The Room Where It Happened

Ten years later, it's impossible to forget Buck O'Neil

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KANSAS CITY — Not that it matters much, but I don’t believe that I’ve been in this room for 10 years. It’s smaller than I remember.

Ten years. It seems impossible that much time has passed, but calendars reject sentiment. Ten years ago, Buck O’Neil died. He was 94 years old. He was a month away from 95. He had been sick for two months. Somehow, it still felt sudden.

And here we are, sitting in a small conference room on the second floor of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and this was the place where Buck O’Neil taught his enduring lesson of grace. There is something jolting about sitting in here today.

Buck O’Neil was a fine baseball player in the Negro Leagues — a good fielding first baseman who cracked enough line drives that he won one batting title and just missed a second. Buck was a tremendous Negro Leagues manager, respected and admired and beloved. Buck was a pioneering Major League scout; he signed Lou Brock and Joe Carter and Lee Smith and Oscar Gamble and, for all intents and purposes, Ernie Banks. He was Banks’ first professional manager and the man who facilitated Mr. Cub’s journey to the Chicago Cubs. More than any of that, Buck was Ernie Banks’ inspiration.

“Let’s play two,” Ernie Banks would say many times. “That was Buck O’Neil.”

Buck was the first African-American coach in the Major Leagues. He was the force behind the building of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He was the game’s ultimate storyteller, the conscience of the sport, the keeper of the Negro Leagues flame. And more than any of that, he was the most big-hearted person I’ve ever known.

All of this led to that day, February 27, 2006, the day Buck O’Neil was going to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I wrote a little something about that day already but being in this room, the room we were sitting in when Buck found out that he did not get enough Hall of Fame votes, makes me think of something a little bit different.

That year, I was writing the book “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.” It was my first book, and I had no idea how to do one. I kept doing these crazy outlines to map it out. I’d take out colored markers and draw all these lines. I’d take index cards and put them in dizzying shapes. I kept drawing arrows and thought bubbles. It goes without saying that I was getting nowhere.

But one thing I knew: Buck O’Neil getting into the Hall of Fame was the big finish. That was the crescendo. When the movie version of the book came out (starring Morgan Freeman!), when the Broadway show came out (still pitching Lin Manuel-Miranda) it would end with sweeping music, with Buck O’Neil on that stage in Cooperstown, with Buck singing his theme song (“The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you!”) and everyone singing along, and this wonderful man finally getting his due. It had to end that way.

Then, of course, it didn’t. No, I was sitting in that chair over there, to the left, and Buck was sitting 10 feet away from me against the far wall, and Bob Kendrick — now president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum — looked ashen as he said, “Buck, we didn’t get the votes.”

And Buck did this little shudder. It was tiny, barely noticeable and it lasted a tenth of a second, if that. I often try to shake that shudder from my mind. Then he quickly said, “Well, that’s how the cookie crumbles.”

I was so angry. A part of me wants to be angry again as I return to this room. It was just so WRONG. This man had lived the greatest baseball life the world had allowed him. Could he have been a big Major League Baseball star? We’ll never know. Could he have been Casey Stengel as a manager? We’ll never know. What we do know is that he had played with heart and managed with soul and dedicated himself to finding the next baseball stars, to bringing new fans into this sport he loved more than anything, to be sure that great players cheated by history were never forgotten.

And even at the end, at the very end, they told him he wasn’t good enough.

The anger subsided. Barely two minutes after being told he was not voted into the Hall of Fame, he said that he would be willing — honored, even — to speak on behalf of the 17 deceased Negro Leaguers who were elected. I was shocked.

“You’d do that?” I asked him.

“Son,” he said, “what has my life been about?”

Two days after that, he called me and asked me to write a column thanking everyone for their support. “I never felt more loved,” he said. And I realized, more slowly than I should have, that this man didn’t need the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame needed him.

And the Hall of Fame has embraced Buck. There’s a statue of him inside the museum. The Buck O’Neil Award, given to people around baseball who embody his spirit, is given out every other year. And along the way Buck O’Neil received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among numerous other awards. Thursday, on the 10th anniversary of his death, Kansas City’s Broadway Bridge — one of the iconic structures in town — was renamed the John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil Bridge. It was touching and fitting. Buck O’Neil often talked about bridges. He used to say that we often honor the people who cross that bridge — Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso and so on.

And we don’t often honor those who built the bridge.

But even after I realized that Buck’s Hall of Fame snub was no tragedy — and it had no impact on his grand life — there was still a matter of how to end my first book. I no longer had that stirring, Disney-esque final scene. I thought about ending it with his beautiful Hall of Fame speech for the 17 deceased Negro Leaguers, a testament to his spirit. I thought about ending it with one of my favorite Buck O’Neil stories, the red dress story or the Nancy story or the Billy Williams story or … there are a million.

In the end, unfortunately, there was only one way to finish the book. On Oct. 6, 2006, we bought a new piano. Our oldest daughter was four years old then, our youngest was just one, and we wanted them to grow up in a house of music. That night, I was pressing piano keys in some tuneless melody when the phone rang. Buck was gone.

And I ended the book like so.

Buck lasted a week longer than friends and doctors expected. Buck O’Neil died that October night I was trying to play jazz on a shiny new black piano. Baseball and jazz, he had always said, were the two best things in the world. Of course, I was just plinking keys on a piano. I wasn’t really playing jazz.

“It’s all jazz,” Buck had said.

Buck was ninety-four years old, almost ninety-five. He asked me not to cry when he died, but I did anyway.

Ten years. I still think about Buck O’Neil at least once every single day.