years is probably one of the greatest gifts that life can offer.

About three years ago when I was working as a researcher for ESPN, I was lucky enough to briefly meet Buck. There were many times while working for the company that several athletes and other sports figures would come through the studios and newsrooms in Bristol.

This certain day was just another in the very long string of busy days at the place we employees called “The Mouse”. Because things are constantly going on within the research department, usually when dignitaries come in, we have just enough time to look up, see them and then get back to work.

However when I heard Buck was going to visit, I made it a point to make a beeline to him. We were just about to go on air for an ESPNEWS broadcast when I saw him and Bob Kendrick, marketing director of the Negro League Museum talking with one of the anchors, Brian Kenny.

Buck had just finished a brief Q&A session with Brian and he looked like he was about ready to leave. I jumped out of my seat so could at least get a chance to shake his hand or something.

When I finally got to him, I extended my hand to Buck and introduced myself to him. I told him about our website and how I began writing a weekly story about the Negro Leagues. I could tell he was pleased with this. We began talking for at least another five minutes or so.

I told him about my father, who played semipro baseball for many years and also played against many Negro Leaguers during his career. I told him about how his segments in the PBS documentary “Baseball” inspired me to study and learn more about the history of the Negro Leagues.

What struck me the most about Buck was his honest and genuine excitement when we talked about the game of baseball. Like many of the Negro Leaguers that I’ve had the chance to meet over the years, Buck was still truly a great fan of the game despite the prejudice and racism that it put them through.

Even after he was denied induction into the Hall of Fame earlier this year, Buck was still profound about his life and career. “Shed no tears for Buck,” he said at the time.

“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.”

We could have gone on for hours, but I could see he wanted to leave and I had to get back to work. I again shook his hand and told him it was an honor to meet him. He said likewise and told me anytime I was in Kansas City look him up and we’d get together at the museum.

I had another chance to run into Buck earlier this year when the museum’s “Times Of Greatness” exhibit made it’s visit to Shea Stadium in June. I just missed him that morning because of the rain, but I feel like he left me and the fans there a little gift.

That same day, New York rookie outfielder Lastings Milledge, one of the few African-Americans in the game, hit his first career homer against the San Francisco Giants. I couldn’t help to think that somehow Buck had a divine hand in making that happen.

Unfortunately, I have not yet gotten a chance to make that trek up to Kansas City. Now when I do get there, Buck won’t be there to greet me. More than ever, I want to get there as a way of paying my respects to the greatest ambassador the game of baseball has ever had.

Back in July, he batted in the top and bottom of the first inning of the Northern League All-Star Game, making him the oldest man ever to play in a professional baseball game.

While the publicity stunt was a nice touch, Buck O’Neil was more than that on and off the field of play. Through his majestic ways and calm demeanor, he humbly kept alive a generation of great men and moments that was silenced way too long.

I feel that it is incumbent upon myself and other black sports journalists to keep the legacy of Buck O’Neil and the Negro Leagues alive forever and ever. A great man once said we cannot progress as a people unless we choose to look back and understand our past.

That ideal has always been the driving force of our website. BASN celebrates the glorious past, present, and exciting future of African-American athletes. The history of the Negro Leagues and their contributions on and off the field are a major part of that story.

Me and my fellow writers take it upon ourselves to always embrace that philosophy not just when it’s convenient, but 365 days a year. The way I see it, folks like Buck O’Neil would have wanted it that way.

So long, Buck. We already miss you. Say hello to Satch, Josh, and the rest of the boys for all of us.