Soul of Baseball

Remembering Buck O’Neil, Seven Years Later

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Seven years ago today, I was sitting in a conference room above the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City with my friend Buck O’Neil. It was the day that the Negro Leagues Special Committee was announcing who it had elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame … and it was widely assumed that Buck O’Neil would be one of those elected.

Maybe it should not have been widely assumed. The Hall of Fame case for Buck O’Neil is not a one-sentence exclamation. It is not “3,000 hits!” or “300 wins!” or “Hit in 56 straight games!” It is not simple or blunt or in-your-face. Buck’s case, like Buck’s life, is a patchwork quilt – he was a very good player (Negro Leagues batting champion in 1946), a very good manager (managed the dominant Kansas City Monarchs), a legendary scout (scouts, so far, are not elected to the Hall of Fame), the first black coach in the Major Leagues (for the Chicago Cubs), a joyous presence in the game (Ernie Banks said he learned “Let’s play two” from Buck O’Neil), the leading force in building the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, an unmatched baseball storyteller and a tireless champion of the Negro Leagues and the game of baseball. It is a Hall of Fame case that, from above, seems breathtakingly simple and powerful and undeniable – he profoundly impacted the game of baseball like few who ever lived. The game, without him, would be so much less.

You have to see the whole thing, though.

Point is, most people seemed to think Buck was going to be elected, and, yes, Buck too thought he was going to be elected. He sat in the conference room waiting for the good word, and reporters waited at the museum for Buck to come out and regale them with stories. When word came through that seventeen people – all of them long dead – had been elected, but Buck had not, I was looking right in his eyes. His face showed no emotion at all.

“Oh well,” he said, a little bit too quickly. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

At the time, I was working on my book, “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.” I had been traveling the country with Buck for a year and watching how people responded to him, watching how much joy he passed on, watching how he simply let go of his bitterness, all of it, let it go and replaced it with good feelings and hope.

I admit, I was like most others. I thought, for sure, he was going to the Hall of Fame. Heck, I’d been told by someone who would know that one of the big reasons the Negro Leagues Special Committee had been put together was to honor Buck. I had expected this moment to would be the big ending for the book. I could imagine the movie scene (with Morgan Freeman as Buck). Sweeping music plays, and Buck gets the word that after all these years – after living a baseball life on the margins – he was going to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

And instead, Buck sat there and tried hard not to look disappointed. He was hurt. I know that. But he was not going to show that. This was a grandson of a slave, a man who was not allowed to attend Sarasota High School because of the color of his skin, a man who could not play in the Major Leagues, a man who never got to manage in the Major Leagues, a man who – even as Cubs coach – never got to coach at either first or third base. This was a man who had seen some of the worst of 20th Century America, who wore a grass skirt and put on war paint just so he could play ball, a man who told me that once his wife was in a department store, and she touched a hat. They made her buy it. That was the rule – if a black woman touched a hat, she had to buy it.

“So degrading,” he said. “So degrading.”

He had never let any of that make him hate … or lose faith … or give up hope on people. What was the Hall of Fame compared to those things?

“Let me ask you something,” he said after a long silence. “Who do you think will speak for the 17?”

“What do you mean?”

“At Cooperstown,” he said. “Who will speak on behalf of the 17 who go into the Hall of Fame?”

“I don’t know Buck. What difference does it make?”

“Well,” Buck said. “Do you think they’ll ask me?”

I looked at him then to see if he was serious. He was serious. It didn’t make sense at first.. I was angry for him. I was hurt for him. I was furious at the committee for not seeing Buck O’Neil from a high enough elevation. I was furious at the Hall of Fame and all of us for building up his hopes. In the moment, I honestly did not care who spoke for the 17 who were elected.

“You would do that?” I asked Buck. He smiled a little bit.

“Son,” he said. “What’s my life been all about?”

And he did speak for them. It was his last national public appearance … he spoke in front of the Hall of Fame on behalf of 17 people who had made the Negro Leagues robust and alive. And then, he led everyone who had gathered in Cooperstown in song. His favorite song.

The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you.

The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you.

The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you.

The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you.

That was the better ending, of course.  He died about two and a half months later. The last time I saw him in the hospital, he told me that he felt loved. Well, sure, he was loved.

Jake Diekman will miss at least half of the 2017 season

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 9: Jake Diekman #41 of the Texas Rangers works against the Toronto Blue Jays in the sixth inning during game three of the American League Division Series at Rogers Centre on October 9, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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Rangers reliever Jake Diekman will have surgery on January 25 to help alleviate ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. As a result, the lefty will miss at least half of the 2017 regular season, Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports. Diekman was diagnosed with the illness when he was 11 years old. He has brought awareness to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America with a “Gut It Out” campaign.

Diekman, who turns 30 years old on Saturday, finished the 2016 campaign with a 3.40 ERA and a 59/26 K/BB ratio in 53 innings. He came to the Rangers from the Phillies in the Cole Hamels trade on July 31, 2015.

The Rangers and Diekman avoided arbitration last Friday, agreeing to a $2.55 million salary for the 2017 season.

The Blue Jays and Bautista have reached a one year deal

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 19:  Jose Bautista #19 of the Toronto Blue Jays looks on during batting practice prior to game five of the American League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians at Rogers Centre on October 19, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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It’s been on the verge of happening for a few days now, but now it’s official: the Toronto Blue Jays and Jose Bautista have reached a one-year deal with a mutual option. The deal is pending physical. An announcement making the deal official is expected later in week.

The exact financial figures have not been disclosed, but Jon Heyman reports that it will be in excess of the $17.2 million Bautista turned down when he turned down the Jays’ qualifying offer.

Bautista had a tough 2016, hitting .234/.366/.452 with 22 home runs and 69 RBI, and some clubs likely considered a long-term deal for the 36-year-old too risky, this leading to the relative lack of reported interest in Bautista by other clubs. But back-to-back ALCS appearances by the Jays and the success and popularity Bautista has experienced in Toronto make his re-signing there a pretty sensible move for all involved.