Archive for Wednesday, July 26, 2006

KC baseball legend doesn’t need hall to prove his worth

July 26, 2006

By now most baseball fans have probably heard that 94-year-old Buck O'Neil took two at-bats in last week's Northern League All-Star Game, making him the oldest professional ballplayer ever.

Was this a shameless promotion? If it were, it certainly worked, since there were roughly 10 times as many media members there to see him at CommunityAmerica Ballpark then there would have been without him.

But that's not all it was about. The at-bats were also part of the T-Bones' ongoing effort to give O'Neil more ammunition in his fight to get into the Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

But the Hall of Fame seemed like the furthest thing from O'Neil's mind on Tuesday. He was too busy having the time of his life. He received a massive ovation when he was introduced as part of the starting lineup. Then he used his black bat to help push him up from his folding chair just outside the dugout. He rested the bat on his shoulder and slowly marched out to home plate, looking sharp with his Kansas City Monarchs jersey neatly tucked in, and his ever-present Monarchs cap perched on his head.

O'Neil watched the first pitch go by and then turned around and pretended to berate the umpire, getting right up in his face. After he was walked, O'Neil shuffled over to first and started leading off toward second, even though everyone knew he'd have to be lifted for a pinch runner. Both moments put a smile on the faces of everyone in the crowd.

But afterward, no one's smile was bigger than O'Neil's as he held court in front of a gaggle of reporters hanging on his every word, even as the all-star game went on in the background.

The local legend poo-pooed everyone's concerns about playing in Tuesday's intense heat:

"This is Kansas City weather," O'Neil said. "We used to play doubleheaders in this wearing wool uniforms."

When a reporter asked him if he planned to come back again next year he gave a snappy reply:

"I'm thinking about coming back for the next 10 years," O'Neil said.

And he talked at length about how much the whole experience meant to him:

"A 94-year-old man, with a bat in his hands, in an all-star game: you can't beat that. It feels good. I told the folks I know all over the country, "Look at this, this is Ol' Buck."

The T-Bones' efforts might never get Buck O'Neil into the Hall.

But, you know what? It doesn't matter.

Sure he deserves to be there, and if there's any justice he will be someday. But if he isn't, it doesn't make his impact on the world any less. This is a man who is absolutely loved, not only here, but across the country.

This is a man whose legacy is already secure as the first black manager in the history of Major League Baseball, one of those wonderful "first" records that no one can ever break. This is a man who discovered and mentored Hall of Famers like Ernie Banks and Lou Brock and championed the successful Hall of Fame bids of Negro Leaguers like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige.

Best of all, this is a man who, at 94, still has a cause in his life. He gets up every morning ready to go on promoting baseball and pushing for more recognition of the achievements of Negro Leagues players.

So, if you see O'Neil around, tell him you really admire everything he's done for baseball. Tell him he inspired you to learn more about the Negro Leagues. Just don't bother telling him he should be in the Hall of Fame. You'd only be selling him short, because he's better than that.

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