Following a defiant seventh-round knockout of previously unbeaten Jose Pedraza (22-1, 12...
O’Neil Never Flinched Under Racism’s Whip
It was near Sarasota, Fla., in November 1911 that he came into a world that could have made any black man bitter, hostile, detached.
He took a different route.
“I was born so far south, if I had stepped backward I would have been a foreigner,” the man said yesterday, the slight stoop in his 91-year-old shoulders hardly noticeable under a thick white cap of hair and a warm smile.
The assembly of more than 100 people who had gathered for a luncheon at PNC Park’s Home Plate Club that launched the Pirates’ African American Heritage Weekend laughed, but only for a moment so as not to miss what else the man had to say.
In school in Sarasota, he developed a crush on a teacher, Mrs.
Booker, who would influence his early life.
Later, he looked forward to attending the town’s shiny new high school. That’s when he got his first lesson in racism. His grandmother sat him down and told him he could not attend Sarasota High School because it was for white kids only. So he stayed in the black school.
As a teenager, he got his first job as a shoeshine boy. “They’re still talking in Sarasota about how well I could shine shoes,” he said.
At 17, he worked on a farm as a box boy. It was grueling in the Florida summer, and one day he reached his limit. “I said, ‘Damn, it’s got to be something better than this.’ ”
He soon found out, much to his shock, that his father, a foreman on the farm, had overheard him. “I doubt if I ever said ‘damn’ before, but it was hot that day,” he said.
Instead of punishing him, his father told him about someone who was teaching baseball skills at the black children’s school. Baseball suited him fine.
With Mrs. Booker’s help, he got into college. For a couple of years, he played baseball in the summers and continued his education in the winter. The Miami Giants finally asked him to stay over the winter. They were offering more than the $70 a month Mrs.
Booker made as a teacher.
“I called my mama,” he said, but she scolded that while Mrs. Booker could earn that money until she was 70, baseball couldn’t carry her son into old age. “So I said, ‘Mama, let me talk to Papa.’ ”
Eventually, an offer to play in Havana, Cuba, for $700 a month plus expenses lured him to baseball full time.
He couldn’t play major-league baseball, which barred black players for most of the first half of the 20th century, but, in 1938, he became a star first baseman for one of the marquee Negro Leagues teams, the Kansas City Monarchs. He hit a league-best .353 in 1946 and .358 in ’47. He became player/manager in ’48 and remained with the team through ’55.
He was a three-time Negro American League All-Star, played in two Negro American League World Series and was a regular on the Negro League’s barnstorming tours. He is chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, the beneficiary of the luncheon yesterday.
By the time he was able to break into the majors, it was as a scout for the Chicago Cubs. He signed Ernie Banks and Lou Brock, among others. In 1962, he became the first black coach in the majors.
“I played against Babe Ruth, yes I did,” he said, but it was in exhibitions.
“I played against JoshGibson,” he said of the famous black player from Pittsburgh. “I played with Cool Papa Bell. I played with Satchel Paige.
“I’ve had some success, but I never knew what I might have been.”
That’s the ugly truth of segregation, but it doesn’t live on his well-preserved face.
“I never learned to hate,” he said. “Oh, I hate cancer. Cancer killed my mother. Cancer took my wife six years ago.
“I hate AIDS. AIDS killed a good friend of mine.
“But I can’t hate another human being. God made human beings.”
When he finally was invited to Sarasota High School for an honorary diploma because of his Negro Leagues career, the turnout was so big the ceremony had to be moved outside to the football field.
“The kids who celebrated that day were the great-great-grandchildren of the people who wouldn’t let me in for only one reason — this great tan that I have,” he said.
He remembers when those who came to hear him speak all looked the same — “like it was the NAACP,” he said. Yesterday, his audience was a mix of black and white, male and female, young and old.
“That’s why this room looks so beautiful to me,” he said. “I saw it when it couldn’t look this pretty.”
Life hasn’t beaten up this 91-year-old man. There is nothing sad about him.
The only sad thing was that more people weren’t there yesterday to hear him speak and then ask everyone to hold hands and sing with him.
Then John “Buck” O’Neil’s strong, lovely voice carried over everyone else.
“The greatest thing in my life is loving you.”