The Negro League election to the Hall of Fame was announced this afternoon and neither Minnie Minoso or Buck O’Neil made the cut. I am personally bummed for both of them, but don’t expect either to feel sorry for themselves.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have several encounters with O’Neil. The first was of the more memorable days of my life. Twelve years ago, I worked as a runner for Ken Burns as he and his team of editors mixed the sound for “Baseball.” It was my first job out of college and not only did it reunite me with the game (and the game’s history), it also introduced me to people and players I didn’t know anything about. Ken hipped me to Lester Young and Willie Morris. I learned about Curt Flood’s story–and found it so moving that now, after three years of work, am set to publish my first book this spring–and it’s all about Curt. I also got to meet Buck O’Neil. I had seen him on the mixing room screen for months, and heard much about him from the rest of the crew, so when he came to New York in May of ’94 for a screening I felt as if I already knew him.
It was my job to escort him around town one afternoon. You know when they say someone has a presence that lights up a room when they enter it? Well, I’ve been around a lot of movie stars over the years, and none of them has the kind of almost magical aura that Buck has. He is is handsome and confident and completely unassuming. He’s both powerful and gentle. The kind of guy who makes you feel special just by talking with you. That’s his gift–he makes you feel like the man. That’s why he’s the man.
It was a warm, sunny day in Manhattan when I met Buck–who was elegantly dressed in a tan suit–at his hotel on Park Avenue. I hailed a cab and we headed to The Jackie Robinson Foundation to visit Rachel Robinson. On the way over, Buck and I talked baseball. He talked about seeing Ruth, and playing with Paige as I countered with stories of playing ball in high school. At one point I became painfully self-conscious that my personal experiences were no match for his legendary memories, but Buck would have dismissed my misgivings as silly. He had no airs and didn’t make me feel less important in any way. If anything, he made me feel as if my little league experiences were just as valid as anything he’d ever lived through. The other thing I’ll never forget about that ride was Buck’s hands, which were as powerful as any Rodin sculpture. I couldn’t stop staring at them, massive, rough, with big, rounded fingernails. It was like they had a history all to themselves.
Rachel Robinson and her assistant gave us a tour of the Foundation–the walls were lined with a terrific series of photographs–and soon enough, we retired to a conference room and sat around a large round table. I kept my mouth shut and listened to Buck and Mrs. Robinson talk. David Robinson, Jackie’s youngest son happened to be in the office that day. What makes this remarkable is that he lives in Africa, so it was very much a fluke. A gaunt man with a white beard, he came into the conference room to say hello. Buck stood up and reached across the table and shook Robinson’s hand. And he didn’t let go. As he held Robinson’s hand, he said, “Now, you know how much your father meant to all of us.”
I don’t recall the exact words, but as Buck continued his little speech, he refused to let go of Robinson’s hand. It was as if he insisted on saying his peace, and Robinson respected him enough to listen. However, it was like Robinson wished he could have been anywhere else in the world but there at that moment. I realized that the pressure of being the child of famous person was a complicated matter. No wonder he lived in Africa, I thought. The image remains burned in my head: Two men, awkwardly shaking hands across a round table, one, assured, confident and at ease with himself, the other, palpably uncomfortable.
That night, people just naturally flocked around Buck at the cocktail reception before the screening. I kept hovering around him, listening to his stories, admiring how warm he was with people. Over the years, I periodically sent Buck postcards just to say “hi.” I didn’t care if he remembered me or not. I know that I’d never forget him. A few years ago I was able to interview him for this site (back in the early stages of my Flood project, when it was intended to be a Young Adult book–as it turns out, it’s for adults–and kids too). I like these words of wisdom:
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.
…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 [every day]. It’s like the first time you see a Willie Mays, huh? “Mm, look at this.” (Laughs)
Buck’s laugh and his stories have brought a lot of joy to the world. He has been one of the greatest ambassadors the game has ever seen, and is one of the great American characters of our time. The fact that he isn’t in the Hall of Fame can’t change that. I’m sure it’ll be a great day for him anyway because he’s always been about more than just himself. And that’s the truth, Ruth.