Buck O'Neil Was Voice for Negro Leagues

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006

Buck O'Neil, a star player in baseball's Negro leagues who broke racial barriers as a major-league coach but found greater fame as the beloved voice of a colorful, yet shameful period in the sport's history, died Oct. 6 at a hospital in Kansas City, Mo. He was 94.

No cause of death was reported, but he had entered a hospital in August for fatigue and was readmitted Sept. 17.

As a first baseman and later manager of the Kansas City Monarchs from 1938 to 1955, Mr. O'Neil was a member of one of the greatest teams in the Negro leagues' history, playing alongside such legends as Satchel Paige and James "Cool Papa" Bell. He once led the Negro leagues in hitting -- or possibly twice, depending on whose statistics you trust -- and, as a manager, led the Monarchs to several pennants.

After becoming a scout for the Chicago Cubs in 1956, he signed several big-league players, including Joe Carter, Oscar Gamble, Lee Smith and Hall of Famer Lou Brock, to professional contracts. Mr. O'Neil became the first black coach in the major leagues with the Cubs in 1962.

In 1981, he became a member of the veterans committee of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and was a powerful behind-the-scenes force in electing overlooked Negro leagues players to the hall. But it wasn't until 1994, when he served as commentator and resident raconteur for Ken Burns's nine-part PBS documentary "Baseball" that Mr. O'Neil entered the national spotlight. From then on, he was the nation's foremost spokesman for the glories and sorrows of black baseball.

"He became, organically, the beating heart of the series," Burns said by telephone. "He seemed to encapsulate the humanity and love that were behind the Negro leagues."

Among ballplayers, admiration for Mr. O'Neil transcended the field of play. Hall of Fame outfielder Reggie Jackson said: "I believe that people like Buck and [Jackie Robinson's widow] Rachel Robinson and Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa are angels that walk on earth to give us all a greater understanding of what it means to be human."

In February of this year, a Hall of Fame committee named 17 former players and executives of the Negro leagues, but Mr. O'Neil was not among them. Sportswriters denounced his omission as one of the greatest injustices in Hall of Fame history, but Mr. O'Neil magnanimously offered praise to those who were chosen in his place.

On July 18, he appeared as a ceremonial hitter in the Northern League All-Star game, making him, at 94, the oldest person to bat in a professional game. He spoke at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 30 with his typical warmth, then made several appearances before returning to Kansas City and checking into a hospital.

"You know, he died of a broken heart," Burns said of Mr. O'Neil's Hall of Fame snub. "He came back from the Hall of Fame, and he just wasn't the same."

Few people had such a comprehensive eyewitness knowledge of baseball history as Mr. O'Neil. As a boy, he had seen Ty Cobb play, and Hall of Fame slugger Jimmie Foxx once gave him a discarded bat. He knew Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, played in exhibition games against Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller and was familiar with the players of today.

Still, he maintained that the greatest players he ever saw were the Negro leagues' stars who played before Jackie Robinson -- Mr. O'Neil's teammate with the Monarchs -- integrated big-league baseball in 1947. The finest hitter Mr. O'Neil had ever seen was Josh Gibson; the best all-around player, outfielder Oscar Charleston; and the best pitcher, black or white, was his friend Paige.

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