Buck O'Neil could soon be in Hall of Fame

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On Dec. 5, the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Early Baseball Era committee will meet at the winter meetings in Orlando, to vote on who they think from a 10-player ballot should be entered into the famed museum in Cooperstown, New York.

Two baseball historians said Saturday morning that Carrabelle native Buck O’Neil has a good chance of making it this time.

“I’m hearing there’s pressure to get him into the Hall of Fame,” said author Wes Singletary Saturday morning at a program on the life of the famed Negro Leaguer, sponsored by the Carrabelle History Museum, that he presented along with baseball aficionado Josh Weaver at C-Quarters Marina.

In addition to O’Neil, the Early Baseball Era ballot, which is considered only once every 10 years, features candidates whose primary contributions came before 1950. Seven of the 10, who also John Donaldson, Bud Fowler, Vic Harris, Grant “Home Run” Johnson, Dick “Cannonball” Redding and George “Tubby” Scales, were stars in the Negro Leagues or pre-Negro Leagues. American and National Leaguers Bill Dahlen, Lefty O’Doul and Allie Reynolds round out the ballot.

A separate Golden Days Era ballot features candidates whose primary contributions came between 1950-69. Three players in that group - Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva and Maury Wills - are still living. The other seven candidates are Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Gil Hodges, Roger Maris, Minnie Miñoso, Danny Murtaugh and Billy Pierce.

If John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil, born in Carrabelle Nov. 13, 1911, enters the Hall, it will not be his first appearance within that venerated building. In 2008, two years after O’Neil missed being voted in by a single vote, the Hall introduced the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, which features a permanent, life-size bronze statue of the former first baseman and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs, who went on to become one of the first African-American scouts, and later coaches, in the majors.

Singletary, a history instructor at Chiles High School and professor at Tallahassee Community College, offered a detailed recounting of O’Neil’s life, in the first of a series of talks that will include one in January on the Shipwrecks of Dog Island, and later ones on turpentine and sponge industry.

Launching into his talk after an introduction from Tamara Allen, the museum’s director, Singletary told how O’Neil, the grandson of slaves, went to school in Carrabelle to age 9, before the family moved to Sarasota where his father worked in the celery fields.

Back in the 1920s, Tampa was one of only a few cities in Florida where Blacks were provided an education through high school.

O’Neil recounted in his life story how he worked as “a box boy” carrying celery crates, and during spring training, would take in major league games, where he saw the likes of Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson and Dizzy Dean.

“He worshipped them, he idolized them,” said Singletary, noting O’Neil once described “the crack of Babe Ruth’s (bat) was like a small stick of dynamite going off.”

O’Neil’s took his nephew to Palm Beach, where at such places as the Royal Poinciana Hotel, Blacks worked as porters as well as played for the hotel teams there.

O’Neil did not earn his school diploma from the segregated Sarasota High School, which decades later would honor him by bestowing him one. Rather, O’Neil earned his diploma, and two years of higher education, at Edward Waters College, a private Christian historically Black university in Jacksonville.

After that his career included playing first base in 1933 for the Black Smokers, a semi-pro team in Tampa; for the Miami Giants in 1934; and in 1935 for the New York Tigers, a Miami-based ballclub that “used to go around and tell people they came from New York,” Singletary said.

O’Neil played ball in Denver, Colorado and Wichita, Kansas, where he first met his  legendary future teammate Satchel Paige.

In 1936, O'Neil played for the Shreveport (Louisiana) Acme Giants and even spent time in the Mexican League, but returned to the states after his team failed to win their pennant. “That’s a tough league,” O'Neil would later joke. “When they deport you when they lose.”

O’Neil played for the Memphis Red Sox in 1937, and later for the Zulu Cannibal Giants, a team owned by Abe Saperstein, founder of the Harlem Globetrotters. “We acted like a bunch of fools to draw white folks to the park,” O’Neil said. “We would do anything to play ball. We became accustomed to racism.”

Signed in 1938 to the Kansas City Monarchs, O’Neil was a part of that legendary team for the next 17 years, and was a frequent visitor to the city’s 18th and Vine neighborhood that became renowned for its jazz musicians. There he rubbed elbows with the likes of poet Langston Hughes, and heard “a chubby cat,” saxophonist Charlie Parker, perform his genius.

“At 18th and Vine, you couldn’t toss a baseball without hitting a musician,” O’Neil said.

Singletary recounted tales of the Monarch teams from 1939 to 1942, which included Josh Gibson and Paige on its roster.

In 1943, O’Neil hit for the cycle against the Memphis Red Sox, but as great an accomplishment as that was, he said what made it “his best day” was that he met schoolteacher Ora Lee Owens.

Following a stint as a stevedore in the Navy during World War II, O’Neal returned home and married Owens, who was his lifelong companion for the next 51 years.

In his memoirs, O’Neil recalled following the Negro Leagues during the war in clippings from the Black press, and of the day in 1945, when his commanding officer told him Jackie Robinson had signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers to become the first Black major leaguer.

Overjoyed, O’Neil jumped on the intercom and announced the news to the crew. “We started hollering and shouting and firing our guns into the air,” he remembered. “It didn’t matter who was the first or which team had the courage; this was the real first step toward integration, toward equality, since maybe Reconstruction.”

After leaving the Monarchs, O’Neil went on to become a scout for the Chicago Cubs, and later a coach for the Kansas City Royals. Among the players he is credited with discovering were Ernie Banks, Lee Smith, Joe Carter, Billy Williams, Elston Howard, Lou Brock and Oscar Gamble.

Ora Lee O’Neil lived long enough to see the realization of her husband’s dream, with the founding of the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.

“All that’s left is a few of us, and we’re losing them every year,” he wrote at the time as the idea of a museum gathered momentum. “We’re going to preserve stuff that’s in attics and going to rot and guy’s grandkids are going to throw out.

In 1994, O’Neil became an overnight sensation for the starring role he played in Ken Burns’ television documentary on baseball.

“It’s kind of nice to be discovered when you are 82 years old,” O’Neil quipped.

Known for his wit and good humor as an ambassador for the great American pastime, O’Neil was regarded for his upbeat manner. “People ask me: How do you keep from being bitter?” he wrote. “Man, bitterness will eat you up inside. Hatred will eat you up inside. Don’t be bitter. Don’t hate.

“My grandfather was a slave. He was not bitter. I learned that from him,” O’Neil wrote in his autobiography. “And you know what? I wouldn’t trade my life for anybody’s. I’ve had so many blessings in my life. I don’t want people to be sad for me when I go. Be sad for the kids who die young. You shouldn’t feel sad for a man who lived his dream. You know what I always say? I was right on time.”

Weaver showed off a trove of memorabilia that included reproductions of O’Neil’s uniforms with the Monarchs and the Royals, as well as baseball cards, bobblehead dolls, and a signed bat and signed ball, all of which is now on loan at the Carrabelle museum.

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