One last dance with baseball history

The Kansas City Star

There’s a beautiful photograph in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, beautiful and haunting, taken at the last player reunion.

More than 200 Negro Leagues players gathered together in Kansas City five years ago — before there was a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum — and they ate, they drank, they danced and they hugged. They told stories, and they told lies, and they dared you to tell the difference.

Sure, it took some kind of doing to get them all lined up for that photograph. The men were fussing and fighting, telling tales, correcting each other’s tales, on and on, even as the photographer kept trying to get them all to look up. But the guy got the shot. It’s a piece of history. And it’s beautiful.

Here’s the haunting part: Fifty of those men are gone now.

Every day you open the paper, it seems, and you’ve lost another friend,” says that magical old ballplayer Buck O’Neil, spry at 89. “That’s why we have to hold on to our friends. Yeah. Hold on as tight as we can.”

Thursday, O’Neil was among 150 former ballplayers at “Legacy 2000: A Negro Leagues Player Reunion.” They were over at the Gem Theater, 18th and Vine, all these glorious men who once pitched and caught and hit baseballs in the old Negro Leagues, and they hugged, caught up, tried to remember, and before long, they started to tell the same stories that they were telling five years ago.

Only then, the lights faded low, and O’Neil leaned into the microphone, and he started to sing an old Frankie Laine song. You have to know that there’s nothing in this world quite like listening to Buck O’Neil sing. It’s there with seeing the Mona Lisa, eating Arthur Bryant’s ribs, pressing down a royal flush at a poker table, driving over the Triborough Bridge into New York City at night. It’s something.

Buck O’Neil sang:

I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows.

I believe that somewhere in the darkest night, a candle glows.

I believe for everyone who goes astray someone will come to show the way.

I believe. I believe.”

When he finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Except, well, for some of the old ballplayers who wanted Buck to pipe down so they could finish telling their stories.

I’m really ticked off. Sorry to interrupt the story. But tonight, all these Negro Leagues players are going to gather at a dinner at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown. And, part of the program is an awards banquet, where major-league baseball players are going to be honored for their achievements this year.

Guess how many major-league players are showing up.

That would be zero.

Can you even imagine that? Not even one of the 12 players honored had the class to be here. Not one. And to make matters worse, two of the players are Kansas City Royals. Johnny Damon is supposed to be getting the Cool Papa Bell award for having the most stolen bases. And Mark Quinn won the Jackie Robinson award as the rookie of the year. Neither will be there to accept.

Now, that’s shameful. Everyone talks about how young people — especially modern athletes — just don’t know their history. Well, this is history. How could baseball players miss this? It should be required by baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Someone should pass a law.

These men, all 150 of them, they were kept out of the major leagues for the color of the skin. “For our beautiful tans,” as Buck O’Neil says.

They are national treasures. They paved the way. It wasn’t Jackie Robinson who single-handedly broke the color barrier in baseball. It was all these men, who rode the buses all night because no hotel would let them stay, who divvied up stale sandwiches because restaurants wouldn’t serve them, who played for a few bucks every month (and, let’s be real, the checks didn’t always clear) because they loved baseball so much.

Today’s players who haggle over every dime, they could learn something. No, they could learn everything.

That’s Ross Davis over there, in a wheelchair, a pitcher for four teams in the 1940s, and also a soldier in World War II. Willie Grace was once a switch-hitting power hitter. He’s blind now, and as he’s led through the room, he smiles large.

Over there is Reverend Willie Greason - they called him Booster back when he threw hard fastballs for the Birmingham Black Barons. And at the center of it all, is the man of honor, Theodore “Double Duty” Radcliffe - called Double Duty because in doubleheaders he would sometimes pitch the first game and catch the second. He’s feisty as ever at 98 years old.

They are all over Kansas City — walking, talking history — and if you get a chance, happen to see an old ballplayer walking around town or sit with one at the dinner tonight, you should ask him to tell you a story. About how it used to be. They won’t turn you down, believe me. They have great stories.

The major-league players should hear those stories too. They won’t. They should be ashamed of themselves.

There won’t be another reunion like this one. These men are dying. A few months ago, it was Lefty LaMarque, one heck of a pitcher, who passed away, and a few weeks before it was Rufus Lewis, another great pitcher, and just before that it was Frank Duncan III. And so on.

You look at the register of players here in Kansas City, and by their names are comments about their health. Some are in wheelchairs. Some use walkers. Some are diabetics.

They’re all here, though, here to see old friends, turn over old days, rattle the memories. No, there won’t be another reunion like this one. Ever. Like World War II veterans and heroes from another time, the players’ numbers keep dwindling. Soon, there won’t be anyone left to tell the stories. And how sad will that be?

I know all of you,” Buck O’Neil said softly to his friends at the Gem Theater. “And I love you like I love myself.”

Then, Buck asked everyone to hold hands, and everyone held hands. Then everyone in the place sang “The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.”

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Except, of course, those ballplayers who wanted Buck to quit all that singing so they could tell some stories. They do want to tell their stories. And, if we’re smart, we’ll listen with all our hearts.

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