Saturday, October 07, 2006

Negro Leagues icon Buck O’Neil dies at 94

By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star

Beloved Negro Leagues icon and Kansas City legend Buck O’Neil died Friday night. O’Neil was 94.

He spent his life playing, coaching and finally promoting baseball. He was a batting champion, a three-time All-Star, and a wildly successful manager for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues before becoming the first black coach in the major leagues with the Cubs in 1962. As a scout, he is credited with discovering and signing Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock, among others.

After his coaching career concluded, O’Neil devoted his life to spreading the stories of the men who played in the Negro Leagues. He captivated audiences of all ages and races with stories of Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and others.

He became something of a national celebrity as the narrator of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, “Baseball,” in 1994. Since then he became the top ambassador for the Negro Leagues, telling his stories on national radio and television, including with David Letterman.

In Kansas City, he gained fame as the leader of the effort to build the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the 18th and Vine district. Once it was built, O’Neil served as the museum’s chairman and its most effective promoter.

“It’s really hard to express what he meant to everybody in Kansas City and certainly to me, professionally, and even more personally as a dear friend,” said Bob Kendrick, marketing director for the museum. “He will be greatly missed by everybody. It will be a tremendous void in all our lives. But Buck would not want us to be sad, so we’ll try to be a little more upbeat. But obviously that’s hard right now.”

Kendrick said he did not know when services would be. There will be a 2 p.m. news conference today at the museum.

O’Neil was the subject of national attention when he was not among 17 Negro Leaguers elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in a special balloting in February. Several Hall of Famers, including Bob Feller, have since said they will work to correct what they perceive as a major mistake.
Following the disappointing news, O’Neil was less affected than most. At a news conference the day he found out, he told the crowd, “Shed no tears for Buck. No, no. Ol’ God’s been good to me. You can see that, don’t you? If I’m a Hall of Famer for you, that’s all I need. Just keep loving ol’ Buck.”

O’Neil still agreed to give the keynote address — and predictably stole the show — at July’s induction ceremonies in Cooperstown. The speech was just part of a whirlwind summer that included two at-bats at a T-Bones game, and appearances and autographs in New York City and Kauffman Stadium and points in between.

The activity apparently took a toll on O’Neil, as he was admitted to a hospital soon after to treat exhaustion. At a news conference following his release, he spoke briefly but was obviously still recovering.

Nearly all of his scheduled appearances this fall were canceled so that he could rest. He was readmitted to the hospital about three weeks ago, and his condition never improved.

Those who saw O’Neil play remember him as a good, if not stellar, ballplayer who was always highly respected by his teammates. He will be remembered most for the charisma and openness that drew in a large audience, which he entertained with stories about everything from the ills of segregation growing up in the South to why baseball legend Satchel Paige called him Nancy.
He was born John Jordan O’Neil, on Nov. 13, 1911, in Carrabelle, Fla., the son of a ballplayer. He was nicknamed “Buck” after the co-owner of the Miami Giants, Buck O’Neal. He was denied the chance to attend college in Florida and to play in the major leagues because of segregation, but decided at a young age that the best way to fight hatred and ignorance was through love.

As a ballplayer, he had a career batting average of .288, including four seasons above .300. He hit .353 and won the 1946 Negro Leagues batting crown, his first season back after two years with the Navy. The next year, he hit a career-high .358. He also toured with Paige at the height of Negro Leagues barnstorming in the 1930s and 1940s.

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