'Remembering Buck': O'Neil honored in KC

Negro Leagues legend celebrated with panel, transit dedications

November 13th, 2020

If Buck O’Neil were alive, he would have celebrated his 109th birthday on Friday. Not only did he get a streetcar, a metro bus and a fleet of bicycles named in his honor in Kansas City, the Negro Leagues legend would have also enjoyed a Facebook discussion dedicated to him.

Filmmaker Ken Burns, biographer Joe Posnanski and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick joined Bob Costas to discuss the life of O’Neil. The hour-long panel, "Remembering Buck," was presented by Husch Blackwell.

O’Neil, who died in 2006, became nationally known for his appearance in Burns' 1994 documentary, “Baseball.” O’Neil gladly told stories about his days as a player and coach in the Negro Leagues, and provided his own rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Burns called O’Neil the star of the documentary.

“If you left the series after 18 1/2 hours, you couldn’t help but feel that its beating heart was Buck,” Burns said. “I think that’s why we are here together [on Friday]. Every bit of [what he said] was gold. He was a witness to so much, not just in baseball history, but American history.”

Said Kendrick, “Buck always was so thankful for what Ken had done for him. Buck would always say, ‘I’ve been telling these stories for 40 years and no one ever listened.’ Ken gave him a platform and people listened and they listened intently.”

The panel noted that O’Neil never expressed any bitterness about being excluded from the Major Leagues due to systemic racism. It was always sunshine on a cloudy day for O’Neil.

“Just being around him so much, [O’Neil] never let down, ever,” Posnanski said. “He was always that positive. Even in his worst moments, he would brace himself and still be that positive guy. This was a guy that was denied opportunity throughout his entire life. He never got to manage. That’s the biggest one for him. I think he would have been a great Major League manager. He had a life of being denied. It never cut into his positivity.”

Costas met O’Neil in the 1980s when he was doing Saturday’s Game of the Week on NBC. Costas and his partner, Tony Kubek, would arrive in each week's city a day before the game. When they got to Kansas City, instead of studying the teams they were covering, they often would be distracted by having long conversations with O’Neil.

“Tony Kubek and I would sit there with Buck O’Neil and lose track of the game. It couldn’t be possibly as interesting as compared to what Buck was telling you,” Costas said.

O’Neil did more than just talk baseball. O’Neil was a driving force behind the creation of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last month.

The NLBM is a privately funded nonprofit organization; annually renewing memberships to support the museum are available from $25 to $1,000. Membership includes free admission for the year, a 10 percent discount on merchandise from the NLBM Extra Inning Store and advance information on special events. Members also receive a gift and additional benefits at each level of support.