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July 29, 2006 / Sports / Brooklyn Cyclones / The Play’s the Thing

Buck O’Neil is in my own Hall of Fame

The Brooklyn Paper
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Buck O’Neil is in a special Hall of Fame. But it’s not the one in Cooperstown. Born in 1911 — he’s almost 95 years old — he came to Keyspan Park on Tuesday where the Cyclones were set to play the Mahoning Valley Scrappers.

Brooklyn came up with a big win this night — they got to meet Buck O’Neil. Oh, and they also won the game, too.

Let’s begin by discussing what’s going to happen this summer at Cooperstown. Seventeen former members, or associates, of the Negro Leagues are going to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

All 17 inductees are deceased.

Buck O’Neil — very deserving, and very much alive — will be at Cooperstown for the ceremony, but he won’t be inducted.

“Everyone thought I was a shoe-in,” said O’Neil at Keyspan. “But I knew better.”

O’Neil never made it into the major leagues because of baseball’s color barrier, which didn’t fall until Jackie Robinson broke in with Brooklyn in 1947.

Instead, O’Neil remained in the Negro Leagues, where he was a star as a player and later as a championship-winning manager.

His career in the Negro Leagues began in 1937 as a player with the Memphis Red Sox, and he played the majority of his career with the famous Kansas City Monarchs.

He won two batting titles, the second in 1946, when he hit .353.

He began as the skipper of the Monarchs in 1948, and served as player-manager through 1955. The Monarchs teams that he guided won four league titles and two Negro League World Series

During his managerial career, he coached some of the first black players in major league baseball, including Ernie Banks, Gene Baker, Bob Thurman, and Satchel Paige.

In 1962, O’Neil finally broke into the major leagues, becoming baseball’s first African-American coach when he joined the Chicago Cubs.

As a scout, he signed future superstars such as Banks, Lou Brock, and Joe Carter.

Although O’Neil was with the Kansas City Monarchs for most of his career, he didn’t play ball with former Monarch Jackie Robinson. Robinson joined the Monarchs in 1945 — when O’Neil was in the Navy.

O’Neil came out of the service and led the league in hitting in 1946, but by then, Robinson was already with Montreal, the Dodgers’ Triple-A club.

The next year, Robinson made history.

Buck O’Neil was asked yesterday if he was ever approached to sign a major league contract.

“I was too old for that,” he said graciously.

In truth, he was only 35 and had just out-hit everyone in his league. He’d be worth millions on the free-agent market of today. Back then, baseball was being integrated with no deliberate speed.

As he held court in The Gallery at Keyspan Park on Tuesday, O’Neil was stunning to see in person. He’s lean and vibrant, and he could pass for 15 or 20 years younger.

Only 10 days ago, he made two plate appearances in a Northern League All-Star game to become the oldest man to ever appear in a professional baseball game. It was kind of a stunt in which O’Neil was supposed to take walks, but in one at-bat, O’Neil actually swung at a pitch. He missed. But he was going for a hit.

O’Neil joked his way through the ceremonial first-pitch at Tuesday’s game, too. He walked out to the mound. He peered in towards Jake Eigsti, the Cyclones player set to take his delivery. O’Neil went into a wind-up, and then he put his hand over his eyes, miming that he could hardly see the catcher because of the distance. O’Neil kept winding up, not throwing, and then moving closer.

When O’Neil finally cut short his last wind-up, and instead of throwing actually walked up to home plate and handed the ball to Eigsti, the crowd roared.

Buck O’Neil conquered Keyspan Park. He danced with Pee Wee, the mascot. He flirted with the ladies. He charmed the children asking for autographs and pictures.

Forget getting enough votes for the Hall of Fame — based on his charismatic interactions at the ballpark, O’Neil could win an election for president.

O’Neil was asked on Tuesday if he was bitter about not being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“I don’t know how to be bitter,” he replied.

O’Neil could still make the Hall if the Veterans Committee selects him, but even if that never happens, O’Neil is in a special Hall of Fame already.

He’s a hands-down, no-question unanimous selection for the Hall of Fame of Human Beings.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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