Hall of Fame celebrates O'Neil's legacy

Hall of Fame celebrates O'Neil's legacy

Hall of Fame celebrates O'Neil's legacy
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The legacy of the late Buck O'Neil took center stage at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on Tuesday, as part of the landmark's week-long celebration of Black History Month.

O'Neil, who spent more than seven decades in the game as a player, coach, scout and historian, was the subject of a documentary film aired early in the day at the Hall of Fame's Bullpen Theater. And moments before that film began, Brad Horn, the Hall of Fame's senior director of communications and education, made a noteworthy announcement.

Horn, by way of introduction, gave a brief synopsis of O'Neil's legacy and what it means to baseball, making sure to mention the statue of the iconic figure that stands in one of the Hall's corridors. And in the next breath, Horn related to the sparse crowd that longtime executive Roland Hemond would be the next recipient of an award named in O'Neil's honor.

"Buck O'Neil passed away in 2006. He had a wonderful life, and he was a great man who was a frequent visitor here to the Baseball Hall of Fame," Horn said. "His legacy was really brought to life through the Ken Burns film 'Baseball' in 1994, and the second recipient of the Buck O'Neil Award is going to be a gentleman by the name of Roland Hemond.

"This award is designed to honor those who have basically helped spread the game of baseball in a way that mirrors the qualities of Buck O'Neil -- his character, his integrity, his dignity [and] his compassion. For those of you who have never heard of Roland Hemond, he has basically made a lifetime of not only building franchises ... but his real legacy is that he has mentored a generation of baseball executives past and present, everyone from an assistant scouting director to general managers all around the game. There may not be a more beloved figure in all of baseball today than Roland Hemond."

Hemond, who is currently employed as a special assistant to the president of the Arizona Diamondbacks, met the media later in the day as part of a conference call, and heartily paid tribute to O'Neil's memory. Hemond related how he had made a point of taking a photo next to the O'Neil statue a year or two ago and underlined what the award meant to him.

"I got to know him quite well before his passing," said Hemond of the award's namesake. "I was really touched by his personality, his genuine love for people and how kind he was to me. My wife, Margo, fell in love with him instantly.

"I was so proud of the fact that when Baseball America [created] an award bearing my name, the first recipient of that particular award was Buck O'Neil. What a wonderful, eloquent speaker that he was. It was at the Winter Meetings in Nashville, and [I remember] how he held the crowd spellbound with his delivery and kindness in his reception."

Those common recollections -- the kindness, the humility and the man's selfless nature -- were front and center in "Buck O'Neil & Black Baseball in Chicago," the documentary that was shown at the Hall earlier in the day. The film, produced by the Chicago Baseball Museum, brought O'Neil back to life in the form of interviews and old photographs.

O'Neil, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs and later was influential in spearheading the creation of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, was fondly recalled as both a player and a tireless enthusiast of the game. He later became the first African-American coach in the Major Leagues, a position that helped him make further inroads.

Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Ernie Banks were among the players in the film who spoke of O'Neil and the impact he made in their lives, and so was latter-day outfielder Jermaine Dye. At one point in the film, O'Neil went out of his way to say that he came along at the right time and that he harbored no resentment at having been kept out of the Major Leagues.

"That didn't bother me," he said. "What bothered me was that I couldn't attend Sarasota High School. I couldn't matriculate at the University of Florida although my father was paying taxes just like anybody else. That's the thing that hurt me. It didn't hurt me that I didn't play Major League Baseball, because I was playing the best baseball being played in this country."

O'Neil, whose playing career ended in 1955, later became an indefatigable advocate and historian of the Negro Leagues era, helping to keep that chapter of history alive for anyone willing to listen. And that's why it was especially jarring in 2006, when O'Neil didn't receive enough support to join a 17-man contingent of Negro League inductees to the Hall of Fame.

True to form, O'Neil rose above that slight and wound up speaking on his peers' behalf at that year's induction ceremony. The legend passed away months later, too soon to see the award named in his honor. The Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award was presented posthumously to its namesake in 2007, and Hemond is the second man to earn the accolade.

And judging by his reaction, the Hall of Fame could scarcely have picked a more fitting candidate. Hemond, who has been in the game for seven decades, summed up a lifetime in baseball with a few well-suited sentences.

"How fortunate I've been in my lifetime to be in this great game and to have so many friends and people that have helped me and helped our game grow," said Hemond, who will be recognized for the honor at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 24. "I'm enjoying today, but I'm humbled by it all. It was beyond my wildest dreams that I would ever get the Buck O'Neil Award. ... One of my slogans is to 'Enjoy the moment.' I'll tell you, today I did enjoy this moment. I will relish today forever."

Hemond, a two-time winner of the league's Executive of the Year Award, is perhaps best known for serving as general manager with the White Sox and Orioles. He has also been credited with the concept of the Arizona Fall League, the annual postseason proving ground for top prospects. When it comes down to it, though, Hemond is most proud of his human touch.

The former scout said that he couldn't help but think of the people he has met over the years, and he made sure to mention that he had called Mary Francis Veeck -- the widow of former White Sox owner Bill Veeck -- Tuesday morning after learning that he had won the award. Hemond, speaking from Arizona, tried to nail down what the honor means to him.

"What strikes you is that it is the Buck O'Neil Award, and I held him in such high esteem," said Hemond. "And then you have flashbacks of all the people who have helped you in the game. And you also have some sorrow involved.

"Tears of joy and tears of sorrow. I lost a very dear friend in Chuck Tanner recently, and I wish Chuck would've lived a little bit longer so that he would've been aware that I was receiving this award. Chuck played a major part in my career, and there's a long list of people that made it possible for me to be in the game in the first place, helping me and mentoring me so that I could grow in the game and then help others in the best way I could. Buck personified being charitable and being kind, and he was always humble. He didn't use the pronoun 'I.' It always seemed like he was directing accolades to others and not himself."

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