John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil (1911–2006) loved baseball, and immersed himself in the game from age 12 to 94. A standout Negro League player and two-time batting champion, O'Neil went on to become the first black manager of a major league team.
As a scout, O'Neil was responsible for recruiting such Hall of Fame players as Lou Brock and Ernie Banks, and a tireless spokesman for the history of Negro League baseball. For all his efforts, O'Neil came to be considered an "architect" of the game, as Brock described him in the Columbia Daily Tribune . "He helped shape the game. But even greater, he shaped the character of young black men. He touched the heart of everyone who loved the game." He was "perhaps the greatest ambassador baseball has ever known," in the words of Jane Forbes Clark, chairperson of the Baseball Hall of Fame, as quoted in Sporting News .
Discovered Baseball at Early Age
John Jordan O'Neil was born on November 13, 1911, in Carrabelle, Florida. He was the second of three children born to John Sr., a sawmill worker, and Luella, a restaurant manager. The family moved to Sarasota in 1923. It was there that O'Neil received his first taste of professional baseball. As a 12-year-old, O'Neil began his semi-professional career as a member of the Sarasota Tigers and traveled throughout Florida. He took his nickname from Miami Giants semi-pro team co-owner Buck O'Neal. To support himself, he shined shoes and worked as a box boy. O'Neil related a pivotal moment in his life to Steve Wulf of Sports Illustrated , "I was considered a good box boy because, while most of the box boys could only carry two crates at a time, I was big and strong enough to carry four. I did that for about three years, at $1.25 a day. One day I was having lunch by myself next to a big stack of boxes, and it was so hot, I said out loud, 'Damn, there has got to be something better than this.'" That "something," O'Neil decided, was baseball.
Following completion of the eighth grade, O'Neil wanted to continue his education. Because of his skin color, however, he was not admitted to the high school in Sarasota. O'Neil was eventually able to obtain his high school diploma and earned a baseball and football scholarship to Edward Waters College in Jacksonville. He completed two years of college before leaving school to play baseball in 1934.
Played, Managed, Scouted in the Negro League
From 1934 to 1938 O'Neil played on various teams, including the Miami Giants, New York Tigers, and the Shreveport Acme Giants. In 1937 he signed with the Memphis Red Sox, earning $100 per month. That same year, he played for one month with the Zulu Cannibal Giants, a barnstorming team. The Giants, owned by Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein, wore straw skirts instead of uniforms, but the team paid well and the players didn't have to wear war paint as some "African-themed" teams did. In 1938, after four years of moving from team to team, O'Neil earned a spot as the first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the elite teams of the Negro Leagues.
From 1939 to 1942, Kansas City won four consecutive Negro American League pennants. O'Neil told Sports Illustrated about the glory years of the Monarchs: "We were like the New York Yankees. We had that winning tradition, and we were proud. We had a strict dress code—coat and tie, no baseball jackets. We stayed in the best hotels in the world. They just happened to be owned by black people. We ate in the best restaurants in the world. They just happened to be run by blacks. And when we were in Kansas City, well, 18th and Vine was the center of the universe. We'd come to breakfast at Street's Hotel, and there might be Count Basie or Joe Louis or Billie Holiday or Lionel Hampton."
In 1942, O'Neil led the Monarchs to a four-game sweep of the Homestead Grays in the Negro World Series, hitting .353. He won batting titles in 1940 and 1946, hitting .345 and .350 respectively. O'Neil was also named to the West team of the East-West All-Star Classic in 1942, 1943, and 1949 and was a member of Satchel Paige's All Stars. Paige's team, made up of Negro League stars, played a team of white major league players known as Bob Feller's All Stars in a 14-game barnstorming series in 1946. O'Neil remembered that the players who performed in those exhibitions had a mutual respect for the abilities of their opponents. The Negro League All Stars won the majority of the games played.
In 1944, with the United States deeply involved in World War II, O'Neil enlisted for a two-year stint with the U.S. Navy. He was stationed at Subic Bay in the Philippines and worked as a bosun loading and unloading ships. Although he was proud to serve his country, O'Neil regretted the fact that he was not a member of the Monarchs in 1945. That was the year that Jackie Robinson played in Kansas City before signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Following the end of World War II, O'Neil returned to the Monarchs in 1946. He won the batting title that year and also married Memphis schoolteacher Ora Lee Owen. In 1948, O'Neil was named player-manager of the Monarchs. He led Kansas City to league pennants in 1948, 1950, 1951, and 1953 and two Negro World Series titles. Alfred "Slick" Surratt, who played outfield for O'Neil, told Mark Goodman of People Weekly about O'Neil's managerial style: "He knew what it took to win a ball game, and he gave you confidence in yourself. After every game, when we got on the bus, he'd go over the game with us, whether we'd won or lost."
O'Neil left the Monarchs in 1956 to become a scout for the Chicago Cubs. He traveled throughout the South searching for talented African American baseball players. He is credited with bringing formidable talents such as Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Oscar Gamble, Lee Smith, and Joe Carter to the Cubs. In 1962, O'Neil made history by becoming the first African-American coach in the major leagues. Although he had broken through an important barrier, O'Neil eventually realized that the Cubs were not interested in making him a big-league manager and returned to scouting. He remained with the Cubs until 1988, capping a 33-year career with the organization. He returned to Kansas City the following year and joined the Kansas City Royals as a scout, which he would do until his death.
Championed Negro League History
In 1990, O'Neil began raising money for a museum to preserve and celebrate the history of the Negro Leagues. O'Neil was adamant about the need to preserve memories of the Negro Leagues: "It's very important that we know our history. We have to do that … this is not a sad story. It's a celebration!" he said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette . His efforts led to the opening of the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. As a co-founder of the museum and one of the most articulate and engaging spokesman for the Negro Leagues, O'Neil began to appear regularly on radio and television programs. In 1994, he was featured prominently on Ken Burns's PBS documentary "Baseball." O'Neil was a key contributor to the segment entitled "Shadow Ball," which chronicled the greatness of the Negro Leagues, but also the pain of discrimination and exclusion from the major leagues. Burns, who won international acclaim for his 1990 documentary about the Civil War, told People Weekly's Goodman about O'Neil's contribution to the nine-part series: "He's the conscience of the program. Because of his dignity, his lack of bitterness and his sense of humor, Buck makes a wonderful ambassador for the game." Although the "Baseball" series was not as well-received as Burns's Civil War documentary, O'Neil's appearance made him a media celebrity.
In 1996, O'Neil published his autobiography I Was Right on Time: My Journey From the Negro Leagues to the Majors with Sports Illustrated editor Steve Wulf and David Conrads. In the late 1990s O'Neil remained active in the Royals organization, served as the chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Board of the Directors, and was a member of the Veterans' Committee of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He worked as a spokesman to secure pensions for surviving Negro League players and to preserve the history of the Negro Leagues. He told Dave Kindred of The Sporting News that Negro League baseball was not the clowning, barnstorming jumble commonly portrayed in movies such as The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings . "Negro League baseball wasn't anything like that. It was like the white major leagues, serious baseball, well organized. There were 16 Negro League ball clubs, each with at least 15 players—the Monarchs had 18 players. There were all those people putting on the games, booking agents, traveling secretaries, trainers. Baseball was black entertainment and was important to black communities."
In February 2006, O'Neil was among the nominees to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but he fell one vote short. His fans rallied and promised to make amends for what they perceived to be an error in judgment. Yet O'Neil took the news in stride. "Shed no tears for Buck," O'Neil announced to his fans after hearing the news, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette . He pointed to past sorrows caused by racial discrimination that kept him from gaining the education he wanted, admitting "That hurt." From his perspective, he explained "not going into the Hall of Fame, that ain't going to hurt me that much, no." O'Neil bore no grudge. He hosted the induction ceremony in Cooperstown with characteristic charm and grace. He then spent the summer continuing his promotion of baseball, traveling to functions in several states. In July, at age 94, O'Neil became the oldest man to play professional baseball when he stepped up to bat twice at the Northern League All-Star game. Shortly thereafter, O'Neil succumbed to fatigue, spending periods in the hospital. He never regained his strength; he died in Kansas City, Missouri, on October 6, 2006. Buck O'Neil will be remembered as one of the finest players in the Negro Leagues and a legend in the game of baseball. Through his willingness to share his memories of the Negro Leagues, fans everywhere have a greater understanding and deeper appreciation for a significant period in baseball history. To honor his legacy, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum began raising money to open the John "Buck" O'Neil Education and Research Center in Kansas City. He may yet be honored by the Hall of Fame, which had begun to reconsider O'Neil's exclusion from its halls after his death. Despite any posthumous honors, O'Neil's contributions to the game had already made him, as Major League Baseball columnist Mike Bauman called him: "a baseball immortal."
Wheelock, Sean D. Buck O'Neil: Baseball Legend , Amereon, 1997.
Chicago Tribune , October 8, 2006.
Columbia Daily Tribune , October 15, 2006.
New York Times , October 8, 2006.
People Weekly , September 26, 1994.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette , October 7, 2006.
Sports Illustrated , September 19, 1994.
Sporting News , September 5, 1994; October 27, 2006.
Missouri Sports Hall of Fame , www.mosportshalloffame.com/boneil.htm (January 11, 2007).
"O'Neil Bigger than Game Itself," Major League Baseball , http://kansascity.royals.mlb.com/NASApp/mlb/news/article_perspectives.jsp? md=20060929&content_id=1689281&vkey=perspectives&fext .jsp (November 6, 2006).
Burns, Ken, Baseball (television documentary), PBS, 1994.