Saturday, October 07, 2006

R.I.P, Buck O'Neill

Buck O'Neill passed away today. As someone who came awfully late to baseball--as a white American suburbanite whose formative years were in the 70's and early 80's, it seems like a given I should have cared a lot about baseball, but I didn't. I hated it, frankly.

I came to baseball late. I am not qualified in any regard to talk about Buck O'Neill and what he was. In a few hours, the media will be awash in tributes from men who knew him, and understand better than I do what he meant to the history of baseball.

We are getting to the point where just the phrase "Negro Leagues" sounds ridiculous, made up, ancient history. Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and countless others have been dead a long, long time.

Buck deserves a lot of the credit for making sure that we didn't forget about the Negro Leagues altogether--he made sure that we knew that Jackie Robinson wasn't picked to integrate the leagues because of his athletic ability, but his ability to withstand racist abuse hurled at him from the stands; it was Buck O'Neill who made sure that Satchel Paige wasn't just some guy who came out of nowhere to dominate the newly integrated MLB for a couple of years before fading away, that Satchel Paige would have been the most dominant pitcher in baseball for 20 years, had he been given the chance. What would have Josh Gibson done in a true major league? Buck forced White America to ask that question. But he always did it in a way that suggested nothing like anger, just a pride in the old leagues he played in. Buck talked about the Negro Leagues like I talk about a great album that I can't believe my friends haven't heard--"You don't know Josh Gibson? You gotta know about Josh Gibson!" Buck managed to never sound bitter, which is a feat I'm quite certain I could have never pulled off.

Buck talked about all the old greats, and rarely mentioned his own great career in the Negro Leagues. The history of the League was more important to him than his own personal legacy.

It must have been very telling to him that he was denied entry to the Hall of Fame, for merely being one of the Negro League greats, the first black coach in the Major Leagues, and the Unofficial Historian and Ambassador of the Negro League experience for forty years. Kept out, by one vote. Buck smiled, and took the slap like he had taken so many, with a philosophical turn of phrase, and a plea to his angry fans that they not worry about old Buck.

Men who knew him better, and his role in baseball history, will get their chance to talk about Buck. For now, we just have the AP article, which will suffice. Here's my favorite part:

Few men in any sport have witnessed the grand panoramic sweep of history that O'Neil saw and felt and experienced in baseball. A good-hitting, slick-fielding first baseman, he barnstormed with Paige in his youth, twice won a Negro Leagues batting title, then became a pennant-winning manager of the Kansas City Monarchs.

As a scout for the Chicago Cubs, he discovered and signed Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Ernie Banks.

In 1962, a tumultuous time of change in America when civil rights workers were risking their lives on the back roads of the Deep South, O'Neil broke a meaningful racial barrier when the Chicago Cubs made him the first black coach in the major leagues.

Jackie Robinson was the first black with an opportunity to make plays in the big leagues. But as bench coach, O'Neil was the first to make decisions.

He saw Babe Ruth hit home runs and Roger Clemens throw strikes. He talked hitting with Lou Gehrig and Ichiro Suzuki.

So it goes


Badcock said...

Nice writing, Big Blue -- most of it, anyway. It is good to remember, in the midst of all the tastelesness, that there is a reason sports are so popular to play, watch and argue. In the same way that football may exist so that strangers in a bar can hug each other, sports make it possible to physically express the unmentionable.

You know what? I'm going to reverse my vote, and allow Buck O'Neil into the Hall of Fame. He's a class act, like Art Monk.

The Angry Rant said...

I hate to point this out, but the Negro Leagues were a Major League - they had teams in every major US city (read: every city with a NL or AL team), most played in MLB ballparks (except the lucky few franchises that owned their own place), and they crowned a champion at the end of each season.

Judging from the success that Negro League barnstorming teams, led by great players like Satchel Paige, had against Major League all-star teams, they consistently played the game at the same high level.

Don't belittle these men with the 'had they played in a true major league' crack. They did.

Big Blue Monkey said...

Statisticians rue the fact that we have only sketchy details of how good Josh Gibson was.

If he had played in an integrated league, we would know Gibson's every stat.

I am not belittling the men who were forced to play in the Negro Leagues when I point out that they were forced to play in those leagues. That seems to be a rather silly thing to say, frankly.

If the black players who played in the Negro Leagues considered the equal of Major League Baseball, I guess it would have continued on even after integration. Or maybe, white players would have joined Negro League Teams. That didn't happen, of course.

I was not belittling any player who had to play in a league that denied them the opportunity to play against the best in the country. To suggest that I did, I think, requires a rather purposeful misread of what I wrote.

The Angry Rant said...

Well. Don't I sound like an asshole.

Lest you think that I am 'anti-Big Blue', let me try and defend/explain myself.

I read this post several times before deciding to comment. I did this because I wanted to be sure I understood what I read before I opened my big mouth, so I wouldn't be accused of purposefully misreading it. The phrase 'true major league' did jump out. I interpreted you to mean 'the Negro Leagues were inferior, like AAA' (which made sense to me in context at the time) as opposed to 'fully integrated Major League'.

Thanks for posting your response. I re-read your original post after reading it and it clarifyed, for me, what you meant.

The Negro Leagues didn't fold because the remaining black players in it were inferior to Major League players, by the way. It folded due to simple economics. I'd be happy to share my opinion with you on that - or I may post that opinion to my blogsite - but I won't clog the comment section here with that discussion.

Big Blue Monkey said...

well, hell, I may have been a bit defensive in any case.

I'd certainly read up on any Negro League history you have to offer. I don't know much about it, and I'd be more than willing to learn more.

Badcock said...

Let me try to explain what's really going on here.

Big Blue claims that Negros are inferior.

Angry Rant claims that Negros are bad with money.

You both should be ashamed. And by the way, it's 2006, the term "Negro" is not acceptable. African-American, please.

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