O'Neil a black baseball commodity

O'Neil a precious commodity

KANSAS CITY -- Not many of his contemporaries from the heyday of black baseball remain alive, which makes 94-year-old Buck O'Neil a precious commodity in a world that loses more of these pioneers each day.

O'Neil lived through the segregation and the integration of the game, and in all, he's put more than 70 years of himself into baseball. He's done so absent regrets.

"I enjoyed playing baseball," he said. "To make your living doing something you'd do for nothing, you can't beat that. ... It was something I really liked doing."

Now, O'Neil, honorary chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, is the game's senior ambassador. He will preach the gospel of baseball and spin yarns about the Negro Leagues to anybody who bothers to listen. They can only see in O'Neil a national treasure, although he's too modest to admit as much.

Others have said it for him, and they have nominated O'Neil for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. O'Neil's contributions to the game have made him one of 39 players and Negro Leagues officials whose names landed on the ballot, which a 12-member panel of baseball experts will consider for induction.

The panel will announce its decision Feb. 27 in Tampa, and with any luck, O'Neil will hear his name called. He's done much in the game to earn induction -- both as a player, a coach, a manager, a scout and an ambassador for the sport. Let him tell it, he's just flattered to be on the ballot.

"Oh man, it felt good," he said. "It felt good. But I figured I'd be on the list."

To not have O'Neil on the ballot would have done the ballot an injustice. Not that O'Neil is a surefire inductee, because he might not be. The list includes stars from black baseball who were overlooked the first time the Hall opened its doors in the 1970s to players from the Negro Leagues, a league filled with American history.

"The only reason we had the Negro Leagues in the first place was because we couldn't play in the Major Leagues," O'Neil said.

But after Jackie Robinson opened the Major Leagues to black players in 1947, the Negro Leagues became a casualty of progress. Sure, the leagues lingered on for a decade or so more, but what had been a hallowed institution gave way to change, and players like O'Neil had to change with the times.

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He did. While he never did leave a giant footprint as a player in the Major Leagues, he did become the first black coach in the Majors. Yet he did much for the game -- as a player, a coach, a manager and a scout.

Guess who managed Elston Howard and Ernie Banks in the Negro Leagues? Guess who signed Banks and Lou Brock to Major League contracts with the Cubs?

Yes, O'Neil, an escapee from the celery fields of Florida. He's the best player still living who built most of his baseball reputation in the Negro Leagues.

"The Negro Leagues mean so much to me," O'Neil said. "One of my greatest experiences was actually playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. Kansas City was a thriving place on 18th and Vine. ... Here I am, a country boy coming to Kansas City. Oh, that was exciting. ... I'm competing against some of the greatest athletes that ever lived. Outstanding."

As a player, O'Neil was a smooth-fielding first baseman for the Monarchs, one of the signature franchises in the Negro Leagues. He helped lead the team to four consecutive Negro American League pennants from 1939-42.

In 1942, his bat propelled the Monarchs to a win over the Homestead Grays in the first World Series between the Negro American and Negro National Leagues.

"A steady hitter, O'Neil won the 1946 Negro American League batting title with an average of .353 to lead the Monarchs to another pennant," wrote baseball historian James A. Riley in "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues."

O'Neil's Monarchs teams included some of the greatest players in black baseball, including Satchel Paige.

But in his playing career, O'Neil made baseball his year-round job. He played in Winter Leagues in Cuba and in Mexico, and he barnstormed with some of the best players in black baseball.

In 1946, he played on Paige's all-star team, which toured with Bob Feller's all-star team.

After he stopped playing, O'Neil managed the Monarchs from 1948-55, winning five pennants during that period.

"To manage the Monarchs was actually easy for this simple reason: They had some of the best athletes that ever lived," O'Neil said. "The Kansas City Monarchs were like the New York Yankees. Everybody wanted to play for the Kansas City Monarchs."

Everybody wanted to play for O'Neil, a man who has continued to carry the torch for black baseball even though the league is nothing but American history. His induction into Cooperstown, should it happen, will only bolster his legacy a small bit.

"It might happen," said O'Neil of his possible induction. "But if I don't get into the Hall of Fame, I still feel good, because I think I've done a pretty good job."

Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.