Before the Northern League All-Star Game Tuesday night, the last time Buck O’Neil swung at a pitch was in 1955.
Back then, the bats were a bit lighter — but the Kansas City summers were still sweltering, so O’Neil felt right at home during his historical moment in front of 5,975 at CommunityAmerica Ballpark.
During the All-Star Game, O’Neil, 94, became the oldest person to step into a batter’s box in a professional baseball game. O’Neil, the beloved former Kansas City Monarch and first black coach in the major leagues, may have only swung the bat once, but he loved the experience.
“Outstanding,” O’Neil said. “Enjoyed every moment.”
Before the game, it was announced that O’Neil signed a one-day contract with the T-Bones. West Division starting pitcher Josh Beshears knew little about the setup, only that he would face O’Neil.
“He’s got a lot more experience on me, that’s for sure,” Beshears joked. “So I’m sure if I make a bad pitch, he’s going to make me pay for it.”
But before the first pitch, O’Neil was traded to the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks. When T-Bones public address announcer Randy Birch’s voice bellowed through the stadium: “Leading off … the Legendary One! Buck! O’Neil!” the fans stood and showered O’Neil with hearty applause and repeated the reverence when he strode to the plate.
Wearing a red and white Monarchs throwback jersey and blue jeans, O’Neil pulled the bat off his right shoulder, without taking a practice swing, ready to face Eastern All-Star starter Jonathan Krysa of the T-Bones. After the first high pitch, O’Neil played the showman, turning to home-plate umpire Trent Delmont and arguing the call.
The crowd, divided between laughter and booing Krysa, ate it all up. Later, Krysa threw in too tight, and O’Neil ducked to avoid contact, but he took it in stride.
“I’ve been knocked down before,” O’Neil said. “And it wasn’t a pitcher all the time.”
The historic at-bat lasted five pitches — for the record it was an intentional walk — and O’Neil returned to lead off the bottom of the first against Beshears. The result, six pitches: five balls and a strike. O’Neil swung and miss on his only attempt.
Although O’Neil didn’t find fault with the 90-plus degree weather — “This is Kansas City, it’s supposed to be hot,” O’Neil reasoned — he did notice the biggest change since he last played. In his melodious voice, O’Neil explained away his swinging strike.
“That bat was heavvyyyy!”