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Nancy

The legendary pitcher Satchel Paige called Buck O’Neil “Nancy.” Why? According to Buck, it had something to do with a pretty woman named Nancy whom Satchel had invited to see him play ball in Chicago.

“We’re at the Evans Hotel in Chicago. Satchel and I are in the lobby, in front of a bay window, sipping on a little tea. A cab drives up, and out steps Nancy, pretty as a picture. Satchel gets the bellman and they take all her stuff up to Satchel’s room. I go back to sitting at the table.

“I wasn’t there 20 minutes, when another cab drives up. And out steps Lahoma. Lahoma was Satchel’s fiancée. I said, ‘Oh, oh,’ I greeted Lahoma, and I said, ‘So good to see you, Satchel stepped out with some reporters, but he will be back presently. Come sit down and have whatever you want.’ She ordered a drink, and I went to the bellman and said, ‘Hey man, you better go upstairs and tell Satchel that Lahoma is here.’ I was in the room next to Satchel, and next to me was a vacant room. I said: ‘You go put Nancy in that vacant room and come back when you’re done.’

“We were staying on the second floor of the Evans Hotel, so if Satchel comes down the elevator or the stairs we’re going to see him. He goes down the fire escape, walks around the building, walks in the front door. And he says, ‘Oh, Lahoma, what a pleasant surprise.’

“We had a good time that night. Joe Louis came by and spent some time with us. Now it’s 11 o’clock, and I say, ‘Well, we got a game tomorrow, better get some sleep.’ But I can’t sleep because I know Satchel’s got to go see Nancy, give her some money so she can go home.

“After about an hour, Satchel’s door opens, and I say, ‘Uh huh, it’s going down right now.’ Satchel goes to Nancy’s door and knocks lightly. He whispers, ‘Nancy.’ No one answers.

“He knocks a little louder – ‘Nancy!’ No one answers.

“He knocks loud now. ‘NANCY!’

“When he yelled that, Satchel’s door opened. I know that has to be Lahoma, so I jump out of bed and open my door and say, ‘Satchel, are you looking for me?’

“And without missing a beat he says: ‘Yes, Nancy, what time is the game tomorrow?’

“And I’ve been Nancy ever since.”

* * *

Every single day, I think at least once about Buck O’Neil. I wrote my first book, “The Soul of Baseball,” about him, but his impact on my life goes so much beyond that. Just the other day, I got an email from somebody I hadn’t talked to in years. We’d had a disagreement, and to be blunt about it, he’d said some pretty indefensible things. He wasn’t someone I considered a friend anyway, so it was pretty easy to forget all about him.

Well, it turns out that he has fallen on hard times. He was writing to apologize … and, more than that, to ask for a small favor. I read the email a couple of times, and there was a single question that overpowered my mind: “Why SHOULD I forgive him?” There seemed absolutely nothing for me to gain by forgiving him, nothing at all, and his apology was muted at best, and he’d been so spiteful when it suited his purposes.

Why should I forgive him?

And then I thought about Buck O’Neil. And everything else melted away.

* * *

Something better

Buck O’Neil was the grandson of a slave. He grew up in Sarasota, Fla., in the 1920s.

“In those days, there were only four high schools in the state of Florida which a black kid could attend. That was Miami, West Palm Beach, Tampa, Jacksonville. I went to Booker Grammar School, and so, after I finished eighth grade I’ve got to work. I went to work on a celery farm. I was a box boy. I made sure the people on the farm had empty boxes to fill up.

“My Daddy was a foreman on that farm. At lunchtime one day, man, it was hot, and I was sitting on the other side of the boxes and I said, ‘Damn, there’s got to be something better than this.’ I didn’t know my father heard me.

“That night my father said to me, ‘Son, I heard what you said behind those boxes.’ I thought he was going to reprimand me for saying ‘Damn,’ cause he’d never heard me say ‘Damn’ before. To tell you the truth, I doubt I’d ever said ‘Damn’ before, but it was hot that day.

“Instead, he said, ‘Son, there is something better. But you have to go out and get it.’”

* * *

Buck O’Neil would have turned 103 this week, and I think now, as I often have before, about being with Buck O’Neil in that little conference room on the second floor of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. There were only a few of us in there, and Buck was chatting away nervously. He was nervous, though he didn’t want anyone to know. That was the day he was going to be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Baseball Hall of Fame had done something admirable: They had spared little expense and created something called the “Special Committee on the Negro Leagues” or SCNL. It was an impressive collection of Negro Leagues historians and scholars. The purpose of the committee was to do an exhaustive study of Negro Leagues baseball and to honor those deserving players and contributors who had not yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

The SCNL was given a kind of free reign that is unique in the Hall of Fame’s history. There were almost no limits placed on them. The Hall of Fame – through its relationship with the Baseball Writers and various veterans’ committees – has always been very careful about making Cooperstown the most exclusive Hall of Fame in American sports. That has meant placing strict limits on how many players get in.

You go back to 2000, and (not counting the SCNL) here is the average number of people inducted into each Hall of Fame each year:

Basketball Hall of Fame: 8

Pro Football Hall of Fame: 7

Hockey Hall of Fame: 5

Baseball Hall of Fame: 3

But the SCNL was not handcuffed or limited. The committee was told: Elect every Negro League player and contributor who is worthy. They began with a ballot of 94 people, and then cut it down to a final ballot of 39. Each player was up for a simple yes or no vote and so, by design, all 39 could get elected (unlike the BBWAA ballot where each voter can vote for a maximum of 10 players).

There were only two living men on the final ballot: The beloved outfielder Minnie Minoso and the man who, more than anyone else, had kept alive the memory of the Negro Leagues, Buck O’Neil. Minoso did not play very long in the Negro Leagues but Buck – well, he was the heart and soul of the movement to keep the Leagues alive.

“You’re going to get in for sure, Buck,” he was told countless times by people all around baseball. The congratulations poured in before he was officially elected. Newspaper accounts had him all but in. Everything about the day was set up as a celebration for a life in baseball.

Buck O’Neil anxiously sat in the corner, telling stories, trying, I think, not to let anyone see just how much getting into the Hall of Fame would mean to him.

* * *

The sound

“I was a kid in Florida, in Sarasota, and the New York Giants trained in Sarasota. When teams would come, we’d stand outside the ballpark, and we would get the balls they hit over the fence during batting practice. We’d sell them to the tourists. And we made a stepladder so we could climb a pine tree out there. That way we could look into the ballpark.

“The Yanks were in town. I’m out there behind the fence, and I hear this sound. I’d never heard THAT sound off the bat before. Instead of me running to get the ball, I ran up the ladder to see who was hitting it. Well, it was a barrel chested sucker, with skinny legs, with the best swing I’d ever seen. That was Babe Ruth hitting that ball. Yeah.

“I don’t hear that sound again until 1938, I’m with the Monarchs, we’re at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C. We’re upstairs, changing clothes, and the Grays are taking batting practice. I’ve got nothing on but my jock. And I hear that sound. I ran down the runway, ran out on the field, and there’s a pretty black sucker with a big chest and about 34 in the waist, prettiest man I’d ever seen. That was Josh Gibson hitting that ball.

“And I don’t hear the sound again until I’m a scout with the Cubs. I’m scouting the Royals. When I opened the door to go downstairs, I heard that sound again. I rushed down on the field, and here’s another pretty black sucker hitting that ball. That was Bo Jackson. That’s three times I heard the sound. Three times. But I want to hear it a fourth. I go to the ballpark every day. I want to hear that sound again.”

* * *

Buck O’Neil was a good baseball player, not a great one. He never claimed to be great. He was a tall, slick fielding first baseman with a little bit of speed and almost no power. But he was a natural leader – they started calling him “Cap” for Captain more or less the day he arrived in Kansas City to play for the Monarchs. Well, Buck could always lead.

He would have played in the Major Leagues, that seems certain. Sometimes, I have heard him compared with a player like Mark Grace. He became a better hitter as he got older, especially after he served in World War II. He led the Negro American League in hitting in 1946 and almost did it again in ’47.

But everyone knew that he was born to manage. He just had the knack. When the Monachs won the Negro Leagues World Series in 1942 – with a pitching staff featuring Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith – Buck was the first baseman and de facto manager, he was the one guy Satchel Paige would listen to. Buck officially became the Kansas City Monarchs’ manager when he was 36, one year after Jackie Robinson joined for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He managed through the Negro Leagues’ declining years.

Buck had an eye for talent and a teacher’s patience. On the Monarchs, he had a young player with overwhelming skill and a striking lack of confidence. He would hardly talk at all. “Be alive, man!” Buck would tell him. “You’ve got to love this game to play it.”  That player was Ernie Banks. And when he became famous for the joy he played with, for shouting, “It’s a beautiful day, let’s play two,” he would explain: “That was Buck O’Neil.” Not long after the Chicago Cubs signed Banks (he was reluctant to leave Buck and the Monarchs) the Cubs hired Buck O’Neil as a scout.

Buck was one of the first black scouts in the Major Leagues – and he was a man of significance for black baseball players in the South. When Buck O’Neil showed up for a game, everybody knew it. “You would hear people whispering, ‘There he is, there’s Buck O’Neil,’” said Lou Brock, one of the many great players Buck O’Neil signed. When Billy Williams briefly quit baseball, the Cubs sent Buck O’Neil to convince him to return – no one else had Buck O’Neil’s gravitas in those Southern black communities.

There was also a story he told about going to a baseball field to see a game and, instead, finding himself at a Ku Klux Klan rally.

In 1962, the Cubs made Buck the first black coach in major-league history.

But none of these get at the heart of Buck O’Neil’s true-life mission: To celebrate the Negro Leagues. When he first began telling his stories, few bothered to listen. The Negro Leagues were something embarrassing, something people wanted to forget. When he first talked about how great players like Leon Day and Turkey Stearnes and Ray Dandridge and Willie Wells were, few people believed him. But he kept going, kept telling the stories, kept alive the memories of those players who would have been baseball legends but for the color of their skin. He thought it was important.

“This is history, man,” he would say. “People need to know their history.”

When Ken Burns was doing his “Baseball” documentary, he was told by one of his colleagues: “You have to meet Buck O’Neil.” When they did meet, Burns was overwhelmed. Listening to Buck tell a story was like listening to music. It is often said that “Baseball” made Buck O’Neil a star, but Burns will say Buck was already a star – Burns just turned the camera on.

And so, the last 10 or 15 years of his life, after the documentary made him famous, Buck O’Neil did his best work – he spearheaded the efforts to build the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and he appeared on every talk show to spread the gospel, and he traveled the country to tell people about the great players who should never be forgotten. “We spend so much of our lives honoring the people who crossed the bridge,” he said the day the Negro Leagues Museum opened. “Today, we honor the people who built the bridge.”

* * *

Do anything

In 2003, Annika Sorenstam teed off at a PGA Tour event. I wrote a column about it. The next morning, Buck O’Neil left me a voicemail.

“I read what you wrote about the young woman who played with the fellas. You keep writing about her, you hear? She is something else. I was more excited for her than for anything in this world. She can do it. Of course she can do it. She can beat those guys. I hear people say she can’t do it, and I’ll tell you, it makes me mad. That’s what we used to hear too. That’s what people always used to say – we can’t play with those white boys. It’s no different. She can play, man! She can play, and she can beat the guys, and I hope she doesn’t listen to any of that other stuff. Yeah. She can do anything.”

* * *

There are many different kinds of people in the Hall of Fame. There are, of course, those who played the game better. But there are managers there, too. There are owners. There are executives. There are umpires. The man who invented the box score is in the Hall of Fame, and so is the man many people think threw the first curveball (though it’s probably not true). The point is that, more than anything, the Hall of Fame is a place for people who made baseball a more wonderful game.

I guess that’s why we thought Buck O’Neil was a lock to get elected. How many in the history of the game have touched the lives of as many people as Buck O’Neil?

We sat in that conference room that morning, waiting for the congratulatory call, and the minutes stretched into hours and, if we’d had much doubt, we might have started to worry. But there wasn’t much doubt in that room. Everything was lined up. I’d had three very high-ranking people in baseball tell me that Buck definitely was going to the Hall of Fame. There was no doubt in the room.

After a while, Bob Kendrick – now the President of the Negro Leagues Museum – called me outside. He looked ashen.

“Buck doesn’t have the votes,” he told me.

This took a few seconds simply to register. Looking back: Maybe it shouldn’t have been that shocking. Buck’s Hall of Fame case, as definitive as it looked to me then and looks to me now, does require looking at his whole life in the game. If they look at Buck simply as a player or as a manager, then maybe it’s a harder call.

I just couldn’t believe they weren’t looking at the life.

Bob explained that former commissioner Fay Vincent was going to go into the committee and try to make the case for Buck O’Neil one more time. I went back into the conference room, and Buck looked up, and I tried to give him my best poker face. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. I’ve never been that great at poker. A few minutes later, Bob Kendrick came into the room and everybody left.

“Buck,” Bob said quietly, and already he was choking up. “We didn’t get the votes.”

Buck immediately – too quickly, even – said: “Well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.” He wasn’t going to show his disappointment. Bob then explained that the SCNL had elected seventeen people for the Hall. Seventeen. I gasped. How in the world could they have elected seventeen people and not Buck O’Neil? How was that even possible?

Buck looked over at me and he smiled. “Seventeen,” he said. “That’s wonderful.”

Bob left the room to set up what would be an emotional press conference. I was alone with Buck, and he said this: “Let me ask you something. Who do you think will speak for the people they elected into the Hall of Fame?” None of the seventeen inductees were alive.

“I don’t know, Buck,” I said, and to be honest I didn’t care. It all felt so terribly wrong, so horribly PERSONAL – Buck O’Neil was unquestionably the most beloved man on that ballot, the one who had lived the fullest baseball life, and they had rejected him.

“I wonder if they’ll ask me to speak,” he said.

I looked at him. Remember: This was no more than three minutes after he’d been told that he had not been elected to the Hall of Fame. This was no more than three minutes after the last great rejection in a life that had been filled with rejections.

“You would do that, Buck?” I asked.

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

* * *

Red dress

We had a miserable day in New York once, an exhausting day, and when we got back to the hotel, Buck was as tired as I’d ever seen him. He was 93 years old by then, and he looked it. When I asked if he wanted to get dinner, he said: “You know, I think I’m going up to my room.” That was telling. Buck had two meals a day, and he NEVER skipped one of them.

We walked from the car to the hotel, I stepped into the hotel, and I turned to say something to him. And he was gone. Disappeared. I looked all around, couldn’t find him. I thought maybe he ducked into the bathroom, but he wasn’t there. Then I looked outside.

There was Buck O’Neil talking to this woman in a stunning red dress.

It was, I would write, a Marilyn Monroe red dress. We were up near LaGuardia, but you could see that red dress in Brooklyn. And Buck was just talking to the woman in the red dress and laughing with her, and then this guy came up to them, her boyfriend, and Buck was talking with him, and laughing with him, and they were all hugging and joking and having the best time. After 10 minutes or so, Buck walked into the hotel looking like he had slept ten refreshing hours. “Come on!” he said happily. “Let’s go get some dinner.”

So we walked to the restaurant, and Buck suddenly stopped. He turned to me. He said: “Let me ask you something. Did you see the woman in the red dress?”

I nodded. I had seen her. He shook his head and said those words I’ve always associated with him.

He said: “Son, in this life, you don’t ever walk by a red dress.”

* * *

When the Hall of Fame induction ceremony came, Buck O’Neil was there to speak for the 17 people who had not lived to see the day. He spoke for them, and then he led the crowd in song, his favorite song:

The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.

The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.

The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.

The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.

He began dying more or less the moment he stopped singing. Cancer. That was his last public appearance.

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The last time I saw him, he was in his hospital bed. When the doctor said he had some news, I began to walk out and Buck asked me to stay. “He needs to stay,” Buck told the doctor. “That’s my son over there.”

I spent all those years around him, but I never did figure out his secret. How did he forgive? There was a boy in South Dakota who called him the N-word once. Buck O’Neil called him over and gave him baseball tickets. There was a shock jock who hammered away at him, calling Jackie Robinson a sellout and the Negro Leagues a sham. When it ended, Buck said, “You’re my kind of brother.” There were so many slights, so many broken promises, so many small moments of pain — like the time in 1937 when he played in a grass skirt for a team called the Zulu Cannibal Giants, or the time his wife, Ora, was told in a department store that she could look at the hat but if she tried it on, she had to buy it. No white person would ever buy a hat that had rested on the head of a black woman.

There were so many of these moments, and still, he held no bitterness. He carried no grudges. He never lost faith in the goodness of people.

* * *

A foul ball

We were in Houston, at a ballgame, and I saw a man steal a foul ball from a boy. It was flagrant – the man just took the ball right away from the boy, and he held it up high like it was the head of Medusa, and I said: “Would you look at this jerk?”

“What’s that?” Buck said.

“That guy down there, he just took that ball away from that kid.”

Buck considered the situation. He said: “Don’t be so hard on him. He might have a kid of his own at home.”

Yes, that was Buck O’Neil – he just saw the best in people, even people who took foul balls away from little kids. Maybe he’s got a kid at home. That was a good one; I had to give Buck credit, only then something occurred to me.

“Wait a minute,” I said to Buck. “If he’s got a kid, why didn’t he bring him to ballgame?”

I smiled triumphantly. But Buck did not hesitate.

“Maybe,” he said, “the kid is sick.”

* * *

People sometimes ask me if I’m still angry that Buck O’Neil is not in the Hall of Fame. I’m not. Three reasons.

One, Buck’s whole life was about letting go of anger. A day after he was not voted into the Hall of Fame, he called me just to ask if I would thank all the people who had reached out to him. “I have never felt more loved,” he said.

Two, I like to think of that Hall of Fame induction day as his day. He was the one to speak. He led the people in song. He had played a huge role in getting those 17 people (16 men, one woman) their place in the Hall. And he had shown, one more time, what grace means.

But there’s a third thing. Buck O’Neil is in the Hall of Fame. I don’t just mean his spirit, though that’s there too. There are four bronze statues inside the Baseball Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown. There are what the Hall of Fame calls its “Character and Courage” statues. They are of the three players you would expect.

One of is of Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse, who played every game until the disease that would be named after him took hold.

One is of Jackie Robinson, the most important player in baseball history, the man who broke baseball’s color barrier.

One is of Roberto Clemente, baseball’s first great Latin star and a man who died in a plane crash when he was attempting to take supplies and food to Nicaragua after an earthquake ravaged the country.

The fourth statue, though, stands apart. It is in an entryway, and it is of a man in a suit, looking sharp. He holds a baseball cap in his right hand, and his left hand crosses over. The man has a big smile, a welcoming smile, and it looks like he’s about to break into song, which is right, because Buck O’Neil always was about to break into a song.

The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.

Yes, Buck O’Neil is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He lives on. I see that statue, and I see him. More, I hear him. Every day, I hear him.