Buck O’Neil: A Hall of Fame man getting his long-overdue recognition

FILE - Buck O'Neil walks to the field as he is introduced before a minor league all-star game...
FILE - Buck O'Neil walks to the field as he is introduced before a minor league all-star game Tuesday, July 18, 2006, in Kansas City, Kan. O’Neil, a champion of Black ballplayers during a monumental, eight-decade career on and off the field, has joined Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso and three others in being elected to the baseball Hall of Fame, on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Charlie Riede, File)(Charlie Riedel | AP)
Published: Jul. 24, 2022 at 8:17 AM CDT|Updated: Jul. 24, 2022 at 1:27 PM CDT
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) - Anyone who knew or spent time with Buck O’Neil will tell you Sunday is bittersweet. Ecstatic that a Kansas City icon will be enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Still heartbroken the man isn’t alive to get the recognition he deserved.

Nevertheless, John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil was inducted Sunday afternoon in Cooperstown, New York.

O’Neil was a Negro World Series champion in 1942, a three-time All-Star with the Kansas City Monarchs, and he even took over as a player-manager in 1948. His career in the 30s and 40s was sandwiched around WWII service time. The year after he returned from the war, O‘Neil was the Negro American League batting champion in 1946 with a .353 average.

After the Negro Leagues began to dissolve due to the integration of Black players into the American and National leagues, O’Neil was hired by the Cubs as a scout. He would later scout for the Royals, returning to the city in which he earned his stripes as a player.

The native of Carrabelle, Florida helped establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the 18th and Vine Jazz District, just two blocks from the Paseo YMCA where Andrew “Rube” Foster established the Negro National League in 1920.

The Kansas City and baseball community will never forget his moving speech in 2006, speaking for 17 late Negro Leagues players who were inducted into the Hall of Famers. It should have been a day to celebrate his own achievement. The man who founded the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, was a tremendous player in his own right, would sign eventual Hall of Fame players in Ernie Banks, Lou Brock and Lee Smith when he scouted for the Cubs, was under consideration by a select committee.

Optimism was palpable. It was cut short in the most devastating of ways. Buck O’Neil fell one vote short of achieving a Hall of Fame selection.

O’Neil delivered the speech anyway, a rousing 6-minute exhibit of the heart and resilience of a man who devoted his life to the game.

“I never learned to hate,” he said. “I hate cancer. Cancer killed my mother. My wife died 10 years ago of cancer.”

And in typical Buck O’Neil humor, he followed that up with, “I’m single, ladies.”

Buck O’Neil died just two months later at the age of 94. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.

“O’Neil lived long enough to see the game of baseball, and America, change for the better,” the president said at the time. “He’s one of the people we can thank for that. Buck O’Neil was a legend, and he was a beautiful human being. And we honor the memory of Buck O’Neil.

Two years after his death, the Hall of Fame introduced the Buck O’Neil Award, given to “an individual whose extraordinary efforts enhanced baseball’s positive impact on society, broadened the game’s appeal, and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the qualities exhibited by O’Neil.”

Sunday’s ceremony in Cooperstown won’t erase the years of heartbreak that followed Buck not being given the honor he so richly deserved, but it doesn’t mean the Kansas City icon won’t be celebrated.

“It is a little bittersweet because we won’t get to high-five and chest bump with our guy,” NLBM president Bob Kendrick told NBC sports. “But that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment, and it doesn’t diminish the opportunity to celebrate all that he did.”

“I’m sure when we get to the moment on July 24, I’m going to be overcome with emotion. But these will be tears of joy, not the tears of anguish we shed in 2006, because my friend’s baseball legacy is fully in place. He’ll take his proper place among the immortals of our game. Of course, as we both know, his legacy is far greater than baseball.”