After Hall snub, Buck chose joy over anger

Buck O'Neil brought down the house when he spoke at the 2006 Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Tracy Ringolsby (left) and Bruce Sutter held hands at Buck's request in 2006.

The Kansas City Star

*This was the higher road, only amplified, and as such stands as a remarkably appropriate tribute to a life distinguished by grace and dignity in the face of intolerance and ignorance.

Buck O’Neil, at age 94, put aside his own immense disappointment Sunday afternoon as he stood at the podium outside of the Clark Sports Center, a handful of blocks south of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

This was, after all, a celebration.

If his own exclusion made it bittersweet, as it had to be, O’Neil hid it well behind the gentle good humor that has long been his endearing trademark.*

• • •

I wrote those words more than five years ago on a hot Sunday afternoon in late July after sitting with thousands of others in a field in Cooperstown, N.Y., while covering the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremonies.

Those words strike my ear, then as now, as wholly inadequate in capturing the most amazing event I’ve witnessed in a professional journalistic career now into its fifth decade. And they’re still the best I can do.

This was the day that Buck O’Neil turned crushing personal rejection into soaring public celebration — and he took us all along for the ride, complete with a postscript sing-along about loving one another that had everyone holding hands.

Tears were plentiful.

Remember: This was supposed to be O’Neil’s coronation. The Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball had put in place a procedure to induct and honor deserving members of the Negro Leagues. It was a worthy and genuine goal but, really, it was also a framework for finding a method to induct O’Neil. This was no secret.

You know what happened.

Somehow, and this still seems inexplicable, a committee composed primarily of historians and authors deemed O’Neil as undeserving while embracing 17 others.

The snub was unmistakable and cut deeply.

The Hall had already invited O’Neil, in the belief he was a shoo-in for induction, to speak at the ceremony on behalf of all Negro League inductees. He wondered whether the rejection meant the invitation would be rescinded. Just the opposite. Officials at the Hall were amazed O’Neil remained willing to participate. This was the higher road.

O’Neil quieted the standing ovation that greeted his introduction by telling everyone, “All right, sit down.” He then informed the crowd:

“I’ve been a lot of places. I’ve done a lot of things I really liked doing … but I’d rather be right here, right now, representing the people who helped build a bridge across the chasm of prejudice.”

There was no trace of bitterness at being omitted by the Hall committee.

“I never learned to hate,” O’Neil said again that day. “Oh, I hate cancer. Cancer killed my mother. My wife died 10 years ago of cancer.”

Then right on cue: “I’m single, ladies.”

Those who knew Buck O’Neil had heard this all before. But he was a master story-teller and, as he rolled through his memories, it was all fresh again. He made it possible to forget the ironic injustice of the moment. Of course, that’s exactly what he wanted.

It was only a week later that O’Neil was hospitalized here in Kansas City for fatigue. He was released three days later but readmitted Sept. 17. He died on Oct. 6 because of heart failure and bone-marrow cancer.

There has been no shortage of posthumous honors.

O’Neil received the Presidential Medal of Freedom later that year. In 2007, the Royals created the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat, which recognizes an individual at each game for exemplifying his spirit. The Hall of Fame created the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award in October 2007 and selected him as its first recipient. A statue of O’Neil now greets visitors to the sport’s shrine in Cooperstown.

The Royals and MLB plan to recognize O’Neil in some manner next year when the All-Star Game comes to Kauffman Stadium. Specifics are still under discussion.

Maybe there should be a song.

O’Neil closed his remarkable chat — with Buck, it was never a speech — on that hot Sunday in Cooperstown by getting everyone to rise and join hands. Hall of Famers behind him on stage. All 11,000 in attendance.

And then O’Neil began to sing.

“The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you!”

Over and over he sang that one line. The crowd, swaying in unison, echoed the words louder each time. I can still hear them.

Buck O'Neil addresses crowd in Cooperstown

Buck O'Neil, left out of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, still spoke at the ceremony that enshrined 17 players and executives from the Negro Leagues. Listen to his full speech, a moving address that brought tears to many eyes. (Produced by Monty Davis | The Kansas City Star)

Buck O'Neil addresses crowd in Cooperstown

Buck O'Neil, left out of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, still spoke at the ceremony that enshrined 17 players and executives from the Negro Leagues. Listen to his full speech, a moving address that brought tears to many eyes. (Produced by Monty Davis | The Kansas City Star)

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