Thursday, February 23, 2006

Every Signature Tells a Story: Buck O'Neil, Hall of Famer?

I usually try to sneak a baseball adventure into work-related road trips, and this week I was visiting Kansas City. I might have bumped into the next addition to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Since the Royals are in Florida and I’ve already toured Kauffman Stadium when it was empty, we checked out the Negro League Baseball Museum, which is part of a rejuvenated historic district and shares space with a jazz museum.

The museum is pretty neat — long on information but short in artifacts. The marketing director said it’s still growing, having once been relegated to a small office.

The best part is a field with 12 life-sized, bronze statues of legendary players. Dave, the photographer accompanying me, noticed a television crew was setting up on the field, and it’s a reflex for print people to find out what such people are doing.

The marketing director said that Buck O’Neil would be down during the day for an interview, tied to the Monday vote on adding Negro League players to Cooperstown.

O’Neil, of course, is the guy who practically stole Ken Burn’s epic Baseball documentary in 1994 with his charm and wonderful stories.

Buck O'Neil didn't mind posing for photos.

I was standing in the lobby chatting on my cell with a school board member when an older gentleman wearing a Kansas City Monarchs jacket came into view. That call ended abruptly, and I walked into the gift shop and got the attention of the clerk.

"The gentleman walking this way, that’s Buck O’Neil, right?"

"Sure is!" the clerk said. "He loves signing autographs. Grab a ball off the shelf and get ready. You can pay for it later."

A very cool clerk.

O’Neil waked in with a great smile and started chatting with man and some fans from New York. He’s 94, but doesn’t look it. And the guy has the biggest hands I’ve ever seen.

He happily signed my ball and posed for a photo, and talked a little about the Hall of Fame. People in Kansas City are convinced he’ll be selected.

The former Negro League All-Star first-baseman and manager — and the first black coach in the majors — is among the 39 candidates being considered.

There are 18 Negro League players and executives in Cooperstown already, not counting legends like Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson who spent most of their careers in the majors.

But none have been selected since 2000, when the Hall decided it needed more research on the leagues and sent 50 historians digging for information.

I think O’Neil has a shot. Of the 39 people on the ballot, only he and Minnie Minoso are alive. And it’s more fun to have a party if the guest of honor is still alive and can make a speech on induction day. I think Minoso has been long over looked, but he belongs based on his career with the White Sox instead of anything done previously.

He’s certainly been a great ambassador for baseball. Everybody seemed to have a Buck O’Neil story.

The staff at the Kansas City visitors information office told he of how one day on O’Neil came out of the museum to find his car blocked by a tour bus. Rather than get angry, he boarded the bus and walked up and down the aisle shaking hands, signing autographs and telling stories.

I met him once before. Burns was hosting a press conference at the 1994 All-Star Game FanFest to talk about the documentary, which was coming out later that summer.

There were players assigned to sit with reporters at each table. I sat with former Dodgers pitcher Joe Black, who was impressed that I knew the proper way to pronounce the name of his Negro League team, the Elite Giants. You’re supposed to say e-LIGHT instead of e-LETE, should you ever be in such a situation.

"You’re the first white guy ever to say that right!" Black said. I took it as a compliment.

As we were sitting there, Burns walked in with O’Neil, who no one had heard of at the time. O’Neil went from table to table, shaking hands and introducing himself to every single person there.

Watching the documentary later, I said "Hey, that’s the guy!"


G-Fafif said...

Some men are Hall of Famers who don't require a plaque for confirmation. Buck O'Neil is first among them.

Mets Guy in Michigan said...

Well said!

I'm stunned that they enshrined 17 people, and neither O'Neil or Minoso were included.