He Was Right on Time

I discovered from reading another blog the other day that one of my heroes, Buck O’Neil, was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. O’Neil passed away back in October at the age of 94, after being involved with baseball for over 70 years.

Having already played some semi-pro ball, Buck O’Neil broke into the Negro Leagues in 1937, 10 years before Jackie Robinson would integrate the Major Leagues. His best years came with the Kansas City Monarchs, where he won two batting titles, played in four East-West All-Star games, and won several championships.

O’Neil was past his prime by the time that Robinson suited up for the Dodgers, so he never got the chance to play in the Major Leagues, but he remained very active in organized baseball, taking over managing duties for the Monarchs and leading them to two more championships.

After leaving the Monarchs, O’Neil became a successful scout for the Chicago Cubs (he signed future Hall of Famer Lou Brock), and in 1962 became the first black coach in the Major Leagues (also with the Cubs). He stayed with the Cubs a long time, and later scouted for the Kansas City Royals.

I first heard of Buck O’Neil the same way that most of the world did, when he appeared in Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary, Baseball. In the film, O’Neil gleefully recalled his days in the Negro Leagues and introduced America to a side of its national pastime that it had mostly forgotten about. And as he described his life as a baseball player who was systematically excluded from the Major Leagues because of the color of his skin, he did so graciously, without a hint of bitterness.

In 1994, O’Neil’s tireless work led to the creation of the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Missouri, and also to the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans’ Committee voting in many Negro Leaguers that would have otherwise been forgotten.

Despite all this, O’Neil was himself forgotten on too many ballots back in July, when he missed being elected to the Hall of Fame by a single vote, on what was widely rumored to be the last vote on which Negro Leaguers would be inducted. It appeared that Buck had missed out again.

But you wouldn’t think so to hear his reaction:

“God's been good to me. They didn't think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That's the way they thought about it and that's the way it is, so we're going to live with that. Now, if I'm a Hall of Famer for you, that's all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don't weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful.”

Maybe that’s not such a surprising statement from a man that Ken Burns described this way, in O’Neil's autobiography, I Was Right on Time:

“John Jordan O’Neil is a hero, not in the superficial sporting sense of a man who homers in the ninth to win a game, but in the human sense of a man we all should look to and strive to be more like. His life reflects the past and contains many of the bitter experiences that our country reserved to men of his color, but there is no bitterness in him; it’s not so much that he put that suffering behind him as that he has brought gold and light out of bitterness and despair, loneliness and suffering. He knows that he can go farther with generosity and kindness than with anger and hate…He is my hero, my friend, my mentor; he is, like Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson, what human progress is all about.”

It seems like Buck O’Neil was always coming at the wrong time: he was too old to make it to the Majors, missed out on the last HOF induction for Negro Leaguers by a single vote, and was awarded the Medal of Freedom after he had passed away.

But as Buck himself would be quick to point out, he was right on time. He was right on time to play alongside some of the greatest baseball players in history. He was right on time to witness and take part in the changing of millions of hearts and attitudes. He was right on time to keep the memories of the Negro Leagues alive and to pass its heritage on. And he was right on time to remind us, like Ken Burns said, that we can go farther with generosity and kindness than with anger and hate. Thanks Buck, for being right on time.

Thanks for signing that baseball I sent you too.


Jared Dockery 12/21/06, 10:58 AM  

That was a good post kiddo, especially the last line. (It hasn't shown up on my RSS feed yet, but it probably will later.)

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