OPENING DAY EXCLUSIVE
BRONX BANTER INTERVIEW: BUCK O’NEIL
“When you stop learning, you’re through”
I was lucky enough to meet Buck O’Neil, the legendary Negro League ballplayer, nine years ago when I was working as a production assistant on the Ken Burns documentary, “Baseball.” I escorted him around town before a screening of one of the episodes, and it was easily one of the most memorable days of my life. You hear about people who have a presence, who light up the room when they enter it? That is Buck O’Neil.
I caught up with Buck a few weeks ago, and I thought our interview would be the ideal way to kick off the 2003 season.
(The following conversation took place on Saturday, March 22, 2003.)
BUCK O’NEIL INTERVIEW
Q: How is it in Kansas City this morning?
Buck: It’s a beautiful day, a beautiful day. It’s supposed to get up in the 60s today.
Q: Well, it’s over 60 already here in the New York City, getting ready for Opening Day. It’s going to be especially great this year because it’s been such a long, trying winter.
Buck: It has been a tough winter for you folk out there.
Q: What exactly are you up to these days, Buck?
Buck: Running all over the country, running my mouth. Since the Ken Burns documentary, literally, I’ve been all over. I do some public relations for the Kansas City Royals, and I’m the chairman of the board of the Negro League Museum, here in Kansas City. When you get out here, you got to come see it. Last night, I went to see this baseball team over in Kansas City, Kansas. It was professional, but they don’t belong to any one organization. They call themselves the T-bones. That’s from Kansas City; you know we are Beef people. They call themselves the T-bones, so I was over there talking to those people. They in a league, but they don’t belong to any organization in the Major Leagues. After that, I went to a club, and they were having Ladies Night, so these were ladies who sung jazz, famous jazz and blues singers, they called it, “Just entertaining the Ladies.” And they put on a show. And tonight I’m going to the Gem Theater. The guys are going to come in, the horn players, the alto players. Two great alto players going play at the Gem Theater tonight, it’s going to be Charlie Parker night. They have a Charlie Parker Week here. I’m going tonight.
Q: Buck, how did your participation in the Ken Burns “Baseball” series effect your life?
Buck: Oh, man. I haven’t rested yet. I’m still going. Mm-hmm. Well, my life took off again, after the Ken Burns documentary.
Q: Buck, I’m working on a biography on Curt Flood, which is aimed at a teenage audience. Could you explain what it was like to come up through the minor leagues in the mid 1950s for black players?
Buck: Well actually in the middle 50s, if you were a black major leaguer you were on top of the world. You were on top of the world during that time. With guys like Curt Flood: Now, Jackie, what happened to Jackie wasn’t nothing like what happened to guys like Curt Flood. Because Jackie was here with the [Kansas City] Monarchs and Jackie’s first job with organized baseball was with Montreal. Where with Curt Flood, it might have been Macon, Georgia. The difference was night and day. Those guys who played in the lower minor leagues, played in the south and they had a hell of a time. It was really tough for them. But with Jackie, playing in Montreal, that’s just a different culture altogether.
Q: Robinson was accepted more openly.
Buck: Of course.
Q: What were your impressions of the Cardinals in the late 50s and early 60s?
Buck: One thing, see was that the Cardinals had some outstanding black ballplayers. That’s what happened with the Cardinals: they had outstanding ballplayers all around too. The black population really took to the Cardinals. With Curt Flood, Curt Flood was first class all the way. Baseball was actually cruel to Curt Flood. When Curt wouldn’t go to Philadelphia Curt actually changed baseball. When he wouldn’t accept that contract to go to Philadelphia. During that era, the owners in baseball had all the control over baseball players. They paid you what they wanted to pay you; they would send you where they wanted to send you. And I’ve seen people during that era in organized baseball; I’ve seen so many guys that actually played minor league baseball all of their careers when they were qualified to play Major League Baseball. This was not only black players but white kids too. Teams like the Yankees owned all the players in their chain. And you had to stay on the Yankees team, unless they traded you. You didn’t have any out. And that was true for all of baseball. They paid you what they wanted to pay you. But when Curt Flood reneged his trade, this is where you came up with the union. Mm-hmm.
Q: Were you surprised when Flood sued Baseball?
Buck: With Curt Flood? No. I figure it would have to be someone like Curt Flood to have done it.
Q: Had you met Flood when he was a younger player?
Buck: Not until he went into organized baseball. I met him when he was with Cincinnati, before he went to St. Louis. Outstanding young man. You know you kind of figure baseball players were guys who just made money and were not that educated. During that era, I’d guess that maybe 5% of Major League Baseball players were educated. Because the Major Leagues wanted the kids right out of high school. Uh-huh. Get them when they 18 years old, 19 years old. These guys would maybe get to the Major Leagues when they 23, 24. Where, as the college man, you don’t sign till he’s 20-something years old. Flood didn’t go to college, but he was smart like the college men.
Q: Bob Gibson and Bill White were both college guys. What about George Crowe? I’ve read that he was a veteran role player who had great influence on the younger black guys like White and Flood.
Buck: What a guy. George Crowe was the type of man who was a student. He was kind of different from the average baseball player. This was a George Crowe. Just like a Jackie, and a majority of guys: you see 40% of the Negro leaguers were college men. The reason why the Negro Leaguers were college men more so than the Major Leaguers, [was because] we trained in a college town. We would go to spring, always go to spring training in a black college town and we played [against] the black colleges. The black colleges were like a minor league for the Negro Leaguer. Mm-hmm. Crowe played some years in the Negro Leagues. He spent some time in the minors now, but the guys I’m talking about that spent a lot of time in the minor leagues were more or less, white ball players. That was before Jackie.
Q: Crowe’s influence was supposed to have been formative for Bill White, and Flood, and Gibson.
Buck: Oh, Bill White. Bill White is first class, now. Still. Mm-hmm. Bill White was the type of guy that any ball player would look up to. Because of his character. And another thing too: he could play. He could play. When blacks would come to the Major Leagues they noticed that when they went to St. Louie, New York, Harlem, he wouldn’t be going to the dives in those places, he would go into the first class places. And ball players would follow his lead.
Q: You became a scout for the Cubs in 1956. Was that your first job in Major League Baseball?
Buck: Yes. And I’m still doing some things for the [Kansas City] Royals now.
Q: How did you come across Ernie Banks?
Buck: Oh Ernie Banks? Well, the Monarchs had a traveling team we called “The Baby Monarchs.” We had so many black ball players, we couldn’t play them all. When we went to spring training, we’d maybe have 40 people there. Uh-huh. When we got ready to cut, we pretty much knew who the regular guys were going to be, but the other kids we’d put them on the little Monarchs team. Cool Papa Bell was running this ball club. They went to the northwest, and they would travel from Omaha all the way up north to Canada to play. That’s the team I started with in 1937. They were like a farm team for the Monarchs. Cool Papa Bell was running the Little Monarchs for us and he saw a team, saw a ball player from one of those semi-pro teams in Texas. When their season was over, they came into Kansas City, and Cool said, “Buck, I saw a kid on a team from Dallas, Texas, and he could play short stop for you.” I said, “Yeah, that sounds good.” This had to be Nineteen-and-forty-nine. 1949. Early in the spring of 1950, I went down to Dallas and signed this kid Ernie Banks. I hadn’t seen him play; Cool had seen him play. I signed him and he went to spring training with us in 1950. Played the season with us: good-looking kid. Went to the service in ’51 and ’52, came back in ’53, played with us, and that’s when the major league teams started scouting him. Now the Cubs We used to play our East/West Game in Chicago. Always played it at Comisky Park. And we played Ernie in the ballgame and after the ballgame that night, Tom Baird, who owned the Kansas City Monarchs called me and said, “Bring Ernie Banks out to the ballpark,”-the Cubs ballpark—“they want to sign him to a contract.” So Wendell Smith, who wrote for “The Pittsburgh Courier” and “The Chicago Defender,” he came, picked us up, took us out to Wrigley Field and that’s when they signed Ernie Banks.
Q: This is before you worked in the Major Leagues, correct?
Buck: This is 1953, but um, when the general manager of the ball club was getting ready to sign Ernie Banks. He said, “Buck, you know this Negro League Baseball is about to close, because Tom Baird is going to get rid of this ball club [the Kansas City Monarchs]. When he does, I want you to come work here as a scout for the Cubs. And so your first job is right now, I want you to sign Ernie Banks. You signed Ernie Banks to a Negro League contract, now I want you to sign him to a Cub contract.” So I signed Ernie Banks twice.
Q: When did Lou Brock come around?
Buck: This was several years later that I saw Lou Brock at Southern University in Baton Rogue.
Q: Was he an outfielder at that point?
Buck: Yeah. He was playing right field. Fast kid, he could really run and make contact. Steal bases.
Q: Tough loss for the Cubs when you guys traded Brock to the Cardinals in the middle of the 1964 season.
Buck: Yeah, well the one thing about it is when I go to St. Louis now they give me a standing ovation for Lou Brock.
Because see, they called me in when they wanted to trade Lou Brock. They called me in, and said, “What do you think? Would you like for us to trade Lou to St. Louis?” I said, “Oh, well, that’n be alright because Billy Williams in the outfield, we got Sweet Lou Johnson in the outfield, we got George Altman in the outfield. We didn’t need outfielders, what we needed was pitching. And Broglio had won 20 games the year before, so this was a good trade, we thought, for us. We didn’t know Broglio had the bad arm. Hmm-hmm.
Q: How personal was your relationship with Ernie Banks and Lou Brock?
Buck: Oh, they’re like my sons. Mm-hmm.
Q: Where in the hell did you find Oscar Gamble?
Buck: In Montgomery, Alabama. Montgomery, Alabama. What I’m doing, is scouting the colleges, and I go to a Sunday ballgame, and this is the city club. They playing ball, and I’m scoutin them. And I saw this kid in center field, and I asked him, “Well do you play with any other teams besides this one?” He was a high school boy. And he said, “Yeah, we gunna play, next Saturday, I’m playing on a team that’s not an old man team, but a team of kids in some spot not far from Montgomery. And actually they played on a field out there: it was one-way in, and one-way out. But it was actually, once you got in there, they had a beautiful little diamond. And they were having a picnic, and I went, and he was on this ball club, and I saw him again playing and said, “Oh, man, this is what I’m looking for.” And so that’s when I signed him. This had to have been in the late ’60s.
Q: Gamble has a reputation as a real cut-up. Was he like that as a kid?
Buck: Actually during that time he was kind of a quiet guy, when I first met him.
Q: I know he didn’t play for you, but what did you think about Minnie Minoso?
Buck: Oh well, Minnie Minoso. Well Minnie Minoso, I first saw as kid in Cuba. In 1946 he played in Cuba. I was playing in Havana and he was playing for another team. Third base. Good-looking ballplayer. Good-looking kid.
Q: Think he should be in the Hall of Fame?
Buck: He did have quite a Major League career, and Minnie was a good ballplayer, very good ballplayer, but when you speak about Hall of Fame, you speaking about great. Cause think that everybody that played in the Major Leagues at the time was a good ballplayer. You had to be a good ballplayer to play in the Major Leagues. But actually, you are not talking about good ballplayers when you talk about Hall of Famer, you talking about great ballplayer. Uh-huh. And I imagine in Minnie had gone into the Major Leagues at say 21, he would have more on the board than he does now. Minnie’s such a personable fella. And everybody likes Minnie. Uh-huh. He was a good ballplayer.
Q: What was the role of statistics in the Negro Leagues? Did you walk around thinking, “Oh, I’m a .300 hitter,” “He’s a 30 home run guy?”
Buck: Yeah, we felt that, we felt that. As far as statistics were concerned Now when we played in Kansas City, [we had] the “Kansas City Call,” a black weekly. “The St. Louis Organ,” a black weekly, “Chicago Defender,” black weekly, “Pittsburgh Courier,” black weekly, “Amsterdam News”—that’s New York city: black weekly. All them now. Now when we played in those cities, somebody was there. All the stats: we got ’em. But when we left those places if we played in KC, we knew the “Call” would cover it. Because the white paper, which was “The Kansas City Star,” they didn’t cover our ball. Neither did the New York papers. Only the black media covered [black] baseball. When we were in those cities, they would cover us. When we moved out of those cities, which we did quite often like, we’d play in Washington, but after that we’d go to Richmond. Uh-huh. And other cities too. Unless we were in the cities with the big papers, that was the only times we’d get the coverage. So we didn’t get the complete stats we should have had. Let’s say we would keep up with it here in KC, and when we were on the road we our traveling secretary would keep track of our numbers. He was really on stats. He would keep up with ours. And so would somebody say with the New York Black Yankees. But it didn’t get into the Major Leagues and the big print.
Q: Did you pick up “The Amsterdam News” when you were in New York during those days?
Buck: Oh yeah. But actually, what we would pick up with that they would tell me what happened with the Black Yankees played in New York City or Philadelphia or Washington. But they don’t have the stats when they played in Albany, New York. Or Buffalo.
Q: Did you read the stats for the Major League players?
Buck: Every day. Oh yeah, sure.
Q: In the “Baseball” movie you talk about being part of the jazz culture in Kansas City during the 30’s. Count Basie, Lester Young, Ellington, Armstrong. In fact, I put on an Inkspots cd this morning before I called you, just to get in the mood. Which group did you prefer, the Inkspots or the Mills brothers?
Buck: I liked them both. I liked them both. I liked them both. Oh, great entertainers. They were great entertainers. They were contemporaries, Mm-hmm. Then I guess the Inkspots—we started hearing them here and there, before the Mills brothers.
Q: What about the 1950s? Did you listen to other jazz after swing? Did you listen to more modern guys like Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, or Horace Silver?
Buck: Yeah. See, actually, I’ll tell you a story. You know, you hear the different sounds, but it’s all music. I remember once sitting in a club with Count Basie. We sitting there, it was actually a jam session. They were jamming. All of them had finished their work on the regular job, in Kansas City. And we’re in this club, and they’re jamming. We had played baseball, and that night I go to the club, we call it the ‘Subway,’ and I’m sitting there with Count. The other guys were jamming; he had played. A kid comes in with a horn. And they said, ‘Let him blow.’ He started blowing, didn’t none of us know what he was blowin’, but we had to listen to it, cause he’s makin’ some sounds we’d never heard before. Uh-huh. He was turning’ those notes, you know, different ways. And, that was Charlie Parker. He was still a kid. Uh-huh. He was still in high school. So actually, the music, the music, changes, but it’s still music.
Q: You keeping up with the latest Rap records?
Buck: Yeah. Yeah, I listen to it. Anytime you play music, I want to hear it. Mm-hmm. I want to hear it.
Q: You still follow the pro game these days?
Buck: I just got back from Arizona. I still do some things with the Royals. So I went out to their spring training. But every year, I’ve been going to spring training, been going to some parts of spring training, for the last 70 years. We got some good-looking young ball players. You going to hear something about them. Got a center fielder [Carlos Beltran], that’s a good ball player, and our first baseman [Mike Sweeney] is first class. Great hitter.
Q: What seems to be the biggest difference from when you played?
Buck: The only difference made in Baseball since Baseball started was the DH hitter. Baseball is still the same. The players playing now are in better shape than we ever were. They’re stronger. But the difference is, in my era the best athletes in the world played baseball, cause that’s where the money was. Football, basketball was more or less college sports. Made a living professionally, you played baseball. So the best athletes in the world played baseball. But right now, the best athlete in the world could be teeing up the golf ball, you know, or hitting a tennis ball a hundred-and-something miles per hour. There is so many ways to make a great living now. So the best athlete in the world might not be playing baseball.
Q: Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson would be football stars.
Buck: That’s right. Cause Jackie might have played football if would have come along today. So many of the guys that I know, would have played basketball.
Q: Was the competition more intense in the ’30s and ’40s than today?
Buck: Sure. The supply was greater than the demand, really. Say, in the ’40s. Cause everybody played baseball. They were so many baseball players. This is why a guy could stay in the minor leagues for 10 years. Because he couldn’t go no place else, unless his team would move him. But right now, the demand is greater than the supply.
Q: How do you feel about watching Barry Bonds rewrite the record books the past couple of seasons?
Buck: Outstanding, outstanding. See Barry Bonds has always been an outstanding athlete. He got bad press. But hell, he been the top guy, up there with people like a Willie Mays, an Ernie Banks–people who may have received more favorable media coverage than he did, but honey: He can do it all. Right now, you talk about a great athlete out there, you got to say, A-Rod. Mm-hmm. Great ballplayer, down there in Texas. I was with him last year. We gave him an award. The Negro League Museum gave him the Josh Gibson award last year. Went down there to Texas, talked with him. Fine young man, fine young man. Going down to sign autographs with him next month.
Q: There were a couple of flare-ups in spring training this year between teams, with guys getting plunked. Talk about the lost art of the brush-back pitch.
Buck: Well, it’s changed, it’s changed. It’s made a lot of home run hitters. Because you can’t—if you pitch inside, and throw the ball, say two inches inside of the plate, you get the umpire coming out with his finger in your face. Mm-hmm. This is baseball now. We didn’t have that problem. We didn’t have helmets either. I know I hit behind Willie Brown, who was a home run hitter, I’d hit behind him. He’d hit the home run, and I knew I was going down, but I didn’t know on what pitch. (Laughs) A lot guys lean over the plate now, but they don’t get it. One thing about it is, actually, you could get hurt, really. And getting hit with the ball did hurt a lot of people. Now, the main thing, the worst thing is the strike zone: they made it so small. Uh-huh. With that high strike. That high inside pitch we used to get for a strike, you don’t get it anymore. And that low, outside pitch we used to get for a strike, you don’t get that anymore. Mm-hmm. They trying to rectify the small strike zone. They need to put it, making the strike zone where it should be, from you arm pit, down to your knees. Some umpires call that now, but not all of them.
Q: It’s all about promoting offense.
Buck: They lowered the mound. When we had Bob Gibson, and all the 20-game winning pitchers, the mound was higher. They lowered the mound because they wanted more offense. They thought the people would like that. The home run would bring the people to the ballpark. During my era a good ballgame was a 1-0 ball game, a 2-3 ballgame. A good ballgame now is a 7-8 ballgame.
Q: Do you get bored watching 3, 4 hour games?
Buck: I’m never bored. I’m never board at a baseball game because I’ve can always see something. Mm-hmm. I can always see something. I like to watch ballplayers. Because I see a kid and it feels like it did when I saw Lou Brock and said, “Hmmm. Cool Papa Bell.” Mm-hmm. Like now, I see Ken Griffey, I say, “Oh, Ken Griffey? Look like Turkey Stearnes.” When I see ballplayers now I equate them with great ballplayers I’d seen long time ago. I see a kid swing the bad good, “Hmm. Ted Williams. Aaahh.” So that’s why baseball is so interesting to me.
Q: So you are not all caught up in thinking, “Oh it was so much better in my day, it’s lousy now.”
Buck: That’s always the way it’s been. When I came in with the Monarchs, they said, “Buck, you a good first baseman but you’re not as good as the fella that came before you.” I came up with a kid when I was a manager, a Cuban kid [who] played first base for me, and could play first base. They’d say, “You a good first baseman, but you’re not as good as Buck O’Neil.” You know what I mean? This is what the older folks will do. Just like the guy said, “Inkspots good, but they not as good as the Mills brothers.”
Q: What does Opening Day mean for you? Does it still get you excited?
Buck: Of course, of course. It’s a brand new season, a brand new year. The first thing: it’s spring. You understand what I mean? Baseball opening the season, that means this is spring. Mm-hmm. Spring. And I always get up with spring every year. I’m going to see some kids that hadn’t seen before. Right here, at Opening Day in Kansas City, the 31st, I’m going to be at the ballpark, right behind home plate.
Q: Are you still learning things about baseball?
Buck: Let me tell you something: when you stop learning, you’re through. Mm-hmm. I’m 91, but I’m still learning. Not only about baseball, about others things [too]. Yeah, yeah. You should always keep learning, as long as you live. You’re going to write. You’ll learn something. And not only that, you’re going to teach things. Cause what you’re going to write about now a lot of people, could be baseball fans, don’t know about. Mm-hmm. Of course, you learning, you teaching, that’s life. That’s life. And right now we going through a tough time. Over there now, you hope that we’ve learned from the last time we were over there. [This time] it’s going to be different. Mm-hmm.
Q: You have an amazing sense of optimism about the world.
Buck: That’s what you should have. Cause always figure that tomorrow is going to be better. Don’t care how good today is, tomorrow is going to be better but it is exciting though to get up. It’s like the first time you see a Willie Mays, huh? “Mm, look at this.” (Laughs)
Q: Us Yankee fans a feeling that a little bit these days with the kid Soriano.
Buck: Hey, you got to. How you think I felt when I saw him? Huh? That kid. How can he generate that kind of power? Oh, man. (Laughs) It’s amazing, isn’t it?
Q: It’s like his bat has batteries or something like that. It’s supercharged.
Buck: I’m telling you. He’s got great wrists. And, oh man. You look at him and say, “This is going to be another superstar.”
Q: You think he’s going to last?
Buck: Of course, of course. Yes. Man. A kid like—Boy. It’s still there. I’ll tell you one thing—you know what worries me about baseball? (Pause) The black kid in the inner city stopped playing baseball. Going to basketball. You know the white kid, 170 pounds, 175 pounds: Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto, that white kid. He stopped playing baseball now [Dave Eckstein notwithstanding]. Mm-hmm.
Q: Why is that?
Buck: It’s just the difference in the times. Now, all those kids used to play baseball, but what they do now? They play soccer, they doing other things. A lot them actually, don’t play baseball. They on the computer. They doing a lot of things that we never did. I remember in my time, you hear the mama [say], “Alright now, its time for you to come in.” Now you got to tell the kids, “Why don’t you go out and get some sunshine? Go outside and get some sunshine.” But there’s so many things he can do inside the house, you couldn’t do in my era. I remember the southern white boy: he was hungry. He wanted to get out of that cotton field just like the black kid wanted get out of the inner city. Baseball was the out. That’s it. Baseball is the out for the Latin kids; baseball is the out for the Japanese kids. Uh-huh. You understand? This is his way out. And this is why they playing.