Buck O’Neil played monumental role in Cubs and baseball history

Since stores sell cards like “Happy Belated Birthday,” I would like to tardily congratulate the late, great John “Buck” O’Neil on his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame last month.

O’Neil was a longtime Negro Leagues player and manager. He managed a young shortstop named Ernie Banks in 1950 and 1953. Banks served in the army in between, and in September of 1953, the future “Mr. Cub” first laid eyes on what he would later call “The Friendly Confines.”

I first read his name after purchasing a Chicago Cubs “Roster Book,’ probably with a frosty malt. Thanks mom and dad. I read his name as a coach and scout. O’Neil was the first African American coach in Major League Baseball. He could have been the first manager as well. In 1961 and 1962 Cubs’ owner P.K. Wrigley had the silly (I have other adjectives in my head) to employ a “College of Coaches” instead of a manager. They rotated running the team, and amassed a record of 123-193 – good for a winning percentage of .389. Did Mr. O’Neil get a chance? Of course not.

O’Neil appeared on my television screen in 1994 when Ken Burns produced an 18-hour documentary on America’s pastime. Just as Burns took made Civil War historian Shelby Foote, he did the same with Buck. Both went from moderate obscurity to becoming household names and we are all better off for it. I am glad he finally received this well-deserved notoriety, and hope he made a little money from it to live out his days a little more comfortably.

His contacts and friendships are impressive. He played with or against Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Jackie Robinson among others. He managed Ernie Banks and Elston Howard. He helped scout and sign Banks, Lou Brock, Joe Carter, Lee Smith and Oscar Gamble. He may have saved the career and superstardom of Sweet Swingin’ Billy Williams.

Cubs: Buck O’Neil may have saved Billy Williams’ career

When Williams was a Cubs’ prospect playing in Double-A San Antonio in 1959, he faced discrimination that still occurred after Robinson broke the color barrier a dozen years earlier. He took a train home, and quit saying in his memoir he was “not accustomed to being treated like an animal.”

Cubs GM John Holland sent O’Neil to try to talk Williams into coming back, and he recalled “If it wasn’t for Buck O’Neil, my entire life likely would have turned out differently.”

In 2006, 17 Negro League players were inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Recently on CBS Sunday Morning, Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, that O’Neil was happy for the men who were enshrined. He spoke at the induction ceremony on behalf of those players, all of whom had passed. He was 94 years old, and would join them just two months later.

White Sox great Minnie Minoso also joined the Hall this year.  In 1992, Tanya Tucker recorded a song called “It’s a Little Too Late” to do the Right Thing Now. To the Veterans Committee, I dedicate that song. Just like Ron Santo, it might be nice to honor the living while they are still with us.

On Mr. O’Neil’s MLB page, fellow Hall of Famer summed up this great man’s life best. “He was probably the greatest ambassador the Negro Leagues ever had.” True. He is certainly one of the greatest ambassadors baseball has ever had.