Five years have gone by since Buck O’Neil died, and I still get asked all the time to tell the red dress story. We were in New York, and it had been a terrible day. Buck was traveling the country to drum up support for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum over on 18th and Vine and also to ask people to remember the Negro Leagues, the league that had been invented in 1920 because the Major Leagues would not allow dark-skinned players.
“We could play, man,” Buck would say, and they could play. Some of the best baseball players who ever lived played ball in the Negro Leagues. Josh Gibson is said to be the only man ever to hit a baseball out of old Yankee Stadium. Oscar Charleston was said to be Willie Mays, only (if your imagination can handle it) even faster and stronger. Cool Papa Bell was so fast that only funny little stories could describe him — Satchel Paige used to say that Cool Papa was so fast that he could turn out the lights and be under the covers before the room went dark. And, of course, there was Paige, Buck’s old friend, who had such great control over his breathtaking fastball that he would warm up by pitching over a stick of chewing gum. The long way.
There were many other fabulous players, most of them unknown to even hardcore baseball fans — Turkey Stearnes, Mule Suttles, Buck Leonard, Leon Day, Willie Wells, on and on and on — and Buck was pretty fabulous himself. He led the Negro Leagues in hitting when he got back from World War II, and almost did it again the next year. He was, by all accounts, a smooth fielding and baseball-smart first baseman. He had the talent to play in the major leagues. Later, he had the talent to manage in the major leagues — I can’t tell you how many people in the game have told me that Buck O’Neil was one of the great minds in baseball history. But he neither played nor managed in the big leagues (though he did become the majors’ first black coach in 1962 for the Chicago Cubs). As the old line goes: He came along too soon.
Of course, that’s not how he saw it. Heck, he titled his autobiography: “I Was Right On Time.” Buck O’Neil refused to fall prey to regret or bitterness, he simply refused to do it, and so he saw himself as lucky that he was able to play baseball all over the country with some of the greatest players and people in the history of the game. That was the message he wanted to share with the world. And that’s why he was traveling all over America to sing his song.
I was tagging along, meanwhile, to write a book I eventually called “The Soul of Baseball.” The book had been Buck’s idea — we were having lunch one day and he kept telling me that somebody needed to write a book about the joy of the Negro Leagues. He said that everybody who writes about the Negro Leagues writes about the pain, the bounced checks, the hotels that would not let them in, the racism that surrounded them. He said, “That’s part of the story, but that’s not the WHOLE story.” He said somebody needed to write about the joy, the amazing baseball, the sound of jazz on Saturday night, the spirt of the black churches on Sunday followed by a doubleheader just down the street. He kept saying “somebody.” And I was the only one there.
So I followed him around — to Oakland and Houston and Seattle, to a funeral in Chicago and a gathering in Nicodemus, Kan., and the Senate lunchroom in Washington and a winding car ride in Atlanta. I listened to him talk. I watched him hug people he didn’t yet know. I heard him lead people in song, his favorite song, with only 10 words: “The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.” He was 94 years old then, but still as active and alive and full of youth as anyone I knew.
To Buck O’Neil, a meal was not complete without dessert.
To Buck O’Neil, a stranger was only a person you hadn’t introduced yourself to.
To Buck O’Neil, hatred was something that could be pierced if you tried hard enough, and bitterness was something that destroyed your will.
To Buck O’Neil, my oldest daughter was called “Love.” And my youngest, just a baby when he died, was called “New One.”
Traveling around with Buck was as wonderful as you could imagine.
No, it wasn’t all joy. I will never forget — or quite get over — being in the room with Buck when he was told that the Negro Leagues Committee had voted 17 people into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but he wasn’t one of them. Buck had been assured by many friends that he would get elected to the hall. How could he not? I firmly believe that the biggest reason the Negro Leagues Committee was even FORMED was to elect Buck O’Neil. But, for reasons that will never make any sense to me at all, he was not elected. He was hurt. Badly hurt.
And yet, even more than that pain, I will never forget this: Just minutes after he was spurned, he asked me who I thought would speak at the Hall of Fame on behalf of the 17 who were elected. They were all dead, most of them long dead. And when I said “I don’t know” (while thinking “I don’t care”), Buck said: “I wonder if they will ask me.”
Five months later, in the last major public appearance of his life, Buck O’Neil spoke on behalf of the 17 in Cooperstown, N.Y., and led the throng in his favorite song. Today, Buck O’Neil technically is still not in the Hall of Fame. But there’s a statue of him and him alone in the main entryway, which I think is even better.
I’m getting away from the red dress story. I’ve told this story all over the country, in all sorts of environments, to all sorts of audiences. It’s kind of a jolting story, one that can be misconstrued. But I still think it’s the story that comes closest to explaining the Buck O’Neil I know. We were in New York, and it had been a miserable day. Buck had gone on a shock jock radio show in the morning, and the shock jock shamefully had decided to poke at a 94-year-old man. He ripped Jackie Robinson, for one, I remember that clearly. The rest is an awful blur. Buck held his own. But it took a lot out of him.
The rest of the day wasn’t much better, and by the time we all got back to the hotel that evening Buck was drained entirely. He was so tired he said he was going to skip dinner and just go right to bed, the only time I EVER heard Buck O’Neil even talk about skipping one of the two meals he had a day.
We started walking toward the hotel and out of the corner of my eye I saw a woman in a red dress. And this was some kind of red dress — I’ve always described it as a Marilyn Monroe dress in the hope that would tell the story. The woman was obviously very pretty, but the dress was the show. When I got into the hotel, I turned to say something to Buck about the red dress.
Only Buck was gone.
I had no idea where he went. I looked back and saw the car was gone. I looked around, toward the bathroom — Buck could move pretty fast even at that age because of his long legs, but he couldn’t move THAT fast. And then I looked outside. And, yes, there was Buck talking to the woman in the red dress. They were laughing and joking and hugging. A guy in a suit walked over to them, her boyfriend I assume, and they were laughing and joking and hugging too. Buck stood out there for a good five minutes, talking to the man in the suit and the woman in the red dress.
And then he walked in, looking fresh as morning, and he said in as loud and clear a voice as I ever heard: “OK, let’s get some dinner!” He was reborn. It was like that with Buck. People recharged him.
Anyway, we walked toward the restaurant, and Buck stopped. I stopped. He turned to me and said: “Hey, did you see that woman in the red dress?” I smiled a little and said, “Yes.”
He looked at me in disapproval, shook his head, and said the words I will never forget. He said: “Son, in this life, you never walk by a red dress.”
I know what he meant. Don’t pass by opportunity. Don’t miss out on the joy of life. Don’t let minutes go by. The Latin phrase is “carpe diem” — seize the day — but I like Buck’s version even better. Never walk by a red dress. I think about it all the time. I live my life a little bit differently because I knew Buck O’Neil — a little bit better, I hope. I know many others feel the same way.
Buck O’Neil would have been 100 this week, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how he’d want to celebrate. I suspect he’d want to celebrate with a little music, a good meal, good friends and a lot of stories. Then again, that’s how he lived every day.