Major League Baseball doesn’t seem to do much right these days, and now the owners have chosen to lock out the players. A sport that struggles to attract fans younger than 50 is now once more embroiled in a labor dispute, about the most boring sports topic imaginable. But there’s one good piece of news on the baseball horizon, something that represents justice finally occurring for one previously badly treated individual.
It took them 15 years, but finally John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil, the Kansas City Monarchs star player and manager was elected to the Hall of Fame Sunday. The man who should have been one of the first inductees when the Hall finally started to recognize great Negro League stars. sadly didn’t live to see his induction. O’Neil passed in 2006, and there were many inside and outside baseball who lambasted the sport for ignoring his importance and legacy while simultaneously claiming to correct the long and sordid history of Black exclusion from the sport.
O’Neil’s induction finally came via an Early Baseball Era ballot of 10 individuals. He was one of two on the ballot elected by a 16-member panel. The other was Bud Fowler, often acknowledged as the first Black professional baseball player, who pitched and played second base in the late 1800s. Needing 12 votes, O’Neil received 13. He will be enshrined this summer at the Hall of Fame’s annual ceremony on July 24 in Cooperstown, New York. Others selected included Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Minnie Miñoso and Tony Oliva. They were elected to by the Golden Days Era committee.
O’Neil was a true baseball lifer, and was MLB’s first Black coach. He began his playing days as a semi-professional player on the barnstorming circuit before he earned his way into the Negro American League, where he played first base for multiple clubs, but primarily the Kansas City Monarchs. He had a career batting average of .288 and batted .300 or better in four seasons. He played in three All-Star Games as well as two Negro World Series despite having his career interrupted for two years during World War II when he joined the U.S. Navy.
He later managed the Monarchs including a stint as a player/manager and won two league titles and a shared title as the club’s skipper. He went on to become a scout and coach for the Chicago Cubs before becoming a scout for the Kansas City Royals in 1988. He’s a member of the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame.
O’Neil helped establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and he served as the board chairman of the museum until his death at age 94. His candidacy has been followed by many across the nation, particularly those who became familiar with him through his appearance in the Ken Burns’ prominent PBS documentary “Baseball” and subsequent national interviews and late night talk show appearances or those who learned about O’Neil in the pages of former Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski’s book “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.”
It remains a mystery how in 2006 a vote of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Special Committee on the Negro Leagues left O’Neil short of the nine votes needed from the 12-member committee. Seventeen Negro Leagues representatives were granted enshrinement at that time. O’Neil expressed jubilation for those who were selected despite what had to have been personal disappointment and gave a speech for them that summer during the Hall of Fame ceremony in Cooperstown. “I’ve been a lot of places,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of things I really liked doing … but I’d rather be right here, right now, representing the people who helped build a bridge across the chasm of prejudice.” A few months later, O’Neil died from complications of congestive heart failure and bone marrow cancer.
Thankfully, that slight has now been corrected.