Buck O’Neil was a fascinating guy who spent his lifetime in baseball. His smooth delivery of stories and incredibly sharp mind lured you into another world where baseball was life. He could delivery decades of baseball knowledge at the drop of a cap. Baseball was his religion. His voice reminded you of your grandfather, telling tales on the back porch, on a breezy night in October. It was as if he could tell you almost anything and you would nod with approval.
One of my favorite interviews with “Buck” O’Neil occurred with film producer Ken Burns. Burns asked Buck if the game of baseball would always survive. (Please remember when reading his answer that Buck O’Neil was 88 years old at the time of this interview). Buck responded “Yes, somebody or something will always happen to keep the interest of the game alive.” Then he told this story: “I heard Ruth hit the ball. I’d never heard that sound before, and I was outside the fence but it was the sound of the bat that I never heard before in my life. And the next time I heard that sound, I’m in Washington DC, in the dressing room, and I heard that sound of a bat hitting the ball—sounded like when Ruth hit the ball. I rushed out, got on nothing but a jockstrap—rushed out—we were playing the Homestead Grays and it was Josh Gibson hitting that ball. And so I heard this sound again. Now I didn’t hear it anymore. I’m in Kansas City. I’m working for the Chicago Cubs at the time, and I was upstairs and I was coming down for batting practice. And before I could get out there I heard this sound one more time that I’ve heard only twice in my life. Now, you know who this is? Bo Jackson. Bo Jackson was swinging that bat. And now I heard this sound…and it was just a thrill for me. I said, here it is again. I only heard it three times in my life. But now, I’m living because I’m going to hear it again one day, if I live long enough.”
Another of my favorite interviews with Buck occurred on a televised Major League game hosted by ESPN’s Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. Miller asked Buck. “Was Josh Gibson really as great as they say?” Buck smiled and said, “Oh, he was better than that.” Wow! I may never forget that answer. How clever of this old man to leave the listener with the thought that however great you thought Josh Gibson might be as a player, he was really even better than that.
The last time I saw Buck O’Neil in person was in July at the Fan Fest of the 2004 MLB All-Star Game. I was standing with a friend of mine, Mike Patranella, at the Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit. I was telling Mike and a few others about some of the players that were pictured there in the display. I had just finished talking about Buck O’Neil when in he walks, as big as life. I said hello. Shook his hand and asked him how he was doing. His smile was still contagious, there was still a twinkle in his eyes and his warmth filled the room as he answered, “Wonderful.” It was then that I turned to the folks standing there and said, “Ladies and Gentleman, Mr. Buck O’Neil.” I left him there surrounded by well-wishers and admirers.
Buck O’Neil, a fine Negro League player, coach, manager and MLB scout, has been denied induction into Baseball’s Hall of Fame by the voting process. Most fans thought it an injustice but it didn’t seemed to bother him. He just loved being a part of the game.
On Friday night, October 6, 2006, my friend Buck O’Neil passed away peacefully in his sleep. He had entered the hospital on September 17, in his hometown of Kansas City, at the age of 94. He will be missed. I remember a quote from Buck that he read at his friend Satchel Paige’s funeral. Buck said, “Don’t feel sorry for us. I feel sorry for your fathers and your mothers, because they didn’t get to see us play.” As usual, he was right. Maybe now he can hear that sound again in Heaven.