The top 10 moments of Buck O'Neil's career

November 13th, 2022

KANSAS CITY -- Fifteen years after experiencing the heartbreak of Buck O’Neil’s exclusion from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, his supporters felt relief and joy last November when they heard his name called as one heading to Cooperstown via the Early Baseball Era Committee.

Now O'Neil is a Hall of Famer after his induction in July. Here are some of the top moments that got him there during his career as a player, manager, scout and tireless advocate for the game.

1946: Led the Negro American League in batting
O’Neil’s legacy is best known for his work off the field, keeping the Negro Leagues alive with his one-of-a-kind storytelling. But he could play, too. Before he became a manager and a scout, O’Neil was a smooth-fielding first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs.

O’Neil appeared in three All-Star Games during his playing career, and his best year came in 1946, when he hit .353 to win the Negro American League batting title. O’Neil wasn’t known as a power hitter, but he hit two home runs to go along with his .333 average in that World Series against the Newark Eagles, according to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The Eagles won, but it took an outstanding catch from center fielder Leon Day to rob O’Neil of a triple in Game 6, saving the game and the Series.

1950: Signed Ernie Banks to the Monarchs
O’Neil discovered and mentored some of the greatest players in baseball history, with a keen eye for talent and the ability to lead those around him to greatness. Later in his Monarchs managing career, when the Negro Leagues were struggling to stay active because of integration, O’Neil began to scout along with his other responsibilities to keep the team afloat.

Cool Papa Bell told O’Neil he needed to go see a 17-year-old shortstop playing for the Black Sheepherders in San Antonio. In his book, "I Was Right On Time," O’Neil says he drove to Dallas and signed the prospect without even seeing him play.

“Cool’s word was good enough for me,” O’Neil said. “Turns out it was good enough for the Hall of Fame. The young man was Ernie Banks.”

In 1953, the Cubs offered the Monarchs $20,000 for the man who would become Mr. Cub, and O’Neil was there for the signing at Wrigley Field. O’Neil continued to mentor Banks, on and off the field. Two years after the Cubs signed Banks, they brought O’Neil on as a scout.

1958: Discovered Lou Brock in Lousiana
In Baton Rouge, O’Neil saw a young freshman playing baseball for Southern University named Lou Brock. He wasn’t a hot young prospect -- he came to Southern on an academic scholarship and went out for baseball not to be a star, but simply to stay in school.

The first thing O’Neil noticed about Brock was his speed. But Brock was also powerfully built, and O’Neil could tell he would get stronger. When Brock started to have big league workouts, the Cubs stayed interested and signed Brock in 1960, with the help of O’Neil.

Brock didn’t catch on in the Major Leagues quickly, and in 1964, the Cubs traded him to the Cardinals for starter Ernie Broglio, which, of course, would go down as one of the most lopsided trades in history. At the time, though, the prevailing wisdom was that the Cardinals had been bamboozled.

But not O’Neil. He was sure Brock would be a good player and found it upsetting that the Cubs neither had the time nor patience for Brock’s development. When O’Neil heard about what Brock was doing for the Cardinals shortly after the trade -- using his speed to light a fire under the team -- O’Neil felt a rush of pride for his young protégé, who would go on to have a Hall of Fame career.

1962: Became the first Black coach on a Major League coaching staff in AL/NL history
In Brock’s first full year in the Majors, the Cubs promoted O’Neil to their Major League coaching staff, and he made history as the first Black coach on an American League or National League team. The Cubs were trying something unique with their managerial situation: Owner Phil Wrigley wanted a regular rotation among several coaches to take the stress of managerial duties off one individual.

O’Neil was told he would become part of the rotation, which would have made him the first Black coach to manage a Major League game, but the promise wasn’t fulfilled. Still, his seat in the dugout was a historic one that season.

1968: Discovered Oscar Gamble on the backfields of Montgomery, Ala.
One of O’Neil’s favorite stories to tell was the one about how he discovered Oscar Gamble, who went on to have a memorable 17-year career with 200 home runs in which he played in two World Series and almost single-handedly won the Yankees-Brewers AL Division Series in 1981, by hitting .556 with two home runs.

One day in the spring of 1968, O’Neil was in Montgomery, watching a team of uninteresting semi-professional players. He was just about to leave when Gamble jogged onto the field, and O’Neil saw something that promised big talent, even though there was nothing especially noticeable about the scrawny 18-year-old.

But O’Neil followed his instincts and introduced himself to Gamble, who told O’Neil that he had a high school baseball game the next day and stuttered through complicated directions to a field outside of town. It took O’Neil some time to find it, driving along a dusty, two-lane road for what seemed like forever. But he eventually did, and it was worth it.

O’Neil stayed in the car to watch Gamble play his natural game, and one at-bat was all he needed to see the bat speed, timing and jaw-dropping power. O’Neil filed a scouting report later that day. The Cubs drafted Gamble in the 16th round of the 1968 Draft.

"It's a great name, isn't it?" O’Neil used to tell sports writer Joe Posnanski. "Oscar Gamble! That sounds like a ballplayer. And he was. He was a heck of a ballplayer."

1974: Scouted Lee Smith for the Cubs ahead of the '75 Draft
O’Neil first met future Hall of Fame closer Lee Smith when Smith was pitching for Castor High School in Louisiana. Then 15 years old with a hulk of a frame, Smith was popping fastballs and mixing in his slider, mesmerizing O’Neil in the stands. Smith was impressed with his first meeting with O’Neil, but he still had dreams of becoming an NBA star -- he loved basketball, and he was good at it, too. Baseball just came naturally to him.

But Smith was surrounded by baseball players. He worked on a farm owned by former Major Leaguer Joe Adcock, who told Smith to listen to O’Neil. Smith began reading about the Negro Leagues and learned more about baseball and O’Neil. O’Neil was not the only scout to watch Smith pitch ahead of the 1975 Draft, but he convinced the Cubs to take Smith in the second round -- and they wouldn’t regret it.

1981: Scouted first-round Draft pick Joe Carter
O’Neil kept finding Major League talent for the Cubs as the decades wore on, and the slugger he found at Wichita Sate in the late 1970s was no different, although Joe Carter went on to have his best years in Toronto.

No scout watched Carter more than O’Neil at Wichita State. By the time they became acquainted, they not only were talking about Carter’s play, but also stories from O’Neil’s Negro Leagues days. Carter hit 58 home runs in three years in college, and O’Neil convinced the Cubs to take him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1981 Draft.

While Carter didn’t stay in Chicago for long, he was one of the best hitters in the game over his 16-year career. A five-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger, Carter’s ninth-inning walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series gave the Blue Jays their second consecutive championship.

1990: Helped establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
The NLBM opened its doors to the public in a tiny, one-room office with a dream of building a permanent facility that would pay tribute to the Negro Leagues and their legendary players. It was O'Neil's idea to build it into a museum, rather than a Hall of Fame, and he served as the chairman of the museum until his death in 2006.

Under O’Neil’s leadership in 1997, the NLBM moved into its new 10,000-square-foot home inside a complex known as the Museums at 18th and Vine. It’s just two blocks from where Andrew “Rube” Foster established the Negro National League in 1920, and where O’Neil played and managed the Monarchs for much of his life. In 2006, the NLBM gained National Designation after O’Neil testified before Congress on the museum’s importance.

O’Neil’s dream has turned into a reality, with the NLBM becoming one of the most important cultural institutions in the world. It does what O’Neil devoted so much of his life to: Keeping the stories of the Negro Leagues alive.

2006: Spoke on behalf of 17 Negro Leagues inductees at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony
Disappointment seeped through the room at the NLBM when the harsh truth was revealed: Buck O’Neil was not going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame that year, despite 17 others from the Negro Leagues getting the call. O’Neil was disappointed, rightfully so, but what many people remember about that day is how he took the piercing news with grace -- and how excited he was for the 17 who were inducted.

O'Neil's last public speaking appearance was in Cooperstown, speaking on those who were called to the Hall that summer. He spoke life back into those who were inducted posthumously, reminding everyone of their legacy and importance of the league they played in. As he stood at the podium in front of a large crowd, he asked everyone to hold hands and to sing with him. And he sang: “The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you,” repeating the chorus several times.

The wound of O’Neil’s exclusion from the Hall in 2006 cut deep with his supporters, including NLBM president Bob Kendrick. He tried to salve the wound by constantly reminding himself of O’Neil’s grace following the announcement and how it inspired Kendrick and others to be more “Buck like.” O’Neil died months after giving the speech on Oct. 6, 2006, at 94 years old.

2022: Inducted into the Hall of Fame at long last
Fifteen years after O’Neil’s name was not included on the Hall of Fame announcement, the mood at the NLBM was much different when his name was included. O’Neil was not around to see it, but his supporters celebrated endlessly for him.

The Early Baseball Era Committee made a decision many felt should have been made in 2006. While better late than never isn’t the most satisfying feeling, O’Neil is now enshrined where many believe he belongs -- in baseball immortality with a plaque next to several of the players he endlessly advocated for their places in Cooperstown.