The pantheon of Kansas City sports is an exclusive fraternity. It envelops Hall of Famers George Brett in baseball, Len Dawson and Bobby Bell in football and golf champion Tom Watson.
And it includes men who led teams to the city’s two world championships, the late Hank Stram of the Chiefs and the late Dick Howser of the Royals.
Buck O’Neil was not their equal as an athlete, nor did he get the chance to manage or coach in professional ball for an extended period of time.
But no one, not Brett, not Dawson, not Watson, not Frank White or the late Buck Buchanan or the late Dan Quisenberry, related to more people and crossed more cultural lines in Kansas City than O’Neil.
“He’s been with the president of the United States, and he’s been with the bums on 12th Street and is respected by everybody,” said Ollie Gates, president of Gates Bar-B-Q and a former president of the Kansas City parks and recreation board.
“He can associate with anybody and everybody.”
O’Neil’s greatest legacy is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, where he held court on a daily basis and worked tirelessly to raise funds to make it one of the city’s great attractions.
“We could tick off the 10 greatest sports icons in our community, and you’d be hard-pressed not to put Buck in there,” said Kevin Gray, president of the Kansas City Sports Commission, “and not because of his prowess on the field.
“Buck was an ambassador for this community. He’s brought a lot of attention to the Negro Leagues museum and to Kansas City, particularly over the last decade. I can’t think of anybody else that has done what he has done in the last 10 years who has been so passionate and enthusiastic.”
For years, O’Neil occupied a single seat behind home plate at Kauffman Stadium where he scouted players. But he was never too busy to sign an autograph and talk baseball with anyone, black or white, man or woman, whether they were 8 years old or 80.
“He’s bridged everything you could bridge,” said Herk Robinson, former Royals general manager. “Baseball has benefited from him, not only in Kansas City, but all over the world. … He was a Kansas City legend.”
Gates was just a kid when the Monarchs ruled Kansas City. And when he’d see O’Neil and Satchel Paige about town, Gates would turn giddy.
“When you get a flamboyant Monarch in the old days, a young guy like myself, I’m 20 years younger, you looked up to Buck O’Neil,” Gates said. “I was apprehensive about how to approach him.
“He wasn’t one of the premier players when the Monarchs were here, but he was a good player, he was consistent, and he was one of the regular fellows. He and Satchel Paige were a good combination. Buck was a good-looking guy and kept all the fellas jealous and the girls happy. Buck became more popular as he got older and better-known for his philanthropic work.”
Jack Bush, who later became the legendary boys basketball coach at Central High School, was inspired by O’Neil and the Monarchs when he sat behind first base at the old stadium on 22nd and Brooklyn.
“Buck played first base, and back then those first basemen were the ones who showed off the most by stretching for throws,” said Bush. “Outfielders are supposed to catch the ball, infielders were supposed to catch it, but those were not direct throws to the first baseman, and he had to catch whatever you threw at him.”
After his career in uniform ended, O’Neil was a frequent and welcome visitor in the Royals’ fifth-floor offices at Kauffman Stadium.
“Buck was the same guy in 1960 scouting for the Cubs as now, just a wonderful sharing person everyone enjoyed being around and felt good after they’ve been around him,” said Robinson. “When I was general manager, he’d come in and visit once a week. If things weren’t going well, he’d find a way to cheer you up. If things were going well, he’d find a way that was going to go on forever.”
Most of Kansas City was disappointed when O’Neil was not elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this year, when 17 former Negro League players and contributors were inducted in a one-time vote. But the way O’Neil handled his disappointment by expressing happiness for the other inductees, was a lesson in humility.
“There are no stats you can put on Buck,” Robinson said of O’Neil’s failure to reach the Hall of Fame, “but sometimes you can do more with words than you can with stats, and you can say a lot of wonderful things about Buck that stats wouldn’t show.”
O’Neil was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in Springfield in a ceremony that longtime Kansas City civic booster and sports announcer Bill Grigsby will never forget.
“You talk about Renaissance people,” Grigsby said. “He goes far beyond black and white. … He goes right to the heart of it. Buck brought people of diverse cultures together. When Buck was being inducted in Springfield, they asked him to say a few words. He said, ‘I want all of the children in the audience to stand with me.’ All of the young people stood up. He electrified the crowd with his wisdom and the beauty of his thinking.
“Buck O’Neil was one of the great people we ever had in Kansas City. He left a legacy of love and friendship.”