Celebrating Buck O’Neil


"“If Buck ever started to forget, I don’t think he’d last long,” our constant companion Negro Leagues Baseball Museum marketing director Bob Kendrick, would often say. “I think that’s the only thing that scares him. Dying doesn’t scare him. Forgetting does.”-Joe Posnanski from The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America"

Had he not left us after 94 full years, John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil would be turning 100 this Sunday, November 13.

In celebration of a life that touched many players, baseball fans, Kansas Citians, historians and a multitude of complete strangers, Kansas City will spend all weekend honoring the memory of one of baseball’s finest ambassadors. The full run-down of events will be listed below, because I want to use this forum to discuss the man himself and the legacy that he left.

I never had the pleasure of making Buck’s acquaintance. The majority of my knowledge of who he was comes from his own memoir I Was Right on Time and Posnanski’s travelogue referenced above. Beyond that, there are the clips where he’s discussed the history of baseball – specifically the Negro Leagues – on Ken Burns’s Baseball and assorted stories told on television interviews and during breaks in Royals games when I was growing up. By all accounts, he was a great and warm human being.

Listen to any interview or any story told by Buck, and you can tell the joy he gets in recounting his days in baseball. Posnanski often presents Buck’s speech in lyric form, with a flow, with jazz. Often, his words are peppered with “yeah”s and “mmhmm”s as he speaks, the hint of a smile always on his face, even in the discussion of some of the darker and more hateful periods of America’s history.

Despite it all, Buck wasn’t bitter. Despite playing in front of crowds where black men and women sat next to white men and women in the Negro Leagues, he’d be refused service in many restaurants or left to sleep on the bus when a hotel owner turned he and his teammates away. In the face of that, just about anyone would get frustrated or shut people out. But not Buck.

I’d neglected going to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum for no real reason other than that – neglect. It’s so close that I always figure it will be there, and I guess I’d taken it for granted. That’s a bit ironic considering I’m the recipient of a history degree and have been a baseball fan since I first saw it when I was five years old. Recently, I corrected my mistake and made the journey to the historic 18th and Vine district where Kendrick himself, now the president of the museum, led myself and others through the exhibits, sharing stories about the players along the way. Often, he’d bring up Buck O’Neil.

Buck was one of the founders of the museum because, as Kendrick pointed out in the quote above, he was afraid to forget. Likewise, he didn’t want others to forget the great players of the Negro Leagues, many of whom were just as good or better as most major leaguers. In many cases, the names are familiar, but not as much is known about these greats.

That’s a residual consequence of the segregation era. The story of the Negro Leagues isn’t told enough. People would be surprised to learn that in its heyday, the Negro Leagues drew fans just as well as Major League Baseball. Barnstorming, international tours and regular games back at home would bring in baseball fans from all around. The museum is how we remember. Perhaps it’s a reminder that isn’t comfortable for everyone because, again, it’s a time when people were separated for entirely superficial and unjust reasons within cities, schools, workplaces, and baseball games.

Touring the museum, I heard stories and references that I’d heard before, but I learned new things as well. There’s so much information around the exhibits that one visit isn’t enough and I plan on returning. The story of baseball isn’t complete without the Negro Leagues.

What I find interesting, as someone who is interested in history and events, is the impact that carrying on the message can have. As I said, there is a lot of information on the walls, but the stories are what gives the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum its life. Much of that has to be derived from Buck O’Neil, who seemed to enjoy every ounce of life and every person he came across. Posnanski’s book (and other accounts) talk about how Buck would introduce himself to complete strangers, figure them out, and sure enough, they’d always depart with an embrace.

That approach to life – Buck was renowned for singing “The Greatest Thing in All My Life is Loving You” – carried Buck through 94 years where he  touched thousands of baseball fans, writers, and more. The Royals recognize his contribution on a daily basis during the season by recognizing a member of the community who gives of themselves and seating them in the same chair that Buck would sit in to watch Royals baseball. That spirit is what will be celebrated this weekend.

More on Buck O’Neil:

A full listing of the Kansas City celebration of Buck O’Neil’s 100th birthday (from NLBM.com):

Former NLBM chairman and local baseball legend John “Buck” O’Neil (1911-2006) would have been 100 years old on November 13.  The NLBM continues the tradition of honoring him on his birthday with special commemorations and events.  They inlcude a special history/art exhibition, breakfast, athletic event, and tribute performances.  Patrons can attend these events and make a special contribution to the NLBM through “Buck” O’Neil’s “All Century Team” promotion.Friday, November 11:

Breakfast for Buck at First Watch, 7:00 am – 2:00 pm:
 All area First Watch Restaurants are giving 100% of their day’s profits to celebrate Buck’s 100th and in support of the NLBM. All area locations are participating, with celebrity appearances at select locations (appearance schedule to be announced).  Link here for locations: http://www.firstwatch.com/locations.htm#KansasSaturday, November 12:

Buck O’Neil 2.2 mile run/walk, 8:00 am, Paseo YMCA: For the second year, the NLBM has partnered with the Kansas City Sports Commission to host the 2.2 mile run and walk (noting O’Neil’s uniform #22) through the 18th & Vine/Paseo district.  Event ends at the NLBM.  To register, link to: http://www.sportkc.org/sportkc.aspx?pgID=866&event_id=504Buck’s Baseball Family Reunion, 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., Field of Legends exhibit area: Negro Leaguers and Major Leaguers share their memories of Buck and his impact on their careers. Autograph session follows discussion.Discussion is free with paid admission to the NLBM. Autographs are $20 (limit two items per person).

A Century to Remember hosted by Anthony Anderson  at 8:00 p.m., The Gem Theater: A memorable look at the life of Buck O’Neil through music and poetry. Comedic film star Anthony Anderson will host with special musical guest, Grammy winner Eric Benet.Tickets are $150.00 ($100 for NLBM members) for pre-event reception and show.  Show only tickets are $75.00 ($50.00 for NLBM members).  Call 816-221-1920 to make a reservation.

Sunday, November 13

A Gospel Salute to Buck hosted by Rev. Emanuel Cleaver II at 3:30 pm, Gem Theater:
It’s the gospel according to Buck as area church choirs help celebrate the life of the baseball legend. The event is free to the public with a paid admission to the NLBM.

Right on Time: A free exhibit on the life & times of Buck O’Neil, is open now through February 5, 2012 in the Changing Gallery of the Museums at 18th & Vine, 1616 E. 18th Street, Kansas City, MO.  Open during regular museum hours.

Buck O’Neil All-Century Team Campaign:  Donate $100 (or more) to the NLBM in memory of Buck’s 100th birthday by Nov. 13 and receive permanent recognition on the museum’s new Buck O’Neil All-Century Team wall.https://www.nlbm.com/100for100/donate.cfm

Buck O’Neil discussing leadership, baseball and race.

Bob Kendrick on the Royalman Report 11/06/2011: