O'Neil 'probably the greatest ambassador' of the Negro Leagues
By: Carlton Thompson | @yourboyCT
Buck O’Neil lived a life devoted to baseball and the enduring memory of the Negro Leagues.
O’Neil, a slick-fielding first baseman, had a .283 career batting average in his 11 years in the Negro Leagues, including 10 with his beloved Kansas City Monarchs. Additionally, he was a two-time Negro American League batting champion, hitting .345 in 1940 and .350 in 1946. O’Neil also managed the Monarchs from 1948-1955, leading the team to four Negro American League titles.
"Buck was similar to Jackie Robinson," the late Joe Morgan said. "There was more to him than just baseball."
Although O’Neil never reached Major League Baseball as a player, he made history with the Chicago Cubs in 1962, becoming the first Black coach in MLB history.
Prior to coaching, O’Neil worked as a scout for the Cubs. Two years later, O’Neil returned to return to scouting with the Cubs until 1988 when he joined the scouting staff of the Kansas City Royals. Prominent players scouted by O’Neil include Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Lou Brock, Lee Smith, Joe Carter and Oscar Gamble.
“I was just so thrilled to have someone like him to show that interest in me,” the late Banks said of O’Neil. “I just fell in love with the game of baseball, and it was my whole life because of (O’Neil).”
In addition to his many on-field accomplishments, O’Neil also was founder and board chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Born John Jordan O’Neil Jr., he died in 2006 at the age of 94. Always a treasure of knowledge and insight about the Negro Leagues, O’Neil quipped that he became an “overnight sensation at 82,” when he was featured prominently in filmmaker Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary series Baseball.
“Buck was one of the finest human beings who ever walked the face of this earth who just happened to be a great baseball player,” Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick said, during an interview with MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Buck . . . He demonstrated that you could go farther in this life with love than with hate.”
Months before his death in 2006, O’Neil was among the nominees to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame but fell one vote short. Two years later the Baseball Hall of Fame honored his legacy with the creation of the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award to be given to individuals whose extraordinary efforts enhanced baseball’s positive impact on society, broadened the game’s appeal and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the qualities exhibited by O’Neil.
“Buck touched every facet of baseball, and his impact was among the greatest the game has ever known,” said Jane Forbes Clark, chairperson of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “His contributions to the game go well beyond the playing field. This award will recognize future recipients who display the spirit Buck showed every day of his life.”