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On Buck O’Neil and Jackie Robinson

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I told a version this story in “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America,” which is about my year of traveling around the country with the great Buck O’Neil, Negro Leagues player and manager, brilliant scout for the Cubs, the first African American coach in Major League Baseball and the living memory of the Negro Leagues for generations of people who could barely imagine an America where African Americans were banned from the Major Leagues.

* * *

We were in New York in the summertime. It was hot. One thing I remember about all those trips with Buck was how hot it was just about everywhere we went. It was hot in Houston. It was hot in Atlanta. It was hot in Chicago and in Washington. And it was hot in New York.

We woke up early and rode into the city for a morning radio interview. There was an easy pace and rhythm to Buck’s interviews. Everyone, more or less, asked the same questions. What was it like? Can you tell us about Satchel Paige? Was Josh Gibson as good as people say? How good was Jackie Robinson? Who is your favorite player now? What do you make of steroids in baseball? Do you think the game is as much fun as it used to be? Why aren’t more young African Americans playing the sport? And so on. There were rarely surprises, because they were unnecessary. Buck made such good radio and television. His voice was musical. His stories were like great songs — people would just want to hear them over and over again.

For instance, Buck had a story he told many, many times about Jackie Robinson — a story that had been told to him by his good friend Hilton Smith (Buck was at war when Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs and so did not witness it). A version of the story actually made it into the new movie “42.” When Jackie Robinson played with the Kansas City Monarchs, the team was riding through Oklahoma and pulled into a familiar gas station. Everybody piled out and stretched, and Jackie Robinson headed for the bathroom. It was a white only bathroom.

“Where do you think you’re going, boy?” the gas station owner said. “You know you can’t go in there.”

Robinson braced himself. How many battles like this would he fight in his remarkable life? He turned to the man and said, “Pull the hose out of the tank.” The man glared back, and Buck knew exactly what that man was thinking (This was Buck’s great gift — he empathized with everyone, even the racists who haunted his life). The man was thinking that this bus had a huge tank on the left side and another huge tank on the right side. The man was thinking that he was a gas station owner in a small Oklahoma town and he wasn’t going to see a vehicle needing this much gas for a long time — maybe forever. The man was thinking that this bus came through every few weeks, a steady customer, and he needed the business.

The man was thinking that the whites-only bathroom didn’t seem too sensible a policy, considering the circumstances.

“All right go on in there,” the man said, and then, to maintain some illusion of control he barked, “But make it fast.”

“Jackie wasn’t built the way we were,” Buck would say. “We were conditioned to segregation. We were conditioned to Jim Crow. We knew it wasn’t right, but we saw it as unchangeable part of the world. Jackie didn’t see it that way. Jackie knew the times would change. He would make them change.”

And then Buck would smile really big and say: “Thank you Jackie.”

When we arrived at the building in New York that day, there were a couple of security guards sitting behind a desk and looking at a wall of little monitors. One of them recognized Buck and asked, “What are you doing here?” Buck, explained that he was there to do a show called “Star and something or other.”

The man’s face fell. “Star and Buc Wild?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said Bob Kendrick, now president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum who was along for this trip and most of the other ones we made. The guard looked utterly crestfallen and then he said something I will never forget. He said: “Please don’t do that show, Mr. O’Neil. You are a gentleman. Please don’t do that show.”

The guard explained that the show was a shock jock thing — wilder and crazier than Howard Stern. He was getting frantic. “They talk ignorance on that show,” he said. Buck looked at the man and smiled. He was almost 94 years old. He had seen plenty of ignorance. He had never allowed that ignorance to overwhelm his good will. But he was also touched by the man’s concern for him. He put his hand on the man’s shoulder and said, “Ignorance, eh? Well, we’ll see if we can talk some common sense with those guys, eh?’

I won’t relive the fullness of the interview here. It’s in the book. All you really need to know is that fairly early in the interview — after Buck was introduced to a sidekick called “White Trash” — a question came zinging in: “Jackie Robinson was a sellout, am I right?”

What followed seemed to go in slow motion. Again and again and again — for what seemed like hours — there was question after question about Jackie Robinson being a sellout for abandoning the Negro Leagues and going to play with white players. Buck was bewildered. At one point, he went into his bit about how important Jackie Robinson was:

“When Jackie Robinson went to the Major Leagues, that was the beginning of the modern-day civil rights movement. That was before Rosa Parks said, ‘I don’t feel like going to the back of the damn bus today.’ That was before Brown vs. Board of Education. Martin Luther King was a sophomore at Morehouse College at the time. Jackie Robinson went to the Major Leagues and that’s what started the ball rolling. That was the start, man! Are you listening.”

The argument raged on for another full segment and it grew nastier and more intense. I don’t know what it sounded like on the radio. For me, watching my friend, it was heartbreaking.

When it ended, we went into the city — Buck had a lot more to do. The rest of the interviews went off without any surprises — everything seemed back in rhythm. But not quite. That morning interview had taken much of the life out of Buck. You have to understand, Buck was more joyous, more filled with life, more filled with hope than anybody I ever knew. By that time that day ended, Buck was as tired and deflated as I ever saw him. He was a man who cherished the two meals a day he allowed himself — always ate dessert — but when we got to the hotel he announced he was too tired to eat. He was going to his room to sleep.

And then as we walked toward the hotel, we saw a woman in a red dress. As I have written many times, this wasn’t any ordinary red dress. It was bright red, fire red, lipstick red. a Marilyn Monroe red dress. It was a Broadway show all in itself. As I walked into the hotel, I turned to Buck to ask him what he thought … only he was gone.

I looked around. Did he slip into the bathroom? Did he sneak upstairs without me? Did he stay in the car? There was a moment confusion and then, only then, did I look out the glass revolving door. And there was Buck, talking with the woman in the red dress. Well, they were laughing mostly. Talking and laughing. And hugging also, yes. Talking and laughing and hugging. Then a man came over — her husband maybe? Her boyfriend? Buck started talking with him. Talking and laughing. Talking and laughing and hugging. They were probably out there for 10 minutes, all of them, complete strangers, only not strangers at all.

When Buck returned to the hotel, he announced in his loud and happy voice: “Let’s get some dinner!” He was reborn. He practically bounced toward the hotel restaurant when suddenly he stopped. He turned to me. He said, “Let me ask you something. Did you see that woman in the red dress?”

I nodded.

And he shook his head and he said this: “Son, in this life, you don’t ever walk by a red dress.”

I’ve told that story hundreds of times by now — to me, it summed up Buck O’Neil. The “red dress” wasn’t really a red dress. It represented the joys of life. Buck never walked by a baby without having it grab his finger. He never walked by a friendly face without asking a question like “Do you remember your first day of school?” He never walked by a worker without asking how the day was going. He never stood in an elevator without striking a conversation. He never passed up a chance for a hug, or a smile, a slice of cake, a scoop of ice cream or a chance to learn something new.

I once asked Buck if he could have been the first black man play in the Major Leagues. He said no. He said that task needed someone extraordinary, someone fierce, someone who would not stand for injustice, someone who would not bend to ease of inaction or the force of hatred. I said, “You could have done it.” He said, “No, that was for Jackie. I had a different role.”

And as I tell this story one time I realize something: I have never once said whether the woman wearing the red dress was white or black. And the honest truth is, after all the years, I don’t remember.

The Mets are among six teams that help Dominican prospects earn high school diplomas

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - APRIL 19:  A detailed view of the blackboard with theoretical physics equations in chalk by Alberto Ramos, Theoretical Physics Fellow and visitor, Antonio Gonzalez-Arroyo from the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid (both not in frame) at The European Organization for Nuclear Research commonly know as CERN on April 19, 2016 in Geneva, Switzerland.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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In a special for USA TODAY Sports, Mike Vorkunov details how six teams — the Mets in particular — provide an education program that helps their Dominican prospects earn high school diplomas. It seems like an obvious win-win: smarter players make smarter decisions, making them more likely to achieve their potential as athletes. That, of course, requires spending money, which is why only six teams make the investment. For the players, if baseball doesn’t work out, they are better able to support themselves in other ways.

Vorkunov lists the Pirates, Tigers, Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Mariners as the other teams who provide an education program for their Dominican prospects. We learned earlier this month that the Phillies were also investing in making sure their minor leaguers eat healthy. As Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “few teams” supply their minor league players with healthy food options.

Juan Henderson, the head of the Mets’ Dominican academy, said, “We see the benefit of it. I gotta tell you, we’re working with a new generation of baseball players. You see in the past that players just carry a bat and a glove and a helmet on the baseball field and in the academy. Those years, I think, are going to be pretty much over. Now they also do that, but they also carry books, they also carry an iPad, they also carry a laptop.”

Kudos to the six teams for making a great decision and here’s hoping the other 24 teams follow suit.

Video: Albert Pujols hits 569th career home run, tying Rafael Palmeiro

ANAHEIM, CA - MAY 22:  Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim returns to the dugout after scoring in the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on May 22, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Angels first baseman Albert Pujols cranked out a two-run home run in the third inning against Rangers starter Derek Holland, breaking a scoreless tie. It’s the ninth homer of the season for Pujols and the 569th of his career, putting him into a tie with Rafael Palmeiro for 12th on baseball’s all-time home run leaderboard.

Harmon Killebrew is Pujols’ next target at 573, followed by Mark McGwire at 583 and Frank Robinson at 586.

Pujols hadn’t homered since May 13. He entered Monday night hitting a mediocre .228/.309/.395 with eight home runs and 28 RBI in 188 plate appearances.

Alex Gordon to miss three to four weeks with a fractured scaphoid bone

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 22:  Alex Gordon #4 and Mike Moustakas #8 of the Kansas City Royals collide going for a foul ball against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field on May 22, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The White Sox defeated the Royals 3-2.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Monday has unfortunately been a day of injury news. Royals outfielder Alex Gordon is the latest to hit the 15-day disabled list, as he has been diagnosed with a fractured scaphoid bone in his right wrist. The club has recalled infielder Cheslor Cuthbert from Triple-A Omaha.

Gordon suffered the injury colliding with third baseman Mike Moustakas attempting to catch a fly ball on Sunday afternoon. He is expected to miss three to four weeks, MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan reports.

Gordon was having a tough 2016 campaign and the injury only makes it worse. He’s hitting .211/.319/.331 with four home runs and 10 RBI in 166 plate appearances on the year.

The Royals will likely use Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando in left field in Gordon’s absence.

Orioles trade reliever Brian Matusz to the Braves

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 17:  Brian Matusz #17 of the Baltimore Orioles pitches against the Seattle Mariners during the fifth inning on May 17, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The Orioles announced on Monday night that the club has traded reliever Brian Matusz to the Braves in exchange for minor league pitchers Brandon Barker and Trevor Belicek. The Braves are also receiving a Competitive Balance Round B pick (76th overall) in the 2016 draft.

Matusz, 29, made his season debut on April 23 after battling a back injury since early March. It’s been a struggle, as the lefty has yielded eight runs on 11 hits and seven walks with just one strikeout in six innings. He is earning $3.9 million and can become a free agent after the season.

MLB.com’s Mark Bowman reports that the Braves are expected to designate Matusz for assignment. Essentially, the Braves bought the draft pick for Matusz’s remaining salary of $3 million of $3.9 million total.

Barker, 23, has been pitching at Double-A Mississippi after getting a taste of Triple-A last year. So far this season, the right-hander has a 2.00 ERA with a 40/12 K/BB ratio in 45 innings spanning eight starts and a relief appearance.

Belicek, a 23-year-old left-hander, has spent most of the year with Single-A Rome, compiling a 2.49 ERA with a 29/1 K/BB ratio in 25 1/3 innings over 11 relief appearances.