O'Neil bigger than game itself

O'Neil bigger than game itself

Buck O'Neil was a great baseball man, in the largest possible sense of that term.

Bigger than the playing and the managing, there was the living. Buck O'Neil brought history to life for an audience that needed to know what he knew, needed to see what he saw, hear what he heard, and witness what lived on in his boundless spirit.

Buck O'Neil was the embodiment of an entire era of baseball history. In this role, he was as important to the game as any single man could be.

After the recent Negro Leagues election for the Hall of Fame, there was real public outrage. That outrage came because Buck O'Neil was not elected.

This was more outrage than ever accompanied the Pete Rose issue, or ever was expressed because somebody's favorite pitcher or third baseman did not receive the required amount of votes for induction.

Baseball fans intuitively, reflexively, deeply understood what Buck O'Neil meant to the game. This was not about his record as a first baseman or a hitter or a manager in the Negro Leagues, although all of his service there added up to something very impressive. This was the fact that Buck O'Neil was the ambassador from that era, from that game, from that history, to the contemporary world.

He was tireless in that role. He was instructive in that role. As it turned out, he was basically ideal in that role.

The whole Negro League history was like a parallel world of baseball, separate but, of course, unequal. And until relatively recently, it was largely ignored, or at best, merely nodded at by much of the Caucasian baseball public.

But its importance, in fact, its absolutely central importance to the history of baseball and the growth of the game has more recently been generally recognized and applauded. Better late than never, but one of the reasons that the rest of the baseball world caught up with this integral part of its history was Buck O'Neil.

He was seemingly everywhere with a story, an anecdote, a recollection. He was the living history of the Negro Leagues. For many people who previously had a very sketchy notion of the whole concept, he was the conduit to a body of previously unknown baseball knowledge.

And let's face it: The fact that there were Negro Leagues in the first place is a reflection of the racism that has historically tainted American society. Any mention of baseball's alleged "golden age," which includes the era prior to 1947, is an egregious error and a slap in the face to a democratic society. That was not the golden age of baseball. That was the white age of baseball. And more's the pity that the national pastime didn't get ahead of the rest of society on this issue until 1947.

But this was part of what made Buck O'Neil unique. If there was one shred of his being that was embittered by the exclusionary practices of society -- and baseball -- he never showed that. And after a time, anybody who was paying attention realized that this was not a pose. Buck O'Neil understood and explained, without fear or favor, what that entire era was about. His telling was the better for the lack of polemics or anger or recriminations.

The game was lucky to have Buck O'Neil. He was living history, and that history was brought to life time and again with a smile of comprehension about what it all meant.

Buck O'Neil was better for baseball than a perfect game, or a home run record, or a seven-game World Series. He was a human being who shared a wealth of knowledge and insight about a part of the game that too many knew too little about.

Should he have been elected to the Hall of Fame? That question doesn't even deserve to be asked. Buck O'Neil should have his own wing in the Hall of Fame.

Even after a long life, a life rich in sharing his wisdom and his wit, his death diminishes the game. Baseball will be poorer without Buck O'Neil. But for all the years of his life it was richer because this man was willing and able to be the embodiment of one large portion of baseball history. The game owes a debt to this man. You wish that the game had done a better job of paying him while he still drew breath.

For all of this, whether a group of alleged historians understood or not, Buck O'Neil will be a baseball immortal.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.