We all have stories of how we’ve bumped into famous people at some time in our lives. We’ve all witnessed well known personalities performing at sporting events or concerts or in a live theater production. But occasionally we encounter a celebrity in a place where we didn’t expect to, on the street, or out shopping, or sitting a few rows in front of us at a baseball game.
I’ve been privileged to run into an eclectic handful of famous or semi-famous people during my life, including football legend Joe Montana in an old Service Merchandise store in Nashville, seven time Grammy winner Andre Crouch backstage after a concert, Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer and his family at a bowling alley (baseball players and coaches are real people after all), and Frank White in the lobby of a Rodeway Inn hotel.
My encounter with Frank White is a story unto itself. I was just 17 years old (it was a loooong time ago) and he spent about 15 minutes talking to me about baseball when no one else was around. Just Frank White talking one-on-one with a 17 year old high school senior. Frank White earned his first Gold Glove that year, on a team that won 102 games and came within one inning of a trip to the World Series. I was just a young and immature kid, but even then I knew I had experienced something very special. By that age I was already a hard core Royals fan, and this chance meeting helped cement my life-long loyalty to the boys in blue. I came away with the impression that he was one of the coolest guys I’d ever met.
Most of the occasions when I’ve run into someone famous it’s been in an airport, or on a flight. I stood next to Corey Hart (I Wear My Sunglasses at Night) in a gift shop at the Knoxville Airport while he bought a candy bar. I watched a mild mannered 6’7” Hulk Hogan down on his knees speaking directly with a group of children immediately before we all boarded a flight from Dallas to Newark. (The flight occurred on a Super Bowl Sunday and I was forced to miss the game. Ouch!) I had a conversation with Cheryl Prewitt , Miss America 1980 while waiting at the gate for a flight from Baltimore to Las Vegas. She told me about her marriage and her Christian ministry. I walked past Stephanie Seymour (a Victoria’s Secret Model) sitting with her bare feet propped against the next row in first class on a flight from Denver to Los Angeles while I trudged back to the cheap seats. I waited on a bench across from Olympian Mary Lou Retton while killing time before a flight in Houston’s Hobby airport, amazed that no one else appeared to recognize her.
I watched Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt eating a cheeseburger at the Burger King inside KCI, all by himself. I was stunned that Mr. Hunt didn’t travel with an entourage and thoroughly impressed that he wasn’t too good to eat a fast food burger. I was embarrassed at the rabid football fans who wouldn’t leave Len Dawson alone prior to boarding a flight from Kansas City to New York. I sat across the aisle from Kurt Schottenheimer, NFL Coach (and Marty’s brother) on a flight from Washington DC to Kansas City. I think he was returning home from a job interview with the Redskins, and if you’re interested, he flew in a coach seat.
Bob Hope handed me my diploma at my college graduation. (Yes, THE Bob Hope.) I shook hands with Eight is Enough actor Willie Aames and former Chiefs Offensive Guard Dave Szott at a Kansas City Youth for Christ event. I had a very strange and surreal meeting in New York with TV Host Sally Jesse Raphael, Sharry Konopski a former Playboy Playmate who is now a paraplegic, an OKC Federal Building bombing survivor, and a guy who jumped from an airplane without a working parachute who lived to tell about it… but I’ll save that once-in-a-lifetime story for another time.
As you can see, I’ve crossed paths with a number of well known people in my life, but none of these encounters are burned into my memory like the day I met Buck O’Neil.
During the Summer of 1999, I took my son Austin to a Royals game. It was one of many games we attended in a season that saw the Royals surrender an outrageous 921 runs, or 5.72 per game. You’re not going to win a bunch of games with that kind of pitching and defense. (The Royals were 64-97 that year.) One of the only real advantages to being a fan of a bad team is the ability to walk up to the ticket booth right before game time and purchase a seat directly behind home plate. Let’s hope this won’t be occurring much longer, but that fans will be scratching and fighting for these seats in the near future. This year would be fine.
We brought a baseball to the game in case we had a chance to get an autograph, but as is so often the case, the few athletes that make themselves available to the fans always draw a huge crowd and it’s difficult to get a signature without making a fool of yourself. I didn’t want to model foolish behavior for my son, so we took our seat to watch infield practice and wait for the game to begin.
While we were contemplating whether to purchase the peanuts or the frosty malt the next time a vendor walked by, I noticed about 5 or 6 rows in front of me that Buck O’Neil was sitting in his usual seat to scout the game. Although at the time, I didn’t realize it was his usual seat, and I wasn’t even fully aware that he could always be found attending every game. I thought it was a pretty special occurrence and I wanted to take advantage of the situation.
I spoke to my son and said, “Do you remember the man we talked about that led the Negro leagues in hitting three times and was the first African American Manager in the Major leagues, the guy that lives right here in Kansas City?” As you know, Buck is a KC icon and I didn’t want to make a spectacle of myself, but I thought it was important for my son to see him. I pointed down the aisle and said, “That’s him.”
Feeling the “autographless” baseball still jammed into my pocket, I had an idea. I told my 10 year old son to walk down the aisle and hand the ball to Buck. I instructed my son to say, “Mr. O’Neil, may I have your autograph please?”
As Austin approached Buck, I could see that a stadium attendant had spotted my son and began to move quickly to intervene and prevent him from making an autograph request. I immediately realized that Buck probably encountered hoards of adoring but obnoxious fans pestering him at every game and the stadium personnel were working hard to keep everyone away. This was why he hadn’t drawn a crowd as I would have expected.
Not wanting my son and I to look like insensitive autograph seeking jerks, I jumped to my feet and began to hustle toward my son to stop him. Before I could get there, the stadium attendant grabbed my son by the shoulder and said, “Sorry, no autographs. Please return to your seat.”
I was so busy watching my son and the stadium attendant, and becoming embarrassed that I had sent Austin to breech the protective barrier the Royals security had created, I hadn’t noticed that Buck had stood to his feet, walked over to my son and reached his hand out for the ball. He said, “He’s fine, please let him come here, I’ll be happy to sign the ball.”
While he was signing the ball, Buck asked my son if he played baseball, what grade he was in, and who was his favorite player. As he finished signing, he asked my son to step back. I’m wasn’t sure what he intended to do, but I loved the way Austin’s face lit up when the revered Kansas City icon Buck O’Neil tossed the ball back to him.
I know this probably sounds corny, and if you don’t know Buck O’Neil’s touching story or anything about the history of the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro Leagues Museum, or what a fantastic all round great guy Buck was, you won’t be able to appreciate this. But the sight of Mr. O’Neil gently tossing a baseball back to my 10 year old son is a vivid and timeless sports memory that I will always cherish. That moment alone was worth enduring a 64-97 season.
Over the ensuing years I remember watching Buck share his disarming and incomparable wit and humor with David Letterman, and seeing him bat in the Northern League All Star game at 94 years old (where he was forced to duck an inside pitch!) I remember how sad I was when he passed away and how proud I felt when I learned the Royals had honored him with the red legacy seat. There has never been, and there will never be another Buck O’Neil in Kansas City. I’m thrilled and grateful that my son and I were able to spend even a brief moment with him.
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