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Buck O'Neil Was a Charismatic Historian of Black Achievement

By Shola Adenekan

October 9, 2006.

Buck O’Neil was a grandson of slaves who became a star player in the Negro Baseball Leagues in the days when black sportsmen were not allowed to take part in Major Leagues Baseball.

Apart from being a three-time All-Star first baseman during his Negro Leagues playing career, O’Neil also broke racial barriers as the first officially-recognised black coach in the major leagues and late in life found national fame as the endearing historian of a colourful yet shameful era in America’s number one sport.

John Jordan O’Neil was born on November 13, 1911 , in Carrabelle , Florida . His family later move to Sarasota , Florida where his father, John O’Neil, found job as a saw-miller on a celery plantation.

He learned baseball early in life  and became attached to it through his father who played in a local black team. The young O’Neil was the batboy, and even then, the future first baseman had good hands. The team played catch with him and sometimes threw him pennies and nickels. By age 12, he was already playing for semi-professional black teams.

As a boy growing up in the 1920s south, then known for rabid racism and state-supported segregation laws, O’Neil had not seen black players among the major baseball teams who came to Florida for seasonal spring training.

That all changed when his uncle and father took him to Palm Beach, Florida to watch the famous black baseball player, Rube Foster, played in a team of black players entertaining white owners of the city’s fancy hotels.

“I saw these guys play ball,” O’Neil recalled. “I had never seen anything like it. These guys were running, stealing bases, hitting home-runs, everything. I said, ‘that’s for me.”

Education for African Americans in most Southern states stopped at the eighth grade and there were only four high schools specifically for blacks in Florida. As Sarasota High School refused to admit him because of his skin colour, a broken-hearted O’Neil left home to leave with relatives in Jacksonville , where he obtained his high school diploma followed by a two year of higher education at Jacksonville ’s Edward Waters College.

After college, he began playing professional baseball with travelling black teams, among them was the Zulu Cannibal Giants, whose white owner made his player wear demeaning straw skirts instead of normal uniforms.

In 1938, O’Neil joined Kansas City Monarchs, one of  the premier black teams. He led the team to four straight championship titles between 1939 and 1942.

He was an excellent clutch-hitter and a first-rate baseman, leading the Negro Leagues with .345 batting average in 1940 and a career-best .358 in 1947. To this day, many baseball players grab their marucci wooden bats and attempt to hit as Buck did.

In 1948, he became the player-manager of the Monarchs, guiding them to two Negro Leagues titles in 1953 and 1955.

In 1962, a tumultuous time of change in America when civil rights activists were risking their lives on the back roads of the Deep South , O'Neil broke a meaningful racial barrier when the Chicago Cubs made him the first black coach in the Major Leagues. He had been serving as the club’s scout since 1956.

He was credited with discovering many notable black players some of whom went on to enter Baseball Hall of Fame.

O’Neil said that he was too old to make the transition into Major Leagues Baseball when as a 35-year old in 1947, African-American players were allowed to play alongside white players. It was the year that Jackie Robinson broke the colour-barrier by becoming the first black player to sign for a white team when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In 1981, O’Neil became a member of the veterans committee of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and was a powerful force in the induction of forgotten Negro Leagues stars into the hall. Nine years later, he was instrumental in the establishment of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

But O’Neill only became a national celebrity in 1994, when he served as a commentator and historian of black achievements in the game for a TV documentary called “Baseball”.

As a historian of blacks’ role in the game, O’Neil said that he had a great time playing in the Negro Leagues and recalled spending his free time in hotel lobbies talking jazz with Count Bessie, Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughn.

In February this year, the man who many had thought was a sure bet for the Hall of Fame, missed out by one vote, much to the disappointment of his fans.

His wife of 51 years, Ora Owen, pre-deceased him in 1997. The couple had no children and O’Neil is survived by a brother. He died on October 6, 2006.

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