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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.

Evan Gattis undergoes surgery for hernia; recovery is 4-6 weeks

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Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle shares the bad news

One of the Astros’ big bats won’t be taking hacks when the Astros hold their first full workout on Feb. 23.

Astros designated hitter Evan Gattis recently underwent surgery to repair a hernia, the Chronicle has learned, taking away most of his spring training at a minimum. The recovery is four to six weeks but fortunately for Gattis and the Astros, the injury is not considered severe.

Gattis was working hard on his overall conditioning this winter, even telling MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart in late January that he had already dropped 18 pounds. It sounds like the big slugger might have gone a bit overboard with those workouts, and now he is in real danger of missing the first couple weeks of the 2016 regular season.

Gattis batted .246/.285/.463 with 27 home runs and 88 RBI in 153 games last season for the Astros. The 29-year-old is arbitration-eligible for the first time in his career and has a hearing with the Astros scheduled for February 16 to determine his salary for 2016. He requested $3.8 million and was offered $3 million when figures were exchanged a little over three weeks ago.

Suddenly the Astros’ front office might have a new talking point for those arbitrators.

Seung-Hwan Oh finally receives his work visa, will be on time for Cardinals camp

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At last check, new Cardinals reliever Seung-Hwan Oh was still awaiting a work visa from the United States Embassy in South Korea and there was some worry that he might not be able to arrive on time to spring training in Jupiter, Florida.

But that is now officially a non-story.

Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Oh has recieved his work visa and is expected to report to Cardinals camp next week along with the rest of the club’s pitchers and catchers. Oh might even show up a bit earlier than the Cardinals originally asked him to, per Goold.

Oh saved 357 games in 11 seasons between Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korea Baseball Organization before inking a one-year contract with St. Louis this winter. He also registered a stellar 1.81 ERA and 772 strikeouts across 646 total innings in Asia, earning the nickname “The Final Boss.”

Oh is expected to work in a setup role this year for Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal.

John Lamb had back surgery in December, will likely get off to late start in 2016

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John Lamb was part of the Reds’ return package in last July’s Johnny Cueto trade and he had a strong showing at the Triple-A level in 2015. But the young left-hander posted a 5.80 ERA in a 10-start cup of coffee with Cincinnati late last season — his first 10 appearances as a major leaguer — and now comes word from MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon that Lamb will probably have to get off to a late start in 2016.

Lamb underwent surgery in December to repair a herniated disc in his back — a surgery that went unreported by the Reds until Tuesday afternoon. Reds manager Bryan Price acknowledged on MLB Network that Lamb is behind the team’s other starting pitchers and will likely open the coming season on the disabled list. The hope is that he might be ready by mid-April.

It’s a small but frustrating blow for a rebuilding Reds team that will be looking to establish some foundational pieces in 2016. Once he is recovered, Lamb will be expected to fill the Reds’ fifth rotation spot behind Raisel Iglesias, Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, and Michael Lorenzen.

This is going to be an ugly year for Cincinnati baseball fans.

Yu Darvish will report to spring training on time, hopes to begin mound work in March

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Rangers ace Yu Darvish missed the entire 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery last March 17. Most starting pitchers take 13-15 months to fully recover from that procedure, and the Rangers aren’t counting on Darvish until sometime this May.

His rehab so far has gone on without issue.

Darvish offered some very positive updates Tuesday to Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram …

Darvish, 29, boasts a 3.27 ERA and 1.196 WHIP in 83 career major league starts. He can also claim a whopping 680 strikeouts in 545 1/3 career major league innings.

Texas has him under contract for $10 million in 2016 and $11 million in 2017.