At long last, O'Neil to enter hallowed Hall

December 6th, 2021

KANSAS CITY -- The anxiousness that many felt leading up to the National Baseball Hall of Fame announcement on Sunday evening gave way to widespread euphoria when Buck O’Neil’s name was called as one heading to Cooperstown.

One of the game’s great ambassadors and storytellers, O’Neil was inducted into the Hall of Fame at long last, garnering votes on 13 of the 16 of the ballots cast by the Hall of Fame’s Early Baseball Era Committee (pre 1950). It was a moment felt throughout Kansas City and the nation, but particularly at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which hosted a watch party as the place O’Neil built to keep the stories of the Negro Leagues alive.

O’Neil’s Hall of Fame class will include Bud Fowler, Tony Oliva, Minnie Miñoso, Jim Kaat and Gil Hodges.

The 2022 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will take place on July 24 in Cooperstown. This year’s ballot was released by the BBWAA on Nov. 22, and voters have until Dec. 31 to submit their ballots. Election results will be announced live on MLB Network on Jan. 25, 2022.

O’Neil devoted his life to baseball, and he did it all as a player, manager, the first Black coach in AL/NL history, a scout and, above all, an advocate for the game and importance of Negro Leagues history. The crux of his Hall of Fame case was in his work off the field, keeping stories alive and advocating for Negro League legends -- those who were denied a place in the Major Leagues -- but he wouldn’t let people forget that he could play, too.

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’Neill had his contract sold to the Kansas City Monarchs, the team with which he would spend the rest of his playing career and the city he would call home.

Primarily a first baseman, O’Neil was known for his smooth glovework more than his bat, but he was a capable hitter. He was a three-time All-Star with the Monarchs and a Negro World Series champion in 1942. According to the NLBM, O’Neil was the Negro American League batting champion in 1946 with a .353 average -- the year after he returned from World War II. In 337 games as a player, he hit .258/.315/.358 with 9 home runs, 175 RBIs and 43 stolen bases, according to Negro Leagues records.

In 1948, O’Neil took over as the Monarchs’ player-manager and helped guide them to two pennants. This was in the waning years of the Negro Leagues brought on by the integration of the National and American Leagues, so when the Monarchs was sold in 1955, O’Neil became a scout with the Cubs, followed later by a scouting job with the Royals.

Among the players he signed as a scout? Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Lee Smith, Oscar Gamble and Joe Carter. O’Neil will now join the first three of those with a plaque in Cooperstown.

O’Neil’s Hall of Fame case went far beyond the numbers, though, and he was elected for his tireless work off the field, as an instrumental ambassador of the Negro Leagues. He helped establish the NLBM in 1990, which has been essential in preserving Black baseball history. He dedicated the final years of his life to telling the story of the Negro Leagues and reached national prominence speaking in Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary in 1994. From there, O’Neil hardly turned down a speaking engagement -- of which there were many -- to capture audiences’ attentions with stories of the Negro Leagues and its players.

O’Neil 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 advocating for the induction of several Negro Leagues players and executives.

But when he was on the ballot in 2006, O’Neil came up short in the voting -- a heartbreak not lost on those anxiously waiting for Sunday’s announcement. A few months after speaking on behalf of those who did get in that year, O’Neil died at the age of 94.

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.”

Much has changed since O’Neil was last on the ballot. There has been an increased focus on Negro Leagues history, both on the statistics and stories that come with them. O’Neil was a major part of that, even after his death, and his memory lives on at the NLBM and through its president Bob Kendrick. O’Neil accepted his exclusion in 2006 with the utmost grace, something those around him at that time, like Kendrick, will never forget. But O’Neil died still wanting to be in the Hall of Fame. Although he isn’t around to see it this year, his memory and legacy were felt in those who celebrated the well-deserved and long-overdue honor.

That’s what made Sunday night so special, with Kendrick and supporters gathered at the museum awaiting the Hall’s verdict. They came together knowing that it could bring more heartbreak like 2006, but hoping that wasn’t the case.

The point was to share whatever happened together and the history that came with that moment. They were rewarded with good news -- and a Hall of Fame celebration.