“People say baseball’s dead. Baseball doesn’t die. People die. Baseball lives on.”
Continuing my baseball theme of this blog started with Josh Gibson, today I’ll be exploring the life and career of Buck O’Neil, another Negro League-era player. Unlike Gibson, however, he had the distinction of becoming the first black coach in Major League Baseball.
Buck O’Neil, born John Jordan O’Neil in 1911 in the Florida Panhandle, grew up surrounded by racism and discrimination, which he would experience throughout his life. Because segregated Florida only had four high schools just for black students at the time, O’Neil wasn’t able to attend school. But he was soon able to attend a college in Jacksonville after working in a celery field with his father, where he lived with relatives and finished high school and two years of college credits.
After his time in college, O’Neil started playing baseball semi-professionally in 1934 and barnstormed playing in interracial exhibition games.” He was soon discovered and in 1937 signed with the Memphis Red Sox, a newly established team in the newly established Negro American League. In 1938, his contract was sold to the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro National League.
O’Neil had a respectable career as a first baseman in the Negro Leagues when he had the opportunity to play, with a lifetime average of .283. He couldn’t play from 1943-45 because he was serving in the Navy in World War II. He was also part of the Monarchs World Series championship team in 1942. He played regularly until 1951, but also served as manager of the Monarchs from 1948 to 1955. Under his leadership, the team won two league titles, but unfortunately the League was on its last legs due to the exodus of black players into the Major Leagues. [For more background on the Negro Leagues, be sure to check out my earlier post on Josh Gibson.]
After the 1955 season, the owner of the Monarchs sold the team. O’Neil resigned as manager of the team and was hired as a scout for the Chicago Cubs in the major leagues, where he signed another black player and future Hall of Famer, outfielder Lou Brock. O’Neil was tasked with finding talent in black high schools and colleges throughout the country (see Kansas City Star article).
In 1962, O’Neil made history by being named the first black coach in the major leagues by the Cubs. He had been an unofficial coach, but the Cubs officially named him a coach because many umpires didn’t approve of his being in the dugout.While this was a major accomplishment, it was dampened somewhat by the fact that he was not a base coach during games and not part of the Cubs’ “College of Coaches” system, which rotated a few men through the role of manager. [The first black manager, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, would not be hired until 1975.] At first O’Neil did not recognize the significance of his being the first black coach, but later understood when he saw his name in the papers throughout the country. Despite this, he acknowledged that “progress in organized baseball was painfully slow” and “still is” (see Kansas City Star article). O’Neil stayed with the Cubs until the 1980s, when he took a scouting job for the Kansas City Royals in 1988, and awarded the title of “Midwest Scout of the Year” in 1998.
It was perhaps his post-playing/coaching/scouting career where O’Neil made the biggest impact on baseball history. After sitting for interviews describing the Negro Leagues for Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary Baseball, O’Neil was one of the leaders in opening the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) in Kansas City. He was the honorary board chairman of the museum until his death in 2006. O’Neil was also part of the 18-member Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee from 1981 to 2000, helping six Negro League players to be elected to the Hall. Sadly O’Neil himself was never inducted, despite being nominated to a special ballot that honored Negro League players, managers, and executives in 2006, but he spoke at the induction ceremony for those Negro League players who were elected in July of that year.
O’Neil died at the age of 94 in August of 2006 of heart failure and bone marrow cancer. He has received many posthumous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in December 2006. The Baseball Hall of Fame awarded him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, an award that would be named after him. The Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award will be given once every three years “to honor an individual who enhances baseball’s positive image on society, who broadens the game’s appeal, and whose integrity and dignity are comparable to the namesake of the award” (see Baseball Hall of Fame website). So far it has only been presented to three other people besides O’Neil himself: longtime baseball executive Roland Hemond, catcher and announcer Joe Garagiola, and Rachel Robinson, widow of Jackie Robinson.
At the end of his life, Buck O’Neil easily could have been bitter about the many missed opportunities in his life: the segregation of his childhood preventing him from going to a local high school; never getting to play in the Major Leagues; being named a Major League coach but not having that mean much; and not being inducted into the Hall of Fame even though he was on the committee that chose the inductees. But until the end of his long life, O’Neil was everything but bitter; he was charming and entertaining and always seemed happy, as he did at the 2006 Hall of Fame ceremony.
One touching story about O’Neil’s life was the friendship he developed late in life with Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro, who was a star in Japan and came to the Major Leagues in 2001, love learning about baseball history. He visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City when his team, the Seattle Mariners, were in town playing the Royals. After O’Neil died, Ichiro sent a donation to the museum in memory of him (see ESPN article). This friendship shows O’Neil’s undying openness and kindness towards younger players through all stages of his life.
As a baseball fan I had heard Buck O’Neil’s name in passing, but never knew much about him until I started researching for this post. While it is clear that O’Neil wasn’t outwardly resentful about the way his life went, it seems to me that baseball as a whole didn’t give him the treatment and recognition he deserved. He may not have deserved to be in the Hall of Fame purely on the strength of his numbers, but surely his many other contributions to the game would warrant him an honorary spot somewhere. As a walking encyclopedia of baseball and particularly the Negro Leagues, it is a real shame and a missed opportunity that his knowledge wasn’t appreciated and honored more. He did a good job on his own by helping open the museum and helping elect former Negro Leaguers into the Hall (even though he wasn’t chosen himself), and by appearing on Ken Burns’ documentary, but this seems like a bare minimum.
Although baseball is more diverse than it was during most of O’Neil’s lifetime, as time goes on both players and fans will know less and less about pioneers like O’Neil who helped make the game what it is today. I just hope there are others out there who thought to record some of his stories so they are not lost to time.
Learn more about this Groundbreaker!
If you have found what I’ve written about Buck O’Neil and the history of African Americans in baseball interesting and/or infuriating and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles and websites and videos I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.
Stats on Baseball Reference: https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=oneil-000buc
Robert Bluestein, “The 20 Most Obscure ‘Firsts’ in Baseball”: https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1411064-the-20-most-obscure-firsts-in-baseball#slide15
Rustin Dodd, “Buck O’Neil and the Cubs: Kansas City icon left a legacy in Chicago”: https://www.kansascity.com/sports/mlb/kansas-city-royals/article110949822.html
Buck O’Neil Award, Baseball Hall of Fame: https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/awards/890
Joe Posnanski, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America: https://amzn.to/2R85rw1
Buck O’Neil’s autobiography, I Was Right On Time: https://amzn.to/2r1VuVG
O’Neil’s speech at Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2006: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtE2I6jsung