Bob Kendrick is certain of one thing: He will be in Cooperstown, New York, when the National Baseball Hall of Fame inducts his friend Buck O’Neil into the holiest shrine in the sport.
Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, will join hundreds of visitors, Hall of Fame members and other dignitaries on July 24 for the ceremonies. He will listen as O’Neil’s niece, Angela Terry, delivers an induction speech for her late uncle.
Had circumstances gone as many had expected, O’Neil, a nonagenarian who helped found the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, would have spoken for himself on July 30, 2006, when 17 other ballplayers from “Black baseball” were inducted into Cooperstown. Most people around the game had called O’Neil a shoo-in to be selected.
But when O’Neil wasn’t …
“That was painful, man,” Kendrick said.
After all, O’Neil, who died on Oct. 6, 2006, was one of baseball’s finest goodwill ambassadors: He was the brightest star of the 1994 Ken Burns documentary Baseball and he was one of the few ballplayers still alive from the halcyon days of the Negro Leagues.
The 12 people picked for the Special Committee on Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues, however, didn’t see O’Neil as worthy of the Hall of Fame.
Their rejection didn’t trouble O’Neil outwardly, people said. He proved in public how graciously he accepted their decision on a steamy, sunbaked Sunday afternoon in upstate New York.
Underneath a white awning, with a giant Hall of Fame logo as his backdrop, he strode to the microphone. He smiled, looked out at the 11,000 people who attended the ceremonies and served as the voice of those ballplayers and team executives who weren’t alive to speak for themselves.
“I’ve done a lot of things I liked doing,” he said. “But I’d rather be right here, right now, representing these people that helped build a bridge across the chasm of prejudice.”
O’Neil dismissed straightaway the notion that he harbored hard feelings toward those who didn’t vote for him.
“They always said to me, ‘Buck, I know you hate people for what they did to you or what they did to your folks,’ ” he said. “I said, ‘No, man, I never learned to hate. I hate cancer. Cancer killed my mother. My wife died 10 years ago of cancer … I hate AIDS. A good friend of mine died of AIDS three months ago. I hate AIDS.’
“But I can’t hate a human being, because my God never made anything ugly. Now, you can be ugly if you wanna, boy, but God didn’t make you that way. Uh-uh.”
His six-minute speech, given 10 weeks before his death, then spoke to the joys his peers faced in segregated baseball.
Kendrick asked O’Neil what drove him to disregard the snub and to speak at the induction. His answer was poignant and succinct: He didn’t want the inductees and the Negro Leagues to become afterthoughts in history.
“That speech on behalf of 17 others when the world was saying, ‘It should have been your induction speech,’ might have been Buck’s finest hour,” Kendrick said.
He said he hopes Cooperstown and the Burns documentary will be parts of O’Neil’s rich legacy. Another part, perhaps the biggest, will be the museum in Kansas City, Missouri — or, as Kendrick referred to it, “The House that Buck Built.”
“It does not happen without Buck,” he said. “He gave his last 16 years to the museum.”
In reality, O’Neil gave almost his entire life to baseball. He played it, he coached it, he promoted it. He became the first African American coach in the major leagues, with the Chicago Cubs, in 1962.
He was the game’s oracle, said Phil Dixon, an authority on Black baseball who knew O’Neil well and wrote a book about him. Titled John “Buck” O’Neil: The Rookie, His Words, His Voice, Dixon’s book, which was published in April, chronicled an aspect of a man’s life that no documentary could capture fully.
O’Neil understood what baseball was.
Dixon shared this anecdote: Trying to explain the origin of showboating, a term baseball purists slapped on a Black ballplayer, O’Neil pointed out that people used it to describe plays such as Willie Mays’ basket catch, Satchel Paige’s “hesitation pitch” and Jackie Robinson’s knack for stealing home.
Showboating predated the big leagues, O’Neil said.
“The showboat term,” Dixon quoted O’Neil as saying, “came from the mediocre ballplayer who called the other guy a showboater and tried to bring the other guy down to a level. Baseball, when you bring it right down, is entertainment.”
O’Neil got it right about baseball — pure entertainment in the right sense of the word.
In his speech at the 2006 inductions, O’Neil highlighted this point. He was pure entertainment in his finest moment. No one knew the Negro Leagues better than he did. Perhaps no one knew America better, either.
“Negro League baseball — all you needed was a bus,” he said. “And we rode in some of the best buses money could buy, yeah, a couple of sets of uniforms. You could have 20 of the best athletes that ever lived. And that’s who we are representing here today. It was outstanding.”
Kendrick hopes O’Neil’s niece can capture her uncle’s flair for entertainment. He will be in Cooperstown to see it. In his absence, the museum O’Neil founded in Kansas City will host its own ceremonies — a brunch on Saturday and a watch party on Induction Sunday.
“We certainly want to create an opportunity for those to come to the museum and be able to watch the proceedings themselves as it’s being broadcast live on MLB Network,” Kendrick said.
The event will also pay homage to Art Fowler and Minnie Miñoso, two other men from Black baseball whom the Early Baseball Era Committee voted into the Hall of Fame in December 2021.
But the day will be O’Neil’s — a celebration of who the man was that came 16 years too late.
“Thank you, folks. Thank you, folks. Thank you, folks. Thank you, folks. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” O’Neil told his audience all those years ago. “Now, sit down. Now, sit down. I could talk to you 10 minutes longer, but I got to go to the bathroom.”