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.

Cespedes has 6 RBIs during Mets’ record 12-run inning vs SF

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NEW YORK — Yoenis Cespedes and the New York Mets broke loose for a team-record 12 runs in the third inning Friday night, rolling to their seventh straight victory with a 13-1 blowout of the San Francisco Giants.

Cespedes set a club mark with six RBIs in the inning, connecting for a two-run single off starter Jake Peavy (1-2) and a grand slam off reliever Mike Broadway that capped the outburst.

The early barrage made it an easy night for Steven Matz (3-1) in the opener of a three-game series between the last two NL champions. The left-hander tossed six shutout innings to win his third consecutive start.

Michael Conforto had an RBI double and a run-scoring single in the Mets third, which lasted 39 minutes, 47 seconds. He and Cespedes were two of the four players who scored twice. Asdrubal Cabrera greeted Broadway with a two-run double.

Marlins’ Conley pulled in 8th with no-hit bid, Brewers rally

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MILWAUKEE — Marlins lefty Adam Conley threw no-hit ball for 7 2/3 innings before being pulled by manager Don Mattingly after 116 pitches, and Miami’s bullpen wound up holding off the Milwaukee Brewers 6-3 Friday night.

Jonathan Lucroy blooped a single with one out in the ninth off reliever Jose Urena to break up the combo no-hit bid. The ball landed in right field just beyond the reach of diving second baseman Derek Dietrich.

Dietrich was playing in place of speedy Gold Glove winner Dee Gordon, who was suspended by Major League Baseball on Thursday night after a positive drug test.

The 25-year-old Conley (1-1) struck out seven and walked four. Urena replaced him.

The Brewers scored three times on four hits in the ninth. They loaded the bases before A.J. Ramos struck out Jonathan Villarfor his seventh save.

Earlier this month, Ross Stripling of the Dodgers threw no-hit ball for 7 1/3 innings against San Francisco in his major league debut and was taken out after 100 pitches.

Warren G just gave the worst performance of “Take me out the ballgame” ever

Warren G performs at the Warren G NYC Takeover album release party at the Highline Ballroom on Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)
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It was just over 22 years ago that “Regulate” was released. Amazing track. One of the best. At least according to me and all of the other 40-something white dudes who liked to act cooler than we really were in the 90s, which is all of us.

A lot has happened since then. Nate Dogg died (RIP). Other major figures of west coast hip hop turned into moguls or family friendly movie stars. Everyone’s older. But part of me wonders if any of them are still on the cutting edge in some way or another, either as performers or artists or just as a matter of their own personal stance. Sometimes I wonder if any of them, like so many other artists who came before them, can have a career renaissance in their 40s and 50s.

Maybe. But not Warren G. Man, seriously not Warren G.

 

Here’s to better times:

The Diamondbacks read mean tweets about their new uniforms

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Shelby Miller throws in the first inning against the San Diego Padres in a baseball game Saturday, April 16, 2016, in San Diego. Miller left the game in the second inning after he injured his throwing hand when his follow through hit the mound. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
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I’m on record as not being a big fan of the Diamondbacks’ many, many new uniforms. Not my cup of tea in either color or style, to be honest. I’ve even tweeted some negative things about them.

Thankfully, however, the Dbacks social media folks either didn’t see my tweets or didn’t take too much issue with them. They did with many other people’s, however, including some baseball writers I know. And then they read them and riffed on ’em.

Glad everyone has a sense of humor here.