O’Neil puts personal disappointment aside at Hall of Fame event

The Kansas City Star

This was the higher road, only amplified, and as such stands as a remarkably appropriate tribute to a life distinguished by grace and dignity in the face of intolerance and ignorance.

Buck O’Neil, at age 94, put aside his own immense disappointment Sunday afternoon as he stood on a podium outside the Clark Sports Center, a handful of blocks south of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

This was, after all, a celebration.

If his own exclusion made it bittersweet, as it had to be, O’Neil hid it well behind the gentle good humor that has long been his endearing trademark.

All right, sit down,” he implored as everyone, including Hall of Fame members, rose to a standing ovation at his introduction.

O’Neil then praised and reminisced in the familiar soft lilt of his southern roots while helping to enshrine 17 players and executives from the Negro Leagues. Each one belonged in the Hall of Fame, he said. For each, the honor was long overdue.

And himself?

This is quite an honor for me,” O’Neil insisted. “See, I played in the Negro Leagues … I’m proud to have been a Negro Leagues ballplayer.”

The honor is posthumous for each of the 17. The Negro Leagues ceased operation in 1960, though its scope began diminishing once Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.

O’Neil is among a shrinking handful who form its living legacy, and his exhaustive efforts to promote its heritage stamped him as an obvious speaker — along with Robinson’s daughter, Sharon — at the induction ceremony.

Hall officials put those plans in place months ago, when it seemed certain O’Neil would be among the inductees. That changed in March, when a special committee, composed primarily of historians and authors, deemed him unworthy of enshrinement.

O’Neil acknowledges personal disappointment but never considered reneging on his promise to participate in the ceremony.

I’ve been a lot of places,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of things I really liked doing … but I’d rather be right here, right now, representing the people who helped build a bridge across the chasm of prejudice.”

The Hall of Fame, at its annual ceremony, also inducted reliever Bruce Sutter, the split-finger specialist elected in January by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Also honored: sportswriter Tracy Ringolsby of the Rocky Mountain News, who is also a former Kansas City Star sportswriter, and former Astros broadcaster Gene Elston.

In all, the 18 inductions marked the biggest class since the Hall opened in 1936. But it was the man overlooked, for whatever reason, who dominated the proceedings.

To have shared the podium with Buck today,” Sharon Robinson said, “is one of my greatest honors. Buck, I love you. Your contribution … we would not be here today without your contribution to baseball and to the Negro Leagues.”

The induction of 17 Negro Leagues personnel culminated a six-year project in which Major League Baseball funded research to produce a documented history as a preliminary step to compiling a list of candidates who merited consideration for enshrinement.

That research produced 94 nominees. A five-member screening committee trimmed the field to 39 last November before a 12-member panel completed the project in March.

A finalist needed nine votes to be elected — the same 75 percent threshold used by the baseball writers group in its annual voting process. The panel selected 17 inductees.

O’Neil was not among them.

There was no bitterness Sunday as he spoke, just as there was none that day in March when he learned of the panel’s decision. Just as he has always insisted that no bitterness exists at being denied, because of his race, the opportunity to play in the big leagues.

I never learned to hate,” O’Neil said. “Oh, I hate cancer. Cancer killed my mother. My wife died 10 years ago of cancer.”

A pause, then right on cue: “I’m single, ladies.”

Get the idea?

This was Buck O’Neil, performing his greatest hits live at the Hall of Fame, complete with the big finish.

He closed by getting everyone to join hands: Hall of Famers on stage, friends and family in the near seats and those beyond. All 11,000 in attendance.

And he began to sing.

The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you!”

Over and over he sang that one line, with the crowd echoing louder at each repetition.

It was a celebration after all.

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