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.

Shohei Otani may come to the United States after 2017

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Last week it was widely speculated that Shohei Otani, the highly-touted Japanese pitcher/designated hitter who stars for the Nippon Ham Fighters, would not come to the United States to play due to changes in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The upshot: the new CBA caps money available to international free agents under age 25 at $5-6 million and Otani, 22, would be worth way more than that, so why take the pay cut?

Now, however, Jeff Passan of Yahoo reports that the Fighters are set to post Shotei Otani following the 2017 season. Passan says that his sources have told him that there are potential ways around the limit on spending for under-25 players like Shohei Otani and he links a Japanese article from Sponichi which says the Fighters would post him after the 2017 season.

It’d be interesting to see what that loophole is. Without knowing the exact terms of the CBA on this score it’s impossible to know, but one possibility is that there are different rules applicable to those with professional experience in other countries as opposed to amateur free agents.

Whatever the case, the notion that we could see Otani in the U.S. at age 23 or 24 is pretty exciting.

Report: Phillies close to signing Joaquin Benoit

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 15:  Joaquin Benoit #53 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches during the seventh inning of a game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim  at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 15, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly reports that the Phillies are close to signing free agent reliever Joaquin Benoit. An announcement is expected before the winter meetings end on Thursday.

Benoit, 39, has quietly been among the better relievers in baseball over the past seven years. This past season with the Mariners and Blue Jays, the right-hander put up an aggregate 2.81 ERA with a 52/24 K/BB ratio in 48 innings. That included a 0.38 ERA in 23 2/3 innings after the Jays acquired him from the Mariners.

Benoit suffered a torn calf muscle during a benches-clearing brawl with the Yankees near the end of the regular season. He’s expected to be healthy for spring training.

The Phillies have now added three relievers this offseason with Benoit, Pat Neshek, and David Rollins.