Buck O’Neil won. In the confusing and angry days after he was not voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, that’s the only lesson everyone agrees on. Buck O’Neil won. He’s bigger and more beloved than ever now.
On Monday, a Negro Leagues special committee voted in 17 dead players and executives into the Hall of Fame. The members did not vote in the very alive Buck O’Neil. They did not explain. They agreed to keep their votes secret.
Buck O’Neil, not for the first time in his 94 years of life, was left in the dark.
“I thought I had a good chance,” O’Neil said. “But I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”
First there was shock. Then there was anger. Across America, commentators raged. On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann called snubbing Buck the worst thing ever done by the Baseball Hall of Fame. More than 50 newspapers and Web sites — from Los Angeles to Washington, from the Clemson Tiger News to the The New York Times — wrote searing editorials about the injustice of leaving out Buck O’Neil.
“He is the greatest ambassador the Negro Leagues has ever known,” King Kaufman wrote at “Salon.”
“They left Buck O’Neil off the list … which makes the list a complete joke,” Mike Vaccaro wrote for the New York Post.
“The committee responsible should be ashamed of itself,” wrote the editorial board of The Detroit News.
Hall of Fame players were outraged, too. Ernie Banks begged the committee to reconsider. Hank Aaron and Lou Brock called in to the Negro Leagues Museum to express their support and disbelief. Bob Feller, never one to mince words, said, “What the hell do (these committee members) know about baseball?”
Politicians were outraged, too.
“It is clear that the Baseball Hall of Fame has made a terrible, shameful error in not inducting Buck on this ballot,” said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.
“I hope the Baseball Hall of Fame will take appropriate action to correct this oversight,” said U.S. Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri.
There was talk of giving Buck O’Neil the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Inside baseball circles, meanwhile, there was dismay. O’Neil’s election to the Hall of Fame had been considered such a lock that many had to be told two or three times before they believed he was left out. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said that when he first heard the news he asked over and over: “How can this be? How is this possible?” People at the Hall of Fame tried to put on a brave public face, but privately some were shocked at the exclusion of O’Neil and distressed by the task of inducting 17 deceased people without one living voice to celebrate the day.
“We had a great process in place,” Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey said. “It’s our role to put in that process. We stand behind the process.” But when talking specifically about the 10 men, one woman and one deceased committee member who left Buck O’Neil out, Petroskey seemed to take a few steps back.
“We don’t elect,” he said. “We induct.”
If he was trying to distance himself from the committee, he was not alone.
“I don’t have any more knowledge about this than you do,” Selig said. “We don’t participate in the process. Having said that, I must tell you I’m stunned about Buck O’Neil. I don’t know what else to say. I wish I had a vote.”
So in this fog of embarrassment, fury and chaos, who stood tall? Buck O’Neil, of course. When he was told that the committee voted no, he shrugged and said, “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.” After a lifetime of being denied - denied the right to go to high school, denied the chance to play and manage in the major leagues, denied the freedom to sleep in hotels and restaurants, denied for so many years even the courtesy of people listening to him - this must have seemed like the slightest of slights.
Sure, he must have privately hurt - people who know Buck O’Neil believed that. But he said it was wonderful that these 17 people were going. He volunteered to speak at the Hall of Fame on their behalf. And he was one of the few willing to stand up for the committee that kept him out.
“I know these are honorable people,” he said. “They voted with their heart. That’s all you can ask.”
Ray Doswell was heartbroken. He was on the committee. He presented the case for Buck O’Neil. He was not alone. Several others, including nonvoting chairman Fay Vincent, spoke about Buck’s remarkable baseball life as a player, manager, scout, coach and ambassador. As far as Doswell remembers, nobody said a discouraging word about O’Neil during the entire weekend at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Tampa.
But after an unofficial secret poll - just to see where things stood - it became apparent that O’Neil was short some votes. And Doswell, the curator at the Negro Leagues Museum, knew he would make a personal appeal.
“I tried to make the case for him along a number of different lines,” he said. “I talked about how maybe he didn’t have the highest batting average, though he had some outstanding years. But he was part of a championship dynasty, and he was not just another player. He was a leader on that team. Later, he was the manager in that dynasty. In his prime years, he served the country in the military.
“At the same time, too, I talked about his obvious role as an ambassador in the game. I said to the committee: `Look at his baseball career. But if you aren’t sold on just that, look at what he’s done for the game.’ Baseball needed him.”
After his plea, Doswell looked around the room - at the 10 other voters and the one chair kept empty for the late author and Negro Leagues icon Robert Peterson - and said, “It’s time to give it up for Buck O’Neil.”
No one said a word. Doswell did not know if he had convinced anyone - he still doesn’t know - but he hoped. Then the vote came, and hope was gone. Doswell does not know how many people voted against O’Neil, but he feels certain the vote was close.
He also feels that the vote probably turned against O’Neil because of his statistics as a player. This special election had been an offshoot of a $250,000 Hall of Fame research study to build the most precise collection of Negro League statistics ever assembled.
These statistics include only a handful of “official games” from each season and are remarkable only for being unremarkable. Josh Gibson, long considered the greatest home-run hitter in the Negro Leagues, is credited with only 115 home runs in more than 1,800 at-bats - numbers that correlate with the much-forgotten 1980s slugger Ken Phelps. Cool Papa Bell - the man long touted as the fastest man in the history of baseball - has only 144 steals and 53 triples in almost 3,500 at bats.
“These numbers are a joke,” said longtime Negro Leagues researcher Jim Riley.
Joke or not, they were weighed heavily by the committee. And while Buck O’Neil’s statistics have not been made public yet, Doswell felt sure they hurt his candidacy, even if Vincent and others pleaded with committee members to consider O’Neil’s entire career and his overall contributions to baseball and the Negro Leagues.
“There’s nothing wrong with having your head in the numbers,” Doswell said. “But if you have your head too much in the numbers, you don’t have your heart in the game.” Doswell admits he’s conflicted. He’s proud of the 17 people put into the Hall of Fame. He believes all his colleagues on the committee were earnest and sincere. But, in the end, he does feel this was a missed opportunity.
“It could be a situation where some people simply left their ballot blank when it came to Buck,” he says. “Maybe they thought, `I can’t vote yes, but I don’t have the heart to vote no.’ I don’t know. I guess I prefer to think of it that way.”
Jim Riley is smoking mad. He can’t even stop talking, he’s so mad. He knows that he’s a conflicted source on all this. He’s a leading Negro Leagues author - he’s written six books, including the groundbreaking Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues - but he was not chosen to be on the committee. That upset him.
“I’m trying to be charitable here,” he said. “But this was a committee of cronies.”
He knows that his words will come off to many as sour grapes. He can’t help it. He’s livid. He’s convinced that O’Neil was denied for all the wrong reasons, and that infuriates him. He’s enraged that Dick Lundy, who Riley calls “one of the 10 best shortstops who ever lived,” did not make it. But his real wrath comes down on some who did make it.
“I’m trying to be charitable here,” he said again, but he doesn’t sound too charitable about some of these choices, particularly these three:
Effa Manley is the first woman inducted to the Hall of Fame. She was a co-owner of the Newark Eagles with her husband, Abe. There is some dispute about the importance of her role with the team. Her supporters say she was a pioneering owner and, even as a white woman, on the cutting edge of the civil-rights movement.
Her detractors say Abe ran the team, which was not especially good (the Eagles won one pennant) and complain that her biographer, Jim Overmyer, was on the committee.
“She doesn’t deserve it at all,” Riley said. “She was not an influential owner. Abe is the one who bought the team. Abe is the one in charge of the baseball part. … People talk about her role as a pioneer. I mean that’s ridiculous. You know what she was known for? She had ongoing extramarital affairs with her players.”
Alex Pompez was a longtime Negro Leagues executive and owner in New York. After the Negro Leagues folded, he was a great scout, signing among others Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda. In this way, his case is quite similar to that of Buck O’Neil, who also made a legendary mark as a scout, signing Ernie Banks, Lou Brock and Lee Smith among many others.
The big difference: Pompez was a racketeer. He was a big numbers man in Harlem. He was involved with mobster Dutch Schultz. He was indicted, fled to Mexico, was arrested and returned to turn state’s evidence.
“It’s appalling,” Riley says. “I hope Pete Rose hears about this and tries to get reinstated.”
Andy Cooper was a good pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs and also a manager before he died, prematurely, in 1941. It seems likely that the new batch of statistics, which has still not been released, will show that he was better than previously believed.
“All I can say about Cooper is, I’ve interviewed 150 to 200 players, and I’ve spent much of my life researching the Negro Leagues,” Riley said. “To my knowledge, I’ve never heard one person even suggest that Andy Cooper belonged in the Hall of Fame.”
And so on. Riley also has complaints about some of the pre-Negro Leaguers selected. He does say some very deserving choices made it - especially Biz Mackey and Cristobal Torriente - and that makes him happy. But his overall feeling is this committee blew it.
“And it turns my stomach that these people don’t have the moral courage to stand behind their choices,” he says. “We don’t know why they did what they did. If I was on that committee … well, I wasn’t. But I would have answered questions. And I would have voted for Buck O’Neil, I can promise you that.”
Greg Bond was the youngest member of the committee. He’s a Wisconsin graduate student who has spent countless hours studying black baseball in the 19th Century. He has a passion for learning about men like new Hall of Famers Sol White and Frank Grant, who predated the Negro Leagues and fought a civil-rights battle often overlooked.
Bond was the only one of the remaining 10 members to respond extensively to an e-mail invitation to discuss the process and votes (Rob Ruck, a University of Pittsburgh professor, responded to say that this has been a very difficult and draining week, and he would be happy to discuss matters at a later date).
Bond wrote that he would not discuss his vote - he felt like that would be a betrayal of his fellow committee members. But he was obviously hurt that some - including me - questioned the courage of the committee members for not answering questions.
“I must continue to honor my promise to both the Hall of Fame and my fellow voters,” he wrote.
Mostly, though, he wrote about his sadness that the 17 new members have not gotten their fair amount of acclaim. This is a point made by others as well.
“One of the most potent aspects of Buck O’Neil’s personality has been his remarkable role as a public educator,” Bond wrote. “I find it somewhat ironic that in their zeal to defend and champion Mr. O’Neil’s cause, many of his supporters have completely missed a fantastic opportunity for further public education about the legacy of black baseball.”
It’s a strong and fair point. Of course, there’s another side. Many would argue that the committee - in its zeal to hold Buck O’Neil to a standard that appears to be higher than Alex Pompez , Effa Manley and others - did precisely the same thing. They missed a fantastic opportunity to give people a reason to pay attention. All 17 of these inductees have been gone for a long time.
As one high-ranking baseball person said, “Couldn’t they see that putting Buck in would have brought attention to the others? Couldn’t they see that it would have made the committee matter? It’s a shame. But now, who is going to care?”
The phone ran late one night last week. It was Buck O’Neil.
“I want you to do me a favor,” he said.
“I want you to thank the people in Kansas City. I want you to thank them for all their support. I want you to tell them that the greatest thing in all my life is their love for me and my love for them in return. Can you do that for me?” Of course, Buck.
“I’ve never felt more loved. All my life. Tell them that.” You hurting at all over this, Buck?
“Not at all. I thought I might go in. I really did. But if I had gone in, I would not feel as wonderful as I do now. People care about old Buck.”
One night later, Buck O’Neil was given an honorary doctorate by William Jewell College. He listened as his old friend, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, gave the speech. And in the middle, Burns veered away from his discussion of the Civil War and baseball and jazz to turn toward Buck O’Neil and say, “All we can say to him tonight is he belongs in our Hall of Fame.”
And in an instant everyone in the room stood and applauded and yelled for a long time. Buck O’Neil sat in the middle of all that love, his eyes closed, his arms raised above his head as if he was signaling “touchdown,” and he listened to people voting “Yes” like they have all over America.