The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum continues to celebrate the history of the Negro Leagues, and MLB.com’s Bill Ladson has written a series of articles on some of the league’s legends. Today, the focus is on the relationship between Buck O’Neil and Joe Carter.
There is not a day that goes by that former Major Leaguer Joe Carter doesn’t think about his mentor, Negro League legend Buck O’Neil, who did more than just sign him to his first professional contract when both were with the Cubs in 1981.
O’Neil, who died in 2006 at age 94, taught Carter about the game of life. According to Carter, O’Neil wasn’t negative about anything except for when his wife, Ora, died of cancer in 1997. Despite the racial tensions of the day, O’Neil never had negative thoughts about his baseball career even though he was not allowed to play Major League Baseball because of his skin color. He often said, “I was right on time” when he played professional baseball, mostly with the Kansas City Monarchs.
“It was like your father talking to you,” the 60-year-old Carter said via telephone. “Buck was like a person you have known all your life. Anytime you saw Buck, you stopped what you were doing and you spoke to him. He didn’t command it, but it was the respect everyone had for him. …
“Every time you saw Buck, your eyes just lit up. He would put a smile on your face. You had to have that smile because that was Buck from the time he woke up to the time he went to bed. He touched everybody that he came in contact with.”
A glance at Carter’s career cements why O’Neil was considered an excellent baseball scout. Carter was one of the best sluggers in the game from 1983-98. His claim to fame was becoming one of two Major Leaguers (Bill Mazeroski was the other) to end a World Series with a walk-off home run. Carter’s ninth-inning dinger in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series off left-hander Mitch Williams gave the Blue Jays their second consecutive World Series title.
A few weeks after the game-winner, Carter’s hometown of Leawood, Kan., threw a parade in his honor. To Carter’s surprise, O’Neil was in attendance and told his protégé how proud he was of him.
“We go to my daughter’s middle school and she introduced me. Lo and behold, who was there? Buck O’Neil,” Carter said. “They gave me a key to the city and Buck was right there. That day, he told me I had a lot of ability and the confidence [to play the game].”
O’Neil was a long-time scout for the Cubs when he first met Carter, who attended Wichita State from 1979-81. O’Neil already had a reputation of signing some of the game’s best players from Lou Brock to Lee Smith.
As Carter put it, no other scout watched Carter play more than O’Neil. Carter acknowledged that he didn’t know who O’Neil was until college teammates expressed excitement to see him sitting behind home plate. When they first spoke, O’Neil already knew who Carter was. By the time they became acquainted, O’Neil always told him stories about the Negro Leagues; about Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, among others.
O’Neil even told Carter how Paige gave O’Neil the nickname, “Nancy.” Paige was dating a woman with the same name. It turned out that Paige’s fiancée, Lahoma, arrived unexpectedly and she heard him call out the name, Nancy. Lahoma wanted to know who Nancy was. Paige claimed he was calling O’Neil.
“From that day forward, Buck was called Nancy by Satchel,” Carter said. “Buck had to run with that story for the rest of his life.”
Besides telling Negro League stories, O’Neil was impressed with what he saw from Carter on the diamond. It helped that Carter logged a .430 batting average and 58 home runs in his three years at Wichita State. The Cubs ended up taking Carter with the second overall pick in the 1981 MLB Draft and signed him to a contract worth $125,000.
Carter didn’t stay in the organization long. In June 1984, he was traded to the Indians as part of a six-player deal that sent right-hander Rick Sutcliffe to the Cubs. It was in Cleveland where Carter flourished. In 1986, Carter had his best season, leading the team in WAR [5.8] and the American League in RBIs. He played in the Major Leagues for 16 years and was an RBI machine, driving in 1,445 runs.
O’Neil was right on the money when he told the Cubs to draft Carter.
“He told me numerous times of how proud he was, how I carried myself on and off the field,” Carter said. “He said I could have played in the Negro Leagues. To me, that was a compliment. Those guys played for the love of the game.”