I have never written about sports in A Shroud of Thoughts. This is not because I don't like sports. I am a Rams fan and a Cardinals fan, as any good Missourian is. Rather it is because A Shroud of Thoughts is a pop culture blog and I have never really thought of sports as being a part of pop culture. In this instance, however, I feel I need to write a sports figure, not just because he was a great player, but because he was also a truly good man.
Buck O'Neil was a legend of Negro League baseball and the first African American coach in major league baseball. He was central in seeing that Negro League players were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He died last night, October 6, 2006, at the age of 94 of congestive heart failure. He had been hospitalised since September 17 with extreme fatigue.
O'Neil was born John Jordan O'Neil on November 19, 1911 in rural Florida. With only four high schools for African Americans in Florida at the time, he was able to attend high school only by going to live with relatives elsewhere in the state. He began his baseball career in 1934 when he started playing semi-pro, "barnstorming" games. By 1937 he would signed to the Memphis Red Sox of the newly formed Negro American League. A year later he would find his home with the legendary Kansas City Monarchs (for whom Satchel Paige also played). During World War II he interrupted his baseball career for a stint in the U. S. Navy.
In 1948 O'Neil became the manager of the Monarchs. With O'Neil as manager they won two league championships. In 1956 O'Neil went to work for the major leagues, becoming a scout for the Chicago Cubs. He signed baseball legends Lou Brock and Joe Carter. In 1962 he became the African American coach in the major leagues, for the Chicago Cubs. In 1988 he became a scout for the Kansas City Royals
In 1990 O'Neil helped establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and was its honourary chairman until he died. He was a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee for many years and was central in seeing to it that negro league players were admitted into the Hall of Fame.
O'Neil was the oldest man to ever appear at the plate in a professional baseball game. In July of this year he played for both the Kansas City T-Bones and the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks (in the same game, at that).
O'Neil missed being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by one vote. That having been said, he was long ago inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. He also narrated the segments on the negro leagues of Ken Burns' baseball documentary.
O'Neil was not simply a great baseball player, but a remarkable man as well. Despite the discrimination he faced in his life, O'Neil chose to forgive those who oppressed him. He once said that he hated cancer and AIDs, but he could never hate a human being. This is not to say that O'Neil condoned the discrimination he had faced all of his life. In 1993, when the major leagues showed interest in licensing Negro League apparel, he stated that he thought the major leagues should have nothing to do with licensing such apparel as they were responsible for keeping African Americans out for many years. Regardless, O'Neil's positive attitude and happiness were contagious to anyone who saw him or heard him speak. If the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is a success, it is largely due to O'Neil. O'Neil would not want others to mourn him, but I know that many will.