O'Neil takes his place among legends in Hall

July 24th, 2022

At the start of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum tour, there is a black and white photo of a young boy. He is lying on his stomach, chin in his hands, gazing at the camera with two baseball bats in front of him.

We don’t know who he is, nor when the photo was taken. All we know is that Buck O’Neil loved this photograph.

He stopped to look at it every time he walked through the exhibit, before his voice and laughter would carry through the halls as he told stories of the Negro Leagues and its legendary players.

“I think it reminded him of a young Buck O’Neil dreaming of having an opportunity to play the game that he loved,” NLBM president Bob Kendrick said. “It’s encapsulated in that photo.”

O’Neil’s dream took him many places until his death in 2006 at the age of 94. He began his baseball career barnstorming before signing with the Memphis Red Sox in 1937. In 1938, his contract was sold to the Kansas City Monarchs, the team with which he would spend the rest of his playing career, and in the city he would call home.

A three-time All-Star and Negro World Series champion, O’Neil was a standout first baseman for the Monarchs and became a player-manager in 1948. In 1955, he became a scout. Players he signed with the Cubs and then the Royals included Lou Brock, Oscar Gamble, Lee Smith and Joe Carter.

In 1962, O’Neil became the first Black member of an AL/NL coaching staff as part of the Cubs’ “College of Coaches.”

And then came perhaps the most impactful chapter of O’Neil’s baseball life: His mission to keep the stories of the Negro Leagues alive. The founder and chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, O’Neil dedicated the last 16 years of his life keeping Negro Leagues players alive through his gifted storytelling.

That all led to Sunday when O’Neil, at long last, was inducted into the Hall of Fame, having been voted in by the Early Baseball Era Committee.

“We obviously wish that Buck was still with us,” Kendrick said. “But you know his spirit will fill Cooperstown. He often called the area where they do the induction The Valley. And you just got a funny feeling that Buck’s spirit is going to be all over The Valley on Sunday.”

Angela Terry, O'Neil's niece, spoke on his behalf.

"If Uncle John were here with us this afternoon, his usual spirit of humility and gratefulness would be on full display,” Terry said. “He would quickly deflect the limelight away from himself, to focus upon those who loved, inspired and supported his lifelong passion for baseball."

O’Neil’s induction comes two years after the museum celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League. It comes during a time of massive growth for the museum in terms of reach and financial contributions, something which Kendrick and community engagement manager Kiona Sinks hope to continue in the wake of O’Neil’s induction.

And it comes 16 years after O’Neil did not get inducted in 2006.

There was a massive crowd at the museum that day. Everyone thought he was a shoo-in. Even O’Neil was excited. But Kendrick got the call late in the day that O’Neil didn’t get in, and he had to deliver the news.

Kendrick walked into the conference room on the second level of the museum and closed the door. He sat next to O’Neil and across from author Joe Posnanski, who traveled around the country with O’Neil for his book “The Soul Of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.”

“Well, Buck, we didn’t get enough votes,” Kendrick said.

O’Neil looked up at Kendrick. He smiled. And then he asked how many people did get in.

Kendrick informed O’Neil that 17 other Negro League players were going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and O’Neil slammed the table in jubilation.

“The next words that came out of his mouth were, ‘I wonder if the Hall of Fame will invite me to speak?’” Kendrick said.

Kendrick and Posnanski were speechless. They were furious O’Neil hadn’t gotten in. How could he move on so quickly?

“I had become such close friends with this great man who I understood was always positive, and yet even in that moment, I still could not figure it out,” Posnanski said. “I said, ‘You would do that?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Son, what has my life been all about?’

“That is what his life was about.”

O’Neil did speak on behalf of those Negro Leaguers that summer, delivering a powerful address. He was sick at the time, something Kendrick can see in O’Neil’s eyes when he rewatches the speech. But O’Neil was not going to miss that moment.

“You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who has given the game of baseball more than Buck did,” Kendrick said.

O’Neil’s impact extended from baseball fans to players. In the late 1990s, longtime pitcher LaTroy Hawkins was a rookie with the Twins. During a series in Kansas City, Hawkins spotted O’Neil on the field during batting practice.

“He just had this aura about himself, like this charisma. And he looked like me,” Hawkins said. “I had to ask, ‘Who is that?’”

Hawkins introduced himself to O’Neil and was surprised to find out that O’Neil knew exactly who Hawkins was. They struck up a friendship, and every time Hawkins was in Kansas City, he met up with O’Neil, taking teammates and family to the 18th & Vine District.

“My grandfather told me about the Negro Leagues, because he had seen all the big stars,” Hawkins said. “Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson. When I told him I met Buck O’Neil, he knew exactly who I was talking about.”

That is why O’Neil’s Hall of Fame induction is important. The story of baseball -- from 1876, when the National League was founded, to 2022 -- is incomplete without Buck O’Neil.

“You just can’t. Or at least you shouldn’t,” Kendrick said. “He has been that meaningful and significant in the history of this game. Our game is better because of Buck and those who looked like him.

“The Hall of Fame is going to be a better place because Buck O’Neil is in it.”