Buck O’Neil’s Legacy One Step Away from Completion

1Buck O'Neil of the Kansas City Monarchs demonstrates his first baseman's stretch(Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
1Buck O'Neil of the Kansas City Monarchs demonstrates his first baseman's stretch(Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images) /

“The rest of us were irate that he didn’t get in, but Buck O’Neil never expressed any ill-will toward those who made the decision,” said Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “He took it like a man. That’s what he did.”

Kendrick was good friends with Buck O’Neil, one of baseball’s greatest contributors who spent much of his life in Kansas City. Kendrick delivered the news to O’Neil that he had been rejected admittance into the National Baseball Hall of Fame following a committee vote in February 2006.

“He handled it in vintage Buck O’Neil fashion,” Kendrick said. “He handled it in a way that maybe only Buck O’Neil could have handled it with such grace, class and dignity.”

As O’Neil’s candidacy fell one vote shy, there were 17 other Negro League contributors, all deceased, that were admitted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. There was only one person who could be their voice at the induction ceremony, and that was Buck O’Neil. On June 30, 2006, O’Neil delivered the induction speech, several months before he passed away at the age of 94.

“In my opinion, that was the most selfless act in American sports history,” said Kendrick.

At last, 15 years after being left out, O’Neil has another chance to get voted into Cooperstown. This time, it is through a vote conducted through the Early Baseball Era ballot. This ballot consists of 10 men, all of whom are deceased, which would recognize the greatest contributors from the Early Baseball Era (primary contributions before 1950) and Golden Days Era (primary contributions 1950-1969).

The committees will consist of veteran media members, historians and Hall of Famers, according to National Baseball Hall of Fame Director of Communications Craig Muder. To be inducted, O’Neil will need 12 of the 16-person committee to vote for him, or 75 percent.

The committee will meet and vote on Sunday, Dec. 5 with the results of the voting announced on MLB Network’s “MLB Tonight” at 5:00 p.m. CDT.

“Any Hall of Fame selection is special because you’re talking about the top one percent of the people who’ve ever played the game or contributed to the game get elected to the Hall of Fame,” Muder said.

O’Neil built an impressive resumé on many fronts to transform the game of baseball. His playing days began in 1937 when he joined the Memphis Red Sox before being traded to the Kansas City Monarchs in 1938, where he was instrumental in building the most successful Negro League franchise.

Selected to the All-Star game in 1942 and 1943, O’Neil won the 1942 Negro World Series with the Monarchs. In 2012, O’Neil was one of nine players awarded with an honorary Rawlings Gold Glove for their exceptional careers they had on the defensive side of the game.

“He was tremendously underrated for how outstanding a player he was,” Kendrick stated. “He was one of the greatest defensive first baseman in black baseball history.”

It was O’Neil’s post-playing days that continued his unparalleled journey towards baseball greatness. He transitioned into coaching in 1948, where he managed the Monarchs to two league championships. O’Neil then moved to Chicago in 1955, where he started out as a scout for the Cubs in Major League Baseball (MLB). O’Neil is credited with bringing an influx of talent to the Cubs, highlighted by Lou Brock and Ernie Banks, who are both in the Hall of Fame.

Another significant contribution came in 1962, when he became the first black coach in the MLB with the Cubs. He returned to Kansas City in 1988, joining the Royals as a scout. Royals Hall of Fame Director Curt Nelson said he sat next to legendary Royals scout Art Stewart at almost every home game.

“He enjoyed sitting on that second aisle seat and watching all the young players come through and be able to watch them develop,” Nelson said. “His scouting role is an important part of his legacy in baseball too.”

Kendrick believes that O’Neil’s greatest contribution to the game was the erection of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in 1990.

“He wanted to make sure that those who were a part of the Negro Leagues would never be forgotten,” Kendrick explained. “He dedicated the last 16 years of his life to building and growing his museum.”

Both Kendrick and Nelson raved about how much he gave to the game. He started playing at the age of 12 and never stopped giving to the game.

“He was blessed with longevity,” Nelson said. “He lived to be 94 years old and lived through many different eras. He was here for the entire period of the growth and integration of Major League Baseball.”

Still to this day, O’Neil is honored around the baseball world. A year after his death, MLB announced the creation of the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, honoring those who dedicate their lives to make a positive impact on baseball. The Royals honor him with the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat at every game, where a member of the Kansas City community sits in the same seat he sat in. Nelson said this allows O’Neil’s contributions to be remembered alongside those doing great in the community today. There are several statues of him, including one at the entrance to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“He is still baseball’s greatest ambassador,” Kendrick said. “You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who has given more to the game than Buck O’Neil.”

Although O’Neil’s case for the Hall of Fame is strong, Kendrick is still approaching with caution.

“I would say I’m guardedly optimistic that he will get in,” Kendrick stated. “I just want to believe in my heart that he’s going to get in. But I’ll remind you in 2006 I thought it was a shoo-in that Buck’s going to get in and it didn’t happen.  While I want to trust my gut, my gut lied to me in 2006.”

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