“We didn’t get enough votes,” Kendrick finally blurted.
O’Neil looked up and smiled: “That’s how the cookie crumbles.”
Then O’Neil asked a question: How many former Negro Leaguers were selected? When Kendrick said, “Seventeen,” O’Neil banged the table, shifting from disappointment to joy with the speed of a game of pepper. The response was predictable, given O’Neil’s grace, but also surprising, given how badly he wanted his contributions validated with induction into baseball’s greatest shrine.
Kendrick, now the museum’s president, admits he should have been proud, too, that so many Negro League greats were honored on that special, one-time ballot for former Negro Leaguers in 2006. But he was outraged. O’Neil deserved this moment, Kendrick said, while he was still alive to appreciate it.
And yet, without showing a hint of hurt, O’Neil went to Cooperstown, N.Y., to speak at the induction ceremony on behalf of the 17 honorees, none of whom were alive. About two months later, O’Neil died at 94.
“One of the most selfless acts in American sports history,” Kendrick said in a recent interview. “He handled it so gracefully, I think a lot of people thought he wasn’t disappointed, but of course he was. He knew that he was sick at that time and never let us know. He knew that this would be his swan song.”
For the 15 years since, Kendrick believed the Hall’s door had been nailed shut on O’Neil. But this weekend in Orlando, O’Neil, along with 16 others, will get a special opportunity for inclusion.
Two 16-person Hall of Fame committees — the Golden Days Era committee, for 10 players whose primary contributions were from 1950 to 1969, and the Early Baseball Era committee, for seven players from before 1950 — will cast the ballots. They will be the committees’ first votes since MLB’s announcement last year that the Negro Leagues and their statistics had been elevated to major league status. To be inducted, candidates must receive 12 of 16 votes.
“There’s a little crack in the door,” Kendrick said.
O’Neil is on the Early Baseball Era ballot, alongside former Negro Leaguers John “Famous” Donaldson, Bud Fowler, Vic Harris, Grant “Home Run” Johnson, Dick “Cannonball” Redding and George “Tubby” Scales.
“The racial reckoning of the last several years has allowed us to reflect on what it is that players from the Negro Leagues and other players went through,” said Adrian Burgos Jr., a history professor at the University of Illinois who is on both committees. “We’ve got to know more and understand their cases, their story in more complex ways.”
Burgos served on that special Negro League committee in 2006. It was the pathway, he said, for significant figures otherwise swept away with history, including Effa Manley, late owner of the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles, the first and only woman inducted into the Hall. “It’s an awesome responsibility,” Burgos said.
Like O’Neil, Minnie Miñoso was still alive when he was denied entry in 2006, mostly because his time was so short in the Negro Leagues. Miñoso fell short on Golden Era votes in 2011 and 2014, the year before he died. But Miñoso returns this year, too, along with Gil Hodges, Roger Maris, Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva, Billy Pierce, Maury Wills and former manager Danny Murtaugh.
Although he played only three seasons in the Negro Leagues, Miñoso was impactful, leading the New York Cubans to the 1947 championship before the Cleveland Indians signed him two years later. His Negro Leagues stats will help, boosting his career hit total to 2,110 and raising his batting average to .299.
But mostly this is his best shot because “there has been more awareness raised among people about what a pioneer he really was,” baseball historian Don Zminda said.
As the first Black player in the city of Chicago — and the first Afro-Latino in the majors altogether — Miñoso, a nine-time all-star, paved the way for players who idolized him, including Cubans Tony Perez and Oliva and Puerto Ricans Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Clemente. Cepeda called Miñoso “the Jackie Robinson for all Latin American players.”
Miñoso had to encounter discrimination for both the language barrier and the color of his skin. During a spring training barnstorming tour with the Indians through Texarkana, Tex., Miñoso, Larry Doby and Satchel Paige weren’t allowed to stay in the team hotel and had to walk to the stadium because they couldn’t ride the bus or catch a cab, Zminda said.
“He was called the n-word,” Kendrick said of Miñoso. “Didn’t even know what it meant.”
Before Miñoso joined the White Sox in 1951, the franchise had never drawn more than a million fans in a season. Miñoso homered in his first at-bat and put the “go” in the “Go-Go” White Sox for the next six years, bringing a contagious brand of hustle that made them Chicago’s most popular team in the decade.
“It’s impossible to imagine now,” said Zminda, a Chicago native.
When the White Sox, in 1959, made their first World Series appearance since the Black Sox scandal four decades earlier, Miñoso already was gone, but his influence remained. After Miñoso retired in 1964, White Sox owner and master promoter Bill Veeck brought him back in 1976 and again in 1980, making him a five-decade player.
Those plate appearances may have dulled Miñoso’s Hall chances. He had received little support when he first became eligible in 1970, and by playing again, he delayed when he became eligible for reconsideration. By the 1980s, many of the voters were too young to have seen Miñoso play.
“If you had a chance to see him, he was unforgettable. God bless Bill Veeck,” Zminda said, “but I don’t think it helped Minnie look too good. It kind of became a sideshow.”
Miñoso’s son, Charlie Rice-Miñoso, said the family is “cautiously optimistic” about his chances this time.
“He specifically said it was his life’s dream to be in Cooperstown,” Rice-Miñoso said. “Unfortunately, there was some type of barrier or some type of exception,” he said, adding that his father stayed positive despite the disappointment. “Honestly, I don’t think there is much of anything that could take away his spirit.”
Kendrick said he would love to see all seven Early Era candidates make it. But he pointed specifically to Donaldson, a pitcher whose career predated the establishment of the Negro Leagues, as someone with a strong chance. Donaldson’s numbers are staggering — 413 wins, 5,091 strikeouts, 14 no-hitters and two perfect games in 42 seasons — and few doubt that his effectiveness would have translated to any league.
Paige was said to have idolized him. Kendrick said J.L Wilkinson, the Hall of Fame owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, called Donaldson the greatest pitcher he ever saw. Donaldson would later become MLB’s first Black scout with the White Sox, but he was unable to convince the organization to sign Henry Aaron, Willie Mays or Ernie Banks.
“He is as prominent a figure inside Black baseball circles as anyone,” Kendrick said.
But it’s O’Neil’s candidacy that Kendrick thinks about most often. O’Neil was a two-time Negro Leagues all-star, but his statistical contributions to the game aren’t remarkable. The Negro Leagues, however, never had a better ambassador. He led the efforts in 1990 to establish the Negro League Baseball Museum, and he earned national recognition for his vivid tales in Ken Burns’s 1994 documentary on baseball.
President George W. Bush awarded O’Neil a Presidential Medal of Freedom two months after his death. But Kendrick had resigned himself that the only recognition O’Neil would receive from the Hall of Fame was with the creation of the Lifetime Achievement Award and dedication of the life-size bronze statue near the entrance to the museum in 2008. Now Kendrick hopes to feel the opposite of how he did 15 years ago, when he felt he “got kicked in the gut.”
“Can you tell the complete story of baseball without Buck O’Neil? The answer is no. And it’s a profound no,” Kendrick said. “It’s still going to hurt if he doesn’t [get in]. I’m not going to lie. I’ll be on pins and needles until the verdict is rendered.”