I never had the honor and privilege of meeting Buck O’Neil, whose time as a scout for the KC Royals was but a single part of his 70-plus years of devotion and service to the game he loved and that loved him.
But knowing someone isn’t a prerequisite to feeling good for them when something special happens. And good is precisely how I felt Sunday evening when the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced Buck’s election by its new Early Era Committee. It’s an honor long overdue, one he should have received before he died 15 years ago.
The injustice wrought by the inexplicable rejection of his 2006 Hall candidacy, an unforgiveable denial of admission to the place O’Neil always belonged, has been righted. This time, those charged with considering him for induction got it right. For that, baseball fans everywhere should be thankful.
And knowing the glistening in my eyes Sunday was for someone I didn’t know was of no matter. Mine weren’t the only moist eyes around the baseball world; in fact, it’s hard to imagine many remained dry when the news broke, a moment fortunately captured by Kansas City Star Royals beat writer Lynn Worthy:
Simply put, everyone, even those who don’t consider themselves baseball fans, should feel happy for Buck O’Neil.
The former KC Royals scout’s Hall qualifications transcend his statistics.
Splendid as they are, my purpose isn’t to fill this space with recitations of O’Neil’s statistics. Kings of Kauffman’s Batoul Hammoud recently covered those numbers in her excellent story about him, so repeating them now serves little purpose. Suffice it to say there really wasn’t anything on a baseball field he didn’t do well. (Although sources of his numbers vary, look here if you need the full statistical book on O’Neil). But Hall of Famers are Hall of Famers because their numbers and their contributions to the game uniquely distinguish them.
What combined with stats to set O’Neil apart was what he gave and meant to the game. His was a baseball career rich in its diversity—he played it, coached and managed professional ballplayers (he was, in fact, the first Black coach in the majors, stepping into that role with the Cubs in 1962), scouted for the Cubs and later the Royals, and helped give life to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City and served on its board. His accounts of all things Negro Leagues are irreplaceable; without them, history would be incomplete.
Obviously, I never saw O’Neil play, but observed him from a distance as he sat in his reserved seat in Kauffman Stadium, scouting for the Royals the untold numbers of players who passed through Kansas City. The famous smile made him impossible to miss, and one immediately understood, simply from watching him, that the place, the people, and the surroundings gave him joy.
That seat was and remains a special spot—the Royals frequently give the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat to those who positively impact Kansas City. It’s an exquisitely fitting honor.
Now, O’Neil will get his much-deserved plaque in Cooperstown when the Hall conducts its 2022 induction ceremony in July. It took too long, but now it’s happening, and eyes moistened by Sunday’s news will moisten again, not out of sadness, but out of a joy generated by knowing an error of great magnitude has been corrected.
Buck O’Neil, Hall of Famer.
Sounds right, doesn’t it?
Buck O’Neil made the Hall of Fame Sunday.