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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,166

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This is the grave of Buck O’Neil.

Born in 1911 in Carabelle, Florida, O’Neil grew up in Sarasota. His father ran a pool hall, which made him pretty middle class for his time, place, and race. He was a smart kid who wanted an education. But this was almost impossible. From the moment the Supreme Court decided Plessy, the idea of “equal” was a joke that no one took seriously, including the Court. So Florida had all of four high schools for Black students by the late 20s when he was of that age. It was hard for him to achieve that education. But he managed it by going to the private Black Christian college Edward Waters in Jacksonville, where he lived with relatives.

O’Neil was also a tremendous athlete and became a dominant baseball player. In 1934, he decided to give baseball a shot as his life’s work. This meant being a semi-professional, which was always a tough experience for Black players. It meant the endless barnstorming teams of the era, traveling around constantly looking for games. But he was so good that he rose quickly through those leagues and in 1937 signed with the Memphis Red Sox of the newly founded Negro American League. These leagues were still pretty unstable and the owners of most of the teams were looking to make a buck. So the next year, Memphis sold O’Neil’s contract to the Kansas City Monarchs, the era’s dominant Negro League team.

O’Neil was a solidly above-average first basemen for many years with Kansas City. It’s hard to compare Negro League stats with white professional baseball, because there were so few official Negro League games. Most of O’Neil’s career, he was playing 40 or so official games and then who knows how many unofficial games on the side. He didn’t have much power and not a ton of speed, but he was a solid contact hitter. He was a career .260/321/365 hitter, which on the face of it isn’t all that special. He was a leader though and became manager of the Monarchs in 1948. He held that job until 1955, when he left for the majors as a scout for the Cubs.

O’Neil was a good scout. He signed Lou Brock among other people. That alone makes him well worth whatever the Cubs were paying. In 1962, the Cubs made him the first Black coach in Major League history, though his duties were limited and he was never on the field. He stayed with the Cubs all the way until 1998, when he left to become a scout for Kansas City.

What makes O’Neil memorable is his role in promoting Negro Leagues history. He became the face of the League as he aged and most of the best players had passed away. He became a legend with his appearance in Ken Burns’ Baseball series in 1994. Almost certainly the best choice Burns ever made in his life, especially given the context of the consistently cultural conservatives he chooses to promote his work, O’Neil brought that series to life. He was more famous after that than at any time in his life. Other players sought him out for advice. That includes Ichiro, who was always a student of baseball history and was known for making touching gestures to legends, such as visiting the grave of George Sisler and honoring his family in 2004, the year that he broke the legend’s 84 year old single season hits record. So he wanted to talk to O’Neil. They became friends and had long conversations whenever the Mariners visited KC.

Even before Burns made him famous, O’Neil was seen as a senior figure of Negro Leagues history. For that, he was on the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee from 1981 to 2000. Baseball was attempting to make up for its ignorance and dismissal of the Negro Leagues over the years and so it implemented a policy in 1995 to have at least one Negro League player inducted ever year for the next six years. O’Neil was critical in that process. His memories of playing against these guys meant more than just about anything else.

In 2006, there was a special ballot for the Hall of Fame to expand the Negro League membership significantly. Seventeen were selected. O’Neil came up just short. For a long time, I was surprised by that. But looking more closely at his player profile for this post, he’s more of a Doug Mientkiewicz than a Lou Gehrig. He took it in stride, though I am sure that covered up quite a bit of disappointment.

Later that year, O’Neil became sick and he died a couple of months later. He was 94 years old. He received a lot of posthumous awards (for all the good that did him), including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush, who for all his many, many, many failings does genuinely love baseball.

In 2021, O’Neil was finally elected to the Hall of Fame.

Buck O’Neil is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Kansas City, Missouri.

If you would like this series to visit other Negro League players, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jud Wilson is in Arlington and Sol White is in Staten Island. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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