John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil was much more than a Negro Leagues icon. He was a glaring symbol of America as both an aspirational concept and oppressive colossus.
His long overdue enshrinement into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., this past Sunday was the sport finally acknowledging, if only implicitly, that O’Neil, who passed away in 2006 at the age 94, was one of the most important figures in Major League Baseball’s twofold sublime and shameful history.
“If Uncle John was here with us this afternoon, his usual spirit of humility and gratefulness would be on full display,” said O’Neil’s niece, Dr. Angela Terry, who spoke on his behalf at the induction ceremony. O’Neil was part of the 2022 class that included David Ortiz, who won three World Series titles with the Boston Red Sox, and Gil Hodges, a three-time World Series champion with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers and 1969 New York Mets.
Two pioneering players also joined O’Neil. Bud Fowler, born in Frankfort, N.Y., in 1858 and raised in Cooperstown, is the earliest known African American player in organized professional baseball. Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso, a native of Perico, Cuba, became the first Afro-Latino in the major leagues when he took the field for the Cleveland Indians in 1949 and was the Chicago White Sox’s first Black player. Additionally, Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat were enshrined.
O’Neil, who was born in Carrabelle, Florida in 1911, upheld the oral lore of the Negro Leagues and the early years of Black players populating the major leagues. It was at an event over three decades ago at Yankee Stadium honoring Negro Leagues players where I first met O’Neil. The experience was profound. I was captivated by his force of personality, encyclopedic-like recall of baseball and American history, and his sincere, modest manner, the latter characteristic in spite of O’Neil being a demonstrably consequential presence.
While his status on the field didn’t match the towering accomplishments of fellow Negro Leagues contemporaries such as Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, O’Neil, who played all but one year of his career with the Kansas City Monarchs, with which he won the Negro World Series as a first baseman in 1942, was significant to the progress of Blacks in baseball.
O’Neil managed the Monarchs from 1948 through 1955 and became the first Black coach in the major leagues in 1962 with the Chicago Cubs. However, he was minimized inarguably due to the color of his skin by the Cubs and never afforded the opportunity to serve as an in-game base coach.
Even before Sunday’s festivities, O’Neil’s legacy has long lived as a preeminent voice in Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary series on the history of baseball and in the the Negro League Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. O’Neil was its former chairman, and a representative of the museum informed me on Tuesday that preparations are ongoing in the development of the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center, an expansion project which will be located at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, where in 1920 Andrew “Rube” Foster founded the Negro Leagues.