Reliever extraordinaire Bruce Sutter was the only former Major Leaguer gaining entrance this year into the hallowed Hall. But O'Neil struck a cord for 17 of his Negro League and pre-Negro League brethren, 12 players and five executives. Among them, the first woman ever to have a plaque hung in the Hall -- Effa Manley, the co-owner and business manager of the Newark Eagles.
Sutter, who saved 300 games for the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves, finally made it in on his 13th try when he was elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America this past January. The 53-year-old right-hander was nervous before the speech and had to catch himself several times from choking up during the course of it, particularly at the point when he referred to his wife, Jamye, who is scheduled to have surgery to remove a cancerous kidney on Aug. 15.
"I haven't played baseball for 18 years now and I'm getting more sentimental as I get older," Sutter said afterwards. "You start losing family members and you start losing friends. There are teammates who have passed on. You start thinking of them as you put together a speech.
"I'm not usually an emotional guy. My kids said the first time they ever saw me cry was when I got that phone call [telling him that he was elected]. Now today. I guess a lot of people have seen me crying now."
A pair of his fellow Hall of Famers tried to ease the mood a little. Sutter long ago sported a thick brown beard that has now grown gray with age. So Ozzie Smith, his former Cards teammate, and Cincinnati great Johnny Bench donned long gray decorative beards to spoof the occasion.
"I think Ozzie saw that the big guy needed some help," Sutter said about the former shortstop. "It was like one of his diving plays and him jumping up and throwing the guy out at first. I'm so thankful for those two guys to get a little humor out there. I thought it was great. It did relax me."
The Negro League inductees included such great names as George "Mule" Suttles, Cumberland "Cum" Posey Jr., James Raleigh "Biz" Mackey, Ernest "Jud" Wilson and Ulysses F. "Frank" Grant.
O'Neil, who played and managed among most of them, said he was "proud" to have been a ballplayer in the Negro Leagues "which was nothing like Hollywood makes it out to be today."
Those leagues existed from the early 1920s and into the 1950s because Major League Baseball refused to allow African-Americans to play until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. All 16 MLB teams at the time didn't integrate until 1959.
"I never learned to hate," O'Neil said. "I hate cancer. Cancer killed my mother. Ten years ago, cancer also took my wife. I hate AIDS. I had a friend who recently died of AIDS. But I can't hate a human being."
The induction of the Negro Leaguers was the result of an exhaustive five-year study and special election of a 12-man panel chaired by former Commissioner Faye Vincent that now is expected to close the book on that part of baseball history. Robinson's widow, Rachael, and daughter, Sharon, were both on hand for the ceremony.
"It's an awesome responsibility to stand up here and try to express how important this day is for us," Sharon said in her prepared remarks.
Commissioner Bud Selig and various family members read the inscriptions on all 17 of the Negro League plaques. Selig, as he always does, also read the inscription on the plaque for the incoming former Major Leaguer.
"What happened today is something I never thought would happen," said Monte Irvin, the former Negro Leaguer who was a Hall of Famer in his own right for his eight seasons with the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs. "But it did happen. A lot of people should be given credit for this."
The day was rounded out by the media awards.
Gene Elston, the former voice of the Houston Astros, who won the Ford C. Frick Award and was elected to the broadcasters' wing, introduced his speech by saying: "Yes, I am in Cooperstown. This is the place where dreams come true."
Tracy Ringolsby, the long-time Rockies beat writer for Denver's Rocky Mountain News, won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award and was selected to the writers' wing.
"I find it amazing to be up here," Ringolsby said as he opened his remarks.
The selection of Sutter also made it a big year for the reliever. Sutter mastered and popularized the split-finger fastball during a career that spanned 13 years from 1976 to 1988 and ended when he irrevocably hurt his right shoulder. He became the first pure reliever ever elected. Sutter joins a trio of other pitchers in the Hall, whose claim to fame may have been closing games -- Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley. But each was a starter at one time or another.
In his speech, Sutter thanked his fellow relievers and praised the fans for their support. He opened by saying, "I wish we could turn back the clock and play one more game," and closed by admitting that he'd like to hear the chants of "Bruuuccce" again like those days gone by when he came into the game in a tight situation with victory very much on the line.
"I wish I could trot out there and get that feeling again, but Father Time has caught up with me," he said. "First he took my arm. Then he took my hair. Then he took the color from my beard. But he did not take the great friendships and memories I have from being a baseball player."
Sutter's among the immortals now. The 278 of them -- players, managers, umpires and executives -- whose plaques will long endure in the red-bricked Hall.
As O'Neil so aptly said, it was an "outstanding" and historic day. Sutter couldn't have described it any better.