Like Jackie Robinson, Buck O'Neil Helped Break Color Barrier in Major League Baseball In His Own Way

By: Marc H. Morial

President and CEO,
National Urban League

The African American community experienced a major loss earlier this
month when Negro Leagues great John "Buck" O'Neil died at the age of 94
of congestive heart failure.

Unlike Jackie Robinson, who gained national prominence as the first
black baseball player in the major leagues, Buck missed out on
integration by a year or two. His playing career was winding down as the
color barrier was broken. But he still managed to make his own impact in
the dugout. As the major leagues' first African-American coach, he
brought numerous blacks to the "show" including future Hall of Famers
Lou Brock and Ernie Banks.

Born on Nov. 13, 1911 in Carrabelle, Fla., Buck got his first taste of
baseball at an early age through his father, who played around town on
local teams.

Nicknamed "Buck" after Buck O'Neal, co-owner of semi-pro team Miami
Giants, he was denied the opportunity to play major league baseball
because of his skin color. So, Buck made the most of the limited
opportunities available, carving out an illustrious career in the
American Negro Leagues.

After a short stint in Memphis, he returned home to the Kansas City
Monarchs from 1938 through 1955, with the exception of a two-year break
to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

With a career batting average of .288 including four .300-plus seasons,
the first baseman led the league in hitting in 1946 with a .353 average.
A year later, he achieved his career best — .358.

A veteran of three All-Star games and two World Series, Buck joined the
legendary Satchel Paige to play numerous exhibition games at the height
of the Negro Leagues barnstorming in the 1940s. He rose through the
ranks from first baseman to player/manager from 1948 until he turned to
full-time management in 1955.

He finally got his own chance in the major leagues, starting off as a
scout for the Chicago Cubs, where he remained 1988. In 1962, he became
the first African American coach. Buck eventually returned home, joining
the Kansas City Royals as a scout in 1988 and earning "Midwest Scout of
the Year" honors a decade later, at the age of 86.

But not until 1994 did mainstream Americans finally know who he was,
thanks in part to his role in Ken Burns' PBS documentary Baseball. His
mild-mannered narration of the Negro Leagues' history won him widespread
respect and major media attention, including appearances on "Late Night
with David Letterman" and the "Late, Late Show with Tom Snyder."

As head of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, he proved a
tireless crusader for Negro Leaguers deserving Hall of Fame recognition
and official historian/storyteller of the Negro Leagues. In fact,
earlier this year at 94, he proved instrumental in getting 17 Negro
League legends inducted. He, however, missed the Hall of Fame by one
vote.

Even so, Buck held no grudges and harbored no bitterness. He even gave a
speech at the induction. He always said he was "right on time" despite
not receiving baseball's greatest honor.

In 1995, he, according to the Kansas City Star, waxed philosophic before
a group of 200 well-wishers on the Hall of Fame's failure to induct him.

"God's been good to me. They didn't think Buck was good enough to be in
the Hall of Fame. That's the way they thought about it and that's the
way it is, so we're going to live with that … Just keep loving old
Buck. Don't weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful," he said.

At his memorial service, which drew more than 10,000 mourners, his
great-great nephew – John O'Neil Askew – was called to speak of Buck's
legacy.

"He was the most grounded person in our family. He was not caught up in
the hype of being the ambassador for the Negro Leagues. He was just
'Uncle Buck'," he said, according to the Associated Press.

Back in 2003, I had the great honor of meeting Buck during a tour of the
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He definitely lived up to his reputation
– a class act. He proved a mild-mannered unassuming man and diehard
supporter of the cause.

Buck died knowing his sacrifices paved the way for greater opportunity
for African Americans in his beloved sport. He might not have achieved
the fame of Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson or
Hank Aaron but he played an instrumental role in breaking down the color
barrier in our country in his own way.

When faced with limited opportunity, he took adverse circumstances and
made the most of them. Although he personally didn't realize his
ultimate dream of playing in the major leagues and winning a spot in the
Hall of Fame, he opened doors that enabled his successors to realize
their dreams.

His life should stand as an example that a dream deferred is not
necessarily a dream deferred when it entails making the dreams of others
come true.

Now, if only the Hall of Fame will come to its senses – and vote him in
posthumously.

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