O'Neil's contributions worthy of Hall of Fame

December 1st, 2021

On Sunday, the Hall of Fame's Early Baseball Era Committee (pre-1950) and Golden Days Era Committee (1950-69) will meet to vote on 10-player ballots, with the results announced live on MLB Network that night at 6 ET. We're here to offer a primer on the 20 players who are up for consideration. Click here to view the other posts.

Player: Buck O'Neil

Years: 1937-43 and 1946-55 (as a player); 1948-55 (as a manager)

Career stats (Note: Negro League stats below may be incomplete)

As a player: .258/.315/.358, 9 HRs, 175 RBIs, 43 SB in 337 games

As a manager: Won two Negro American League pennants with the Kansas City Monarchs (1953, '55)

Bio: Few people lived lives as fully devoted to baseball as Buck O'Neil did, and few had the breadth of experience that O'Neil had. He was a player, a manager, the first Black coach in AL/NL history, a scout and, above all, a tireless advocate for the game -- particularly for the importance of Negro Leagues history.

Born on Nov. 13, 1911, in Carrabelle, Fla., O'Neil began his baseball career barnstorming before signing with the Memphis Red Sox in 1937. The following year, O'Neil had his contract sold to the Kansas City Monarchs, the team with which he would spend the rest of his playing career (with a two-year interruption for naval service in World War II).

Primarily a first baseman, O'Neil was known for his smooth glovework more than his bat, although he was a capable hitter as well. As a member of the Monarchs, O'Neil was a three-time All-Star and became a Negro World Series champion in 1942.

"We rarely get the defensive side of the game," said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. "And Buck was a stellar defensive first baseman -- one of the greatest first basemen in Negro Leagues baseball history. You put together a list of top 10 great first basemen, and Buck O'Neil's name would have to be on it when you look at the Negro Leagues."

In 1948, O'Neil took over as player-manager of the Monarchs, helping guide them to two pennants in the Negro Leagues' waning years brought on by the integration of the National and American Leagues. When the team was sold in 1955, O'Neil found work with the Cubs as a scout, an area where he certainly left his mark on the sport. Players he signed as a scout with Chicago then the Royals included Lou Brock, Oscar Gamble, Lee Smith and Joe Carter.

O'Neil also made history when the Cubs hired him as a coach in 1962, making him the first Black member of an AL/NL coaching staff as part of Chicago's "College of Coaches." The unconventional strategy split managerial duties between multiple people, though O'Neil was never given the opportunity to manage himself. It would be another 13 years before Frank Robinson became the first Black person to manage an AL/NL game.

NOTABLE STATISTIC: Per the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, O'Neil was the Negro American League batting champion in 1946 with a .353 average -- the year after he returned from World War II.

BEYOND THE NUMBERS: Here is where the true crux of Buck O'Neil's case lies. His strongest supporters would be the first to tell you that on the basis of statistics alone, O'Neil is not a Hall of Fame player or manager. Rather, what makes O'Neil worthy of Cooperstown is the sheer amount he did for the game off the field.

Following O'Neil's decades of playing and working in organized baseball, his mission became to keep the memories of the Negro Leagues alive. He was instrumental in helping to establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, which has been essential in preserving Black baseball history since its founding in 1990. In fact, it was O'Neil's idea to have it be a museum rather than a Negro Leagues Hall of Fame.

"Buck felt all along that there had been enough separation in our game," said Kendrick. "If you were good enough, you should be recognized at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. There was no need to build a pseudo-Hall of Fame, when, honestly, you had a finite number of people that you could induct into your Hall of Fame. So that is what led us down the path of building a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, because he understood it was so much more important for us to educate and for us to celebrate and illuminate this rich history."

A gifted storyteller, O'Neil's appearance in Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary in 1994 brought him to national prominence and led to other opportunities, including late-night talk show appearances and speaking engagements around the country. Time and again, O'Neil enraptured audiences of all sizes with tales of Negro Leagues games and the legendary players who starred in them.

"The last 15 years of his life were just spent entirely focused on telling the story of the Negro Leagues and keeping the memory alive of all of these great players and great people," said journalist Joe Posnanski, who chronicled O'Neil's career and final year of life in his book "The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America." "It was never about him. … I think he would be even more excited about the general way that the Negro Leagues have been celebrated over the last couple of years and taken into a whole new level."

O'Neil also worked closely with the Baseball Hall of Fame in his later life, serving as a member of the Veterans Committee for two decades and playing a substantial role in getting several Negro Leagues players and executives inducted. But when he was on the ballot himself in 2006, he came up short in the voting. O'Neil died later that year at the age of 94.

Even though O'Neil is not a member of the Hall of Fame, he still has a presence in Cooperstown. Two years after his death, the Hall introduced the Buck O'Neil Award, which is given to "an individual 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." O'Neil was the first recipient of the award, and he was honored with a life-sized statue.

Still, it's not the same as actually being a Hall of Fame member, something O'Neil very much wanted for himself, even if he outwardly accepted his exclusion with graciousness. And though O'Neil won't be around to see it, his backers say it would be significant for honoring his legacy.

Much has changed since O'Neil was last on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2006, including an increased focus on Negro Leagues history and a restructuring of the Hall of Fame's Era Committees. Might it be enough for him to make it this time around?

"I think he's got a great shot," said Posnanski. "What I do believe about this panel, this committee, is that they're going to give him the right kind of listen. I think they're going to look at the full career and they're going to make a decision [based off that]."

Certainly, there are plenty of Hall of Fame inductees who made it solely on the basis of their contributions to the game -- pioneers like A.G. Spalding and Henry Chadwick, as well as particularly noteworthy executives, such as Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck. It is not a stretch to argue that O'Neil's contributions rank right alongside theirs.

When it comes down to it, one simply cannot tell the complete story of baseball in America without O'Neil. That alone makes him worthy of inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

"For his legion of fans who have been so vocal and so adamant about his belonging in the Hall of Fame as a Hall of Famer, there will be euphoria in that growing baseball world of Buck O'Neil fans," said Kendrick. "I also think that his enshrinement sends a great message to the significance of the Negro Leagues, both on and off the field. And how important his voice has been in elevating the history of the Negro Leagues in ways in which I'm not sure would have happened without Buck O'Neil."