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.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Mets 6, Nationals 1: Max Scherzer tossed six shutout innings and the pen blanked the Nats in the seventh, but Washington clung to only a 1-0 lead thanks to an almost-as-good start from Jacob deGrom. In the eighth, Dave Martinez called on Kyle Barraclough to hold things down. He got two out but also put two runners on, so Martinez called on Sean Doolittle to get a four-out save in a tight game. Tough order, but Doolittle’s good. Usually.

Doolittle hit the first batter he faced to load the bases, gave up a bases-clearing double to Juan Lagares, intentionally walked a guy and then gave up a three-run jack to Rajai Davis. The best part: Davis was just called up the Mets mere hours before. Hell, he had already taken batting practice for Syracuse, who was playing at Lehigh Valley. He took an Uber to New York, got there by the third inning, got lost and was finally suited up not long before entering the game as a pinch hitter.

As I wrote once upon a time, an essential part of living life is dealing with stuff when you’re basically unprepared. When you’re just thrown into a situation for which you didn’t have time or opportunity to gear up. Here’s a salute to Rajai Davis, who may not have been prepared to face a big league pitcher in a big league stadium when he woke up yesterday morning but who rose to the occasion because, really, what else can you do?

Cubs 8, Phillies 4: Cole Hamels took on the Phillies for the first time but, more importantly, he took on Cole Irvin in what I’m going to assume was a “Highlander” situation. Hamels didn’t pitch that well or get the win but he did a lot better than Irvin, so I assume Irvin’s head was cut off. There can only be one.  Albert Almora Jr. hit a three-run homer to help the Cubs get out of an early hole. Let’s call it a Cole hole.

[Ed. — Let’s not]

White Sox 9, Astros 4: Not a great night for Coles. The White Sox beat up on Cole, Gerrit for six runs on seven hits. Eloy Jiménez hit two homers in this one and the Chisox even turned a triple play. A good one, too! Around-the-horn, bang-bang-bang, not one of those janky “baserunner screwed up and stood in the baseline as a guy caught a pop fly, stepped on the bag, and tagged out the confused runner” things. Watch:

Brewers 11, Reds 9: Zach Davies, with a 1.54 ERA, faced off against Luis Castillo, owner of a 1.90 ERA. So naturally 20 runs were scored. The Reds led 6-1 and blew it, then led 8-6 and blew it before the Brewers pulled away. The 8-6 lead went away when Yasmani Grandal hit a two-run homer to tie it. He also started a double play when, with the bases loaded, a strikeout pitch got past him but ricocheted right back to him. The guy on first took off but no one else did because they saw the ricochet. Grandal threw down to first to retire the struck out batter then the Brewers got the baserunner out in a rundown. Just how they drew it up.

Yankees 7, Orioles 5: The Bombers hit five more homers against an Orioles pitching staff that is going to do some ghastly things to the record books before this season is out. Thairo Estrada, D.J. LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres went deep in the first three innings go give New York a 5-0 lead. Gary Sánchez homered in the fourth to make it 6-1 and Torres homered again in the fifth to make it 7-2. Sánchez has homered in three straight games. Torres has 12 homers on the year. Ten of them have come against the Orioles.

Red Sox 6, Blue Jays 5: This thirteen-inning game ended twenty minutes before midnight. Today they get started at 12:37PM. Look for some super crisp play from the Sox and Jays today! Here Michael Chavis hit a tiebreaking homer in the 13th inning to give Boston the win. Rafael Devers homered earlier for his third blast in as many games. That gave Boston a lead that Marcus Walden could not hold thanks to a ninth inning rally from Toronto that made everyone stay up late. Meanwhile, Craig Kimbrel was, I imagine, tucked into bed back wherever he calls home and will be a fresh as a daisy this morning.

Athletics 7, Indians 2: Jefry Rodríguez didn’t fool A’s batters, who touched him for five runs in four innings while Frankie Montas blanked the tribe for six while striking out nine. Mark Canha homered and drove in three and Nick Hundley on a three-hit day as the A’s won their sixth game in a row and took their 10th of 14 overall.

Royals 8, Cardinals 2; Cardinals 10, Royals 3: New rule idea: when teams split a doubleheader the team which outscores the other in the aggregate gets some sort of bonus in the standings. So, here, since the Cards “beat” the Royals 12-11, each team gets one win and the Cards get, um, a point on top. Wait, that would require some sort of hockey-style points system too. OK, we can work with that. It might require some more changes. Like, when you lose a getaway day game in under two and a half hours, you lose a point as a “phoning it in tax.” There are all kinds of variations we can come up with here. Let’s blow this dang game up!

Oh, here: Brad Keller tossed two-hit, two-run baseball and the Royals — boosted by a Jorge Soler three-run homer — beat up on Michael Wacha in the first game. In the second game Homer Bailey got shelled, failing to make it out of the second inning, while Marcell Ozuna, Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler and Kolton Wong all went deep. Adam Wainwright was shaky but John GantAndrew MillerCarlos Martinez and John Brebbia combined for four innings of scoreless relief to disabuse Kansas City of any notions of a comeback.

Rockies 9, Pirates 3: For the second time in a couple of weeks Josh Bell hit a homer into the Allegheny River on the fly. That was nice but, at least until my points-system rules changes come into effect which would provide Bell a “cool factor” bonus, it was just a solo shot. Meanwhile, Rockies batters Daniel Murphy and Tony Wolters each hit three-run homers in the early going. Rockies starter Jon Gray allowed three runs and seven hits with seven strikeouts in seven innings. One of those strikeouts was of Bell, on three pitches no less, in his next plate appearance after the splash homer. That would take a half point away, by the way.

Rangers 2, Mariners 1: The sweep. And the seventh win in eight games for Texas. Hunter Pence homered. Seattle is now in last place where most people expected them to be. That opening series in Japan seems like a thousand years ago.

Padres 5, Diamondbacks 2: Eric Lauer allowed one run on four hits over seven frames Eric Hosmer drove in a couple. Kirby Yates got his 20th save of the year. That’s a 65-save pace for a team that’s just above .500.

Rays 8, Dodgers 1: A couple of solo homers had this one tied at one entering the bottom of the seventh, with Dylan Floro taking over for the Dodgers to start the inning. He hit guy, gave up two straight singles, then a homer and just like that L.A. was down 5-1. The homer — a three-run shot — came from Avisail García and chased Floro. Caleb Ferguson then came in, walked a guy, struck out two, then hit a guy and surrendered a three-run bomb to Kevin Kiermaier. Not what you want out of your bullpen.

Marlins 6, Tigers 3: The Marlins were down 3-0 entering the sixth before coming back. Brian Anderson hit a two-run shot for Miami, Neil Walker doubled in a couple and Garrett Cooper hit his first career homer to power the comeback. That’s five straight wins for the Fish. Eight straight losses for the Tigers, whose early season friskiness has long since passed.

Braves 9, Giants 2: Jeff Samardzija allowed six unearned runs but, as we said the other day, not all unearned runs are created equally. He put a couple of guys on and the would-be out number three of the inning was postponed due to an error, but before it was finally recorded he gave up a run on a wild pitch and coughed up homers to Dansby Swanson and Freddie Freeman. So, yeah, take that “unearned” stuff with a grain of salt. The Giants couldn’t do much against Max Fried, who allowed two over six, and nothing against the Atlanta pen which tossed two shutout innings.

Twins vs. Angels — POSTPONED:

Got on board a westbound seven forty-seven
Didn’t think before deciding what to do
Oh, that talk of opportunities, TV breaks and movies
Rang true, sure rang true
Seems it never rains in southern California
Seems I’ve often heard that kind of talk before
It never rains in California, but girl, don’t they warn ya?
It pours, man, it pours