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.

Ichiro was happy to see Pete Rose get defensive about his hits record

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 14:  Ichiro Suzuki #51 of the Miami Marlins warms-up during batting practice before a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on June 14, 2016 in San Diego, California.   (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
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You’ll recall the little controversy last month when Ichiro Suzuki passed Pete Rose’s hit total. Specifically, when Ichiro’s Japanese and American hit total reached Rose’s American total of 4,256 and a lot of people talked about Ichiro being the new “Hit King.” You’ll also recall that Rose himself got snippy about it, wondering if people would now think of him as “the Hit Queen,” which he took to be disrespect.

There’s a profile of Ichiro over at ESPN the Magazine and reporter Marly Rivera asked Ichiro about that. Ichiro’s comments were interesting and quite insightful about how ego and public perception work in the United States:

I was actually happy to see the Hit King get defensive. I kind of felt I was accepted. I heard that about five years ago Pete Rose did an interview, and he said that he wished that I could break that record. Obviously, this time around it was a different vibe. In the 16 years that I have been here, what I’ve noticed is that in America, when people feel like a person is below them, not just in numbers but in general, they will kind of talk you up. But then when you get up to the same level or maybe even higher, they get in attack mode; they are maybe not as supportive. I kind of felt that this time.

There’s a hell of a lot of truth to that. Whatever professional environment you’re in, you’ll see this play out. If you want to know how you’re doing, look at who your enemies and critics are. If they’re senior to you or better-established in your field, you’re probably doing something right. And they’re probably pretty insecure and maybe even a little afraid of you.

The rest of the article is well worth your time. Ichiro seems like a fascinating, insightful and intelligent dude.

There will be no criminal charges arising out of Curt Schilling’s video game debacle

Curt Schilling
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In 2012 Curt Schilling’s video game company, 38 Studios, delivered the fantasy role-playing game it had spent millions of dollars and countless man hours trying to deliver. And then the company folded, leaving both its employees and Rhode Island taxpayers, who underwrote much of the company’s operations via $75 million in loans, holding the bag.

The fallout to 38 Studios’ demise was more than what you see in your average business debacle. Rhode Island accused Schilling and his company of acts tantamount to fraud, claiming that it accepted tax dollars while withholding information about the true state of the company’s finances. Former employees, meanwhile, claimed — quite credibly, according to reports of the matter — that they too were lured to Rhode Island believing that their jobs were far more secure than they were. Many found themselves in extreme states of crisis when Schilling abruptly closed the company’s doors. For his part, Schilling has assailed Rhode Island politicians for using him as a scapegoat and a political punching bag in order to distract the public from their own misdeeds. There seems to be truth to everyone’s claims to some degree.

As a result of all of this, there have been several investigations and lawsuits into 38 Studios’ collapse. In 2012 the feds investigated the company and declined to bring charges. There is currently a civil lawsuit afoot and, alongside it, the State of Rhode Island has investigated for four years to see if anyone could be charged with a crime. Today there was an unexpected press conference in which it was revealed that, no, no one associated with 38 Studios will be charged with anything:

An eight-page explanation of the decision concluded by saying that “the quantity and qualify of the evidence of any criminal activity fell short of what would be necessary to prove any allegation beyond a reasonable doubt and as such the Rules of Professional Conduct precluded even offering a criminal charge for grand jury consideration.”

Schilling will likely crow about this on his various social media platforms, claiming it totally vindicates him. But, as he is a close watcher of any and all events related to Hillary Clinton, he no doubt knows that a long investigation resulting in a declination to file charges due to lack of evidence is not the same thing as a vindication. Bad judgment and poor management are still bad things, even if they’re not criminal matters.

Someone let me know if Schilling’s head explodes if and when someone points that out to him.