In his own words: Talking with Buck (Part 2)

By Chris Murray, BASN Staff Reporter
Updated: July 20, 2009

Buck O'Neil PHILADELPHIA (BASN) –When I was a sportswriter/columnist with the Philadelphia Tribune back in 2005, I wrote a series of articles on the plight of African-Americans in baseball.

One of the stories that I wrote focused on the impact that former Negro League players had on Major League Baseball once the game was integrated. One of the people that I interviewed for this series for this series was legendary Negro League manager the late John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil.

O’Neil was Satchel Paige’s roommate on the road during the course of their barnstorming throughout the country. He shared the stories of Paige’s exploits in a number of documentaries including Ken Burns acclaimed PBS series, “Baseball.”

My interview with O’Neil took place back in August of 2005. We talked about the impact Negro League players had on baseball once the game was integrated, but we talked about other subjects as well.

In the craft of journalism, we like to write glowing prose about interesting people we interview. But there are also times when it is necessary for us to get out of the way and allow our sources to have the floor.

And so to quote the Staple Singers, let us get out the way and let the gentleman do his thing. Buck O’Neil in his own words:

On Jackie Robinson, Philadelphia and Southern players:

“Of course, you had a lot of Southern players on that Philadelphia ball club. When you think about it, the majority of the baseball players at that time were from the South. These are white guys and they were strictly segregationists. …

We’re (Kansas City Monarchs) playing in Yankee Stadium and Branch Rickey called me and said ‘Buck come out—[this is Jackie’s first year]- and bring the team to see Jackie.’ During batting practice, I went down on the field. I’m talking to Pee Wee Reese and the second baseman and I said, ‘is Jackie going to make it?”

“And they said, ‘we’re going to see that he makes it.’And these are Southern boys. You know down there in Cincinnati they’re booing Jackie and that’s when Pee Wee came and put his arm around Jackie’s shoulder. That stopped the booing and he’s a Southern boy.”

On Robinson congratulating the 1950 Phillies for winning the National League Pennant after their harsh treatment of him:

“Jackie was so much bigger than many of those people. Another thing, too. What you got to realize and a lot of people don’t realize…the people that was booing Jackie wasn’t baseball fans. This was the Klan. This was the haters who might not have gone to a ball games in their life. That’s what they came to do—Hate. But the real baseball fans, can you play?”

His concern about the lack of Africans-Americans in baseball and his view of how it happened:

“Of course, but we’re changing that now because of the RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner City) program and they’re bringing baseball back in the inner city. They moved baseball out of the inner city to the suburbs. When I came along, all of the churches had baseball teams and baseball leagues. In the inner city, all the kids played baseball. They played baseball and baseball was actually a way out for the Black kids.”

What happened was the Black kid started taking over basketball, taking over football, so they wanted a spot for the white kid, so they moved baseball out of the inner city and they put up basketball courts in the inner city so kids can shoot the baskets and they can shoot baskets all night long if they wanted to. It kind of backfired on them because now the Latin kids are taking over baseball and the kids from foreign countries are taking over baseball.”

“I remember the times when the middle infielders were white kids—5-foot-10, 170 pounds. The middle infielder, the centerfielder—that’s the Latin kid now because he brings that quickness and that strong arm to baseball. That little white boy was good, but what he’s doing now he’s going to soccer and things like that. When you look at ball clubs now, the winning ball clubs, you see these Latin players on the team.

“Right here in Kansas City, we’ve got 400 kids playing baseball and softball in the inner city. They got 1,000 kids in New York City doing that, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, St. Louis. Wait until about 10 years from now, you’re going to see a lot of Black kids back into Major League baseball.”

On the hostility that young Black players faced in the minors in the South during the early years of integration:

“It was terrible, it was terrible. Jackie played in Montreal. That was a different story than playing in Savannah, Georgia. What these guys had to put up with was tough. But we had the same spirit that our forefathers had when they got out of slavery. You know what I mean. This was baseball. We are the greatest survivors that ever lived. They learned to survive even before they integrated baseball.”