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O'Neil, Buck

o’neil baseball negro leagues

Born John Jordan O’Neil, Jr., November 13, 1911, in Carrabelle, FL; died October 6, 2006, in Kansas City, MO. Professional baseball player, coach, and scout. While Buck O’Neil was a star player in the Negro Leagues, it was his work as the spokesman-historian of the league that gave him prominence. He spent the majority of his professional career playing with the Kansas City Monarchs, playing with stars such as Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Josh Gibson. Through his efforts, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was opened in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1990. He spent his remaining years promoting and finding support for the museum right up to his death.

O’Neil was born in Carrabelle, Florida, on November 13, 1911. His father played baseball for a local team. The family moved to Sarasota, Florida, and O’Neil was able to attend school up to the eighth grade. There was no further schooling for African Americans in Sarasota, but he continued his education at Edward Waters College and earned his diploma, thanks to scholarships in baseball and football. He also completed two years of college at Edward Waters.

O’Neil worked in the celery fields and came to the conclusion that he could make better money and work in better conditions playing baseball. He joined several barnstorming semi-professional teams, including the Zulu Cannibal Giants, which required him to play in grass skirts and war paint. O’Neil acquired his nickname after he kept being confused with a team executive named Buck O’Neal. He also played with the New York Tigers and the Shreveport Acme Giants before turning pro and joining the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues.

O’Neil played one season with the Red Sox before he was traded to the Kansas City Monarchs. As a Monarch, O’Neil won a batting title in 1940, and again in 1946. His career with the Monarchs was interrupted when he joined the Navy during World War II.

O’Neil played with such Negro League legends as Paige, Bell, Turkey Stearnes, and Ernie Banks. The Monarchs was the Negro Leagues’ longest running charter team, playing for 37 seasons. O’Neil and his team won the Negro World Series Championship in 1946. In 1948 he became a player-manager for the team. Under his management the Monarchs won four more league titles. He also coached Jackie Robinson before he left to join the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Robinson became the first African American to play in major league baseball. O’Neil also played for the Satchel Paige All-Stars for a season.

O’Neil ended his career with the Monarchs, and became a scout for the Chicago Cubs. He became a coach for the Cubs, making him the first African American to coach in the major leagues. After spending 33 years with the Cubs, O’Neil became a scout with the Kansas City Royals. He ended his career as a scout with the Royals in the late 1970s.

O’Neil, however, was not done with baseball. In 1981, he joined the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a member of the veterans committee. The veterans committee was formidable in helping Negro Leagues players get elected to the National Hall of Fame. In 1990, largely through his tireless efforts, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum opened in Kansas City, Missouri. Quoted in the Los Angeles Times , O’Neil said, “The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is my pride and joy. That’s the top of the line for my life. We’re telling the story, the history, of not only Negro league baseball, but of the segregation era.” He was chairman until his death. In 1994, O’Neil was a commentator for director Ken Burns’ documentary, Baseball . What many found was that he was a great historian concerning both the Negro Leagues and baseball’s segregated past. Many related to his gentility and enthusiasm for the game of baseball. Burns told the Washington Post , “[O’Neil] became, organically, the beating heart of the series.” O’Neil became a much sought-after spokesman for baseball in general. In addition to playing with many legends, he also saw several of baseball’s greatest play, including Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig. He was booked solid for speaking engagements and campaigns for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, despite being in his nineties.

O’Neil also became the oldest person to bat in a professional game. As a ceremonial hitter, he was walked in a Northern Leagues’ All-Star game in July of 2006. However, his popularity was not enough to gain entry in the National Hall of Fame. He had been passed over a few times and was up for election in 2006. He was passed over again, but opened the ceremony praising those that were elected. He told the Los Angeles Times , “I was hoping that I got there, but the fact that I didn’t means that I shouldn’t be there.” In August of 2006, O’Neil was admitted to the hospital for fatigue. He was released, but returned weeks later. He died on October 6, 2006, at the age of 94. While baseball’s greatest honor may have eluded him, O’Neil will be remembered for being a noble and gracious historian for the game of baseball.

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