Passing the Buck

Ten years ago today, I was sitting in the room when Buck O’Neil found out that the Special Negro Leagues Committee had not voted him into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was one of the most emotional gut punches of my life. Buck was 94 years old then and although he did not know it or show it, he was already dying of the bone marrow cancer that would take his life seven or so months later.

Buck had been told again and again, by so many people in and around the game, that he was a sure Hall of Fame inductee. He had his bags packed for Florida and what seemed to be the inevitable Hall of Fame press conference. The moment he was told that the Committee had chosen 17 people but he was not among them will remain fresh in my mind for the rest of my life.

Yes, I was angry then, bitter. I admit that. I spent a lot of time in those days trying to make sense of a committee’s decision to not vote Buck into the Hall of Fame. To recap, briefly, the Hall of Fame had received a grant from Major League Baseball to study the Negro Leagues. And so, the Hall created a Special Negro Leagues Committee with historians and researchers.

There were no former Negro Leaguers on the list.

The Committee was given two tasks

1. Dig into the deep and tangled history of Negro Leagues baseball. Their work can be found in the book “Shades of Glory.”

2. Nominate and vote in ALL of the remaining Negro Leagues players, managers and executives that the committee deemed worthy of the Hall of Fame. It’s important to emphasize the word “all,” because the Committee would be the last word on Negro Leaguers and the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame said it was closing the books on Negro Leaguers after this committee voted. Because of this, the committee was given extraordinary latitude. They could vote in as many players as they found deserving.

I cannot quite recapture how certain everyone was that the Committee would vote in Buck O’Neil. I talked to many, many people in advance of the vote — I was writing my first book, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America — and I did not find a single person who thought Buck would get left out. It was a 100 percent sure thing.

Well, Buck had lived one of baseball’s great lives. First as a fine player, then as a successful manager, then as a pioneering scout, then as the first African American coach in baseball history, then as a leading Negro Leagues voice, then as a founder and beating heart of the Negro Leagues baseball museum, then as a Johnny Appleseed for the game. To almost his dying breath, Buck preached the gospel of baseball all around America. Everyone, from the commissioner of baseball through the Hall of Famers, through the current players, and the fans, wanted Buck in Cooperstown. This was a layup. It was even easier than a layup.

So what happened? The Committee voted in those 17 people — by far the biggest group ever elected into the Hall of Fame at one time. Six were players from the Negro Leagues, which were founded in 1920. Five were players from before 1920. Four were Negro League executives — these included the first woman elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame (Effa Manley), and the first white person voted in under the Negro Leagues banner (Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson).

The 17th was Sol White, and he deserves special mention because White’s case is somewhat similar to Buck O’Neil’s. White was a good player in the late 19th Century. He was a fine manager and executive who helped form and run superb teams. But he might be best remembered for the way he kept alive the story of black baseball — his 1907 book “History of Colored Base Ball” was perhaps the earliest effort to tell that story. White wanted to write a follow up for the book a couple of decades later, but he never did finish it.

Officially, White went in as an executive, but it was clearly his full baseball life that merited Hall of Fame consideration.

Buck O’Neil, meanwhile, was not voted in.*

[*The Committee also passed on the other living member on the ballot, Minnie Minoso, but that is a different situation. Minoso should be in the Hall of Fame, but as a Major Leaguer. He only played three years, as a very young man, in the Negro Leagues.]

Why did they pass on Buck? I will give you a different answer now than I did ten years ago. Then, I believed that it was personal. Every time I talked about it with people in the know — and I talked with literally hundreds of people about it — I would get furious all over again. It seems there were some hard feelings between some members of the Special Committee and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the proudest achievement of Buck’s life. These disputes did not directly involve Buck, but the consensus was that Buck’s Hall of Fame case was caught up in that wind.

I suspect some of that is true, but I see it differently now.

What I think happened was this: The Committee was given a big responsibility; it was essentially the last Hall of Fame hope for Negro Leaguers. The members of the Committee were men and women (well, one woman) who dedicated their lives, much like Buck had, to celebrating the Negro Leagues and the people who made it vibrant. I know that they took their responsibility very seriously.

They came up with 94 names, great players, influential executives, etc. Then they had the difficult task of reducing those 94 down to a ballot of 39. Then they had to take those 39 and reduce it to a reasonable number of Hall of Famers. It was, I suspect, excruciating.

And so I think that to make sense of their mission, they created boxes. Here was a box for the very best Negro Leagues players. Here was a box for the very best pre-Negro Leagues players. Here was a box for the most influential executives. OK, now who belongs in each box?

Buck O’Neil didn’t fit in any of those boxes. He was a good player, a batting champion one year, an All-Star, but he would be the first to tell you that he was not a great player. And though he was a successful manager, he wasn’t an executive (the committee did not vote in any managers).

There were no boxes for the many other ways that Buck contributed to the preservation of the Negro Leagues. Buck taught Ernie Banks to love the game. He discovered Lou Brock. He talked Billy Williams out of quitting baseball. He helped convince the Yankees that Elston Howard was the right man to break their color barrier.  He, through sheer force of will, pushed the Baseball Hall of Fame to recognize and celebrate numerous Negro Leagues players. What boxes do such things go in?

People, I have found, generally stay inside their boxes. We all have trouble thinking outside of ourselves. We all have blind spots. We all have our occasional crisis of imagination. From high overhead, it seems utterly impossible that the Committee missed out how good it would be to elect Buck O’Neil to the Hall. It would have been a 99% approval rating move. It would have given their Hall of Fame class a living voice. It would have celebrated a remarkable baseball life.

But Buck’s case just didn’t quite fit into the boxes. And I think some members of the Committee — we will never know which members because they’ve never publicly spoken about it — believed they were doing the right thing by voting no on Buck O’Neil. He wasn’t a good enough player. He wasn’t an executive. It was, yes, a crisis of imagination.

I will always remember the moment Buck found out that he was not elected. I will always remember the way his head dropped, ever so slightly, before he quickly (too quickly) said: “Well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles!”

I will always remember how moments later, he turned to me and asked: “Who do you think will speak for the 17 who were elected?” I was so angry for him, so hurt for him, I barely understood the question. Who would speak? Who cares?

“I wonder if they’ll ask me to speak,” he said. I looked at him with a new sort of awe. He had already recovered from the shock. He was disappointed — I know he was disappointed — but it had taken only a few minutes for him to find his equilibrium. Buck’s life was full of potential disappointments. He did not get a chance to play in the Major Leagues. He did not get a chance to manage in the Major Leagues, and I think he would have loved that. He was mocked at times, ignored for many years, and then in the last months of his life he was told that the Committee didn’t find him quite Hall of Fame worthy.

But he didn’t see any of those things as disappointments because he embraced the joys of life. He didn’t play in the Major Leagues, but he got to play with some of the greatest players in the world. He didn’t get to manage in the Negro Leagues, but he managed Ernie Banks, Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, Elston Howard and so many others. He was mocked at times, ignored at others, but he also heard a kid named Charlie Parker play saxophone before anyone had ever heard of him. He had dinners with Lionel Hampton and Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie and Jesse Owens and Joe Louis. He told stories to David Letterman, sang for Ken Burns and was put into the Stephen Colbert Hall of Fame.

“Would you really speak at the Hall of Fame?” I asked him — remember this was mere moments after he found out that he was not elected.

“Son,” he said, “what is my life about?”

No, I don’t feel any sadness or bitterness now about Buck’s failure to get into the Hall of Fame. A lot of wonderful things happened since he died that same year. Sure, I wish he had been alive when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush. I got a personal letter from the President which read in part:

“Buck O’Neil’s commitment to excellence and to preserving the history of the Negro Leagues will stand as a lasting and important legacy in our society.”

He would have loved visiting the White House again. And he would have loved that the Hall of Fame commissioned a life-sized bronze statue of him that now welcomes people to the Hall of Fame. He would have loved the Buck O’Neil Award that recognizes those who have enhanced baseball’s positive impact on society. He would have loved the Buck O’Neil seat, a single red seat behind home plate at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, where heroes of the community sit every game.

Yes, Buck’s memory lives. People often ask me if Buck will ever get elected to the Hall of Fame, and I always say the same thing: It doesn’t matter. When I think back on the Hall of Fame vote of 2006, I no longer feel disappointment or anger or even sadness. Sure, I think the Committee made a mistake, but I like to believe it was an honest mistake. Buck believed that. And I want to be more like Buck.

I remember the day after the vote, I was walking around a bookstore when my cellphone rang. It was Buck. I think that might be the only time Buck ever called me on my cellphone.

“I want you to do me a favor,” he said.

“Sure Buck.”

“I want you to thank all the people who have said nice things since the Hall of Fame thing happened. .. I have never felt more loved. All my life. Tell them that.”

It was one of the final lessons I got from Buck O’Neil, one that I try to hold on tight and share with my daughters. Good things will happen, and bad things will happen. What matters is how you live your life.

“You know,” Buck said idly, “a few weeks ago, a guy asked me: ‘Who is that white boy following you around all the time?'”

“What did you say?” I asked him.

“I told him, ‘Can’t you tell? That’s my son.'”

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