New generations must hear O’Neil’s story

O'Neil played for and later managed the KC Monarchs.

The Kansas City Star

Bob Kendrick shuffles slowly and quietly through the foyer of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the sound of jazz and children’s voices softly filtering from a small concert across the open lobby.

Kendrick, in a coat and tie, keeps walking, into a still exhibit hall, past the walls with his old friend’s words, and past the sculptures and paintings inspired by an American life.

He stops in front of a glass case filled with keys. This is a pretty good place to start, Kendrick says.

The keys are from places like Newark, N.J., and Pensacola, Fla., and St. Joseph, Mo.; little pieces of metal given to John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil during the final chapter of his life.

“At one time,” says Kendrick, president of the NLBM, “some of these cities didn’t even want Buck in their city.”

Now Kendrick is telling another Buck story. So many stories.

He was a farm boy and a baseball star; a pioneering coach and scout; a beloved symbol for a sport and community.

“When we’re talking about Buck O’Neil,” Kendrick says, “we’re talking about the grandson of a slave. The direct descendant of a slave who became baseball’s grand ambassador; who lived long enough to wine and dine with American presidents.”

It’s an early November morning, brisk and sunny, and in a few days, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum will gather for a weekend of events to celebrate O’Neil’s 100th birthday, a few more days to remember a treasured voice, a community icon and a loyal friend.

So Kendrick is here, standing in the temporary Buck O’Neil exhibit, the one just adjacent to the entrance of the museum. It’s a tribute to O’Neil’s 94 years of life, and just last week, Kendrick was walking these same floors as a group of school children visited to learn about the Negro Leagues and the life of Buck O’Neil.

The kids looked at the photos, and the honors and the history. And Kendrick told his stories. And maybe he already knew this, but as the innocent young faces gazed up at the photos, the weight of the situation washed over Kendrick.

These kids had never heard of Buck O’Neil. They had never heard these stories.

“It just kind of struck me,” Kendrick says. “There are kids in our community who will never know Buck O’Neil. They won’t get the opportunity to meet Buck O’Neil.”

Kendrick paused for a moment while looking at the keys in the case. For Kendrick and others at the museum, the answer is simple. So many know the stories and the lessons and the legacy.

Now it’s time to pass it on.

The beginning

John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil was born Nov. 13, 1911, in Carrabelle, Fla.

The grandson of Julius O’Neil, a former slave, and son of John Sr. and Luella, Buck spent most of his childhood in rural Florida before the family moved to Sarasota in the early 1920s.

This is where the first story begins. The Florida summers were long and sweltering, and Buck spent his early years working odd jobs while his father worked for a sawmill.

For three years, Buck worked as a box boy in a celery field, hauling crates for $1.25 a day.

The story Buck liked to tell so much, Kendrick says, goes like this: One day, at age 17, Buck sat down after a long, exhausting day in the heat. His father sat a few feet away, hidden by a stack of boxes.

“Damn,” Buck said, “there has got to be something better than this.”

A few hours later, after another grueling shift, Buck father’s approached his son. He’d heard his words.

Buck expected a harsh reprimand. Maybe something worse.

And then…

“You’re right,” his father said. “There is something better than this. But you can’t find it here. You’re going to have to go out and get it.”

For Buck, that something was baseball. The young boy who had watched John McGraw and Babe Ruth during spring training in Florida would now become a baseball player. The boy who wasn’t allowed to go to high school in Sarasota would now play baseball at Edward Waters College for a man named Ox Clemons.

A few years later, he would leave to play for the Miami Giants, a team owned by a man named Buck O’Neal.

Somehow, a local promoter confused O’Neal for O’Neil, and the name stuck. They would call him Buck.

The career

It was 2006, the day Buck would learn whether he’d made the National Baseball Hall of Fame. So Buck and Kendrick sat in a conference room at the museum, waiting for word from the special selection committee.

As they waited, a collection of people paraded through. They wanted to thank old Buck for being such an inspiring ambassador; such a gentleman, and such a voice.

“They kept coming in,” Kendrick says. “And Buck finally looked at me and said, ‘Bob, I could play!’ ”

By most historical accounts, O’Neil was a slick-fielding first baseman and a hitter capable of winning batting titles. By his own personal estimation, Buck said he was a “very good” player, according to his autobiography, “I Was Right On Time.”

“But,” Buck wrote, “very good players don’t belong in the Hall of Fame. Great players do.”

Buck would help the Kansas City Monarchs win four straight Negro American League pennants from 1939 to 1942. In the final year of that run, he batted .353 as the Monarchs swept the Homestead Grays in the Negro World Series.

But Buck’s baseball life was just getting started.

After a stint in World War II, during which he learned that Jackie Robinson had signed a contract with the Dodgers, Buck returned to Kansas City and managed the Monarchs to two World Series titles.

O’Neil would later become the first black coach in major-league history, joining the Cubs’ staff in 1962, and one of the most respected scouts in the country, signing the likes of Lou Brock, Ernie Banks and Joe Carter.

In 1988, Buck began working for the Kansas City Royals, finding his favorite spot behind home plate.

The ambassador

Kendrick is talking about the final chapter, the part of the story so many people know so well.

In 1994, at age 82, Buck appeared in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, “Baseball.”

“America literally fell in love with Buck O’Neil,” Kendrick says.

Plans for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum had already been set in motion, but Buck’s ascension paralleled the rise of the museum.

For the remaining years of his life, before his death on Oct. 6, 2006, O’Neil would continue his crusade for the Negro Leagues. There was still so much left to do, he would say.

“As Buck would say,” Kendrick said, ‘Hell, I’ve been telling these stories for 40 years, and nobody ever listened.’ ”

On that day at the museum last week, when all of the kids had filed in, Kendrick told a story about how Buck had earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom after his death.

That caught their attention, Kendrick says. And for a moment, they all wanted to listen.

“It’s incumbent upon this museum to make sure that his legacy lives on forever,” Kendrick says. “We don’t ever want to forget Buck O’Neil. We shouldn’t want to forget Buck O’Neil.

“We’ve created this kind of structure where it’s going to be difficult to not remember Buck. We want to keep that voice alive.”

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