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Legend O'Neil remembered at funeral

Legend O'Neil remembered at funeral

KANSAS CITY -- Rev. Emanuel Cleaver II didn't need to remind anybody that Buck O'Neil was a "good man," but Cleaver did want people to know that shedding tears over O'Neil's death wasn't what Buck wanted to see.

"One thing you taught us," Cleaver said of O'Neil, "was that we should live until we die. ... That was Buck O'Neil."

Cleaver's words served as the anthem for a remembrance of O'Neil that the city of Kansas City, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and his friends held here on Saturday night at the Municipal Auditorium. Several hundred people whose lives O'Neil touched came downtown to share their love for the man who died on Oct. 6 of congestive heart failure.

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They showed their love with memories, not with tears. To everybody here, O'Neil will be missed, but he left story after story for people to remember him for.

"The good he did is not interred with his bones," said Cleaver, a U.S. congressman. "Buck O'Neil is dead, but he will never, ever die as long as we remember him."

It would be impossible to forget O'Neil, one of the most endearing personalities in the history of American sports. From his folksy stories, to his zest for living and to his ever-ready smile, he represented all that's good in humankind.

O'Neil showed no hatred for others, and he ignored color as he reached out to anybody who came into his world, said Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, one of the handful of speakers who offered tributes of O'Neil.

Banks, who played for O'Neil when he managed the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1950s, called O'Neil his role model.

"Without him, I would not be a professional baseball player," Banks said. "Overall, I loved the man. He was a remarkable man to me. I already miss him dearly."

So will others. The night turned into a lovefest of O'Neil stories. Those stories recounted O'Neil's role in spearheading the construction of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which everybody called his legacy.

Those stories touched on how O'Neil stood reed straight in the face of a lifetime of slights. And everybody from Cleaver to Banks to Hall of Famer Joe Morgan to filmmaker Ken Burns, whose documentary "Baseball" turned O'Neil into a household name, talked about how O'Neil handled the injustice of having his baseball credentials rejected last February as not being good enough for induction into Cooperstown.

But all O'Neil did was smile in the face of this injustice. In July, O'Neil took center stage at the induction ceremony and spoke on behalf of the 17 Negro Leaguers and the pre-Negro Leaguers who did go into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

"I think the challenge he leaves for all of us," Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes said, "is the next time we begin to ring our hands and we begin to be unhappy about something, we need to ask ourselves: 'What would Buck do? How would he be thinking? What would he believe?'

"He gave us the answer."

The answer, people who spoke on Saturday said, was to reach out, grab hold of life and squeeze every ounce of joy out of it. He wanted people to live that life to its fullest -- without rancor, without anger and without disappointments wrapped tightly inside it.

In his life, O'Neil could easily have viewed things from a different lens. He could have bemoaned the lost opportunities that segregation dealt him and other Negro League players in the 1920s, '30s, '40s and '50s, Morgan said.

But Morgan said O'Neil told him not to feel sorry for Negro Leaguers, because they played the game with passion. They had a passion for life. They were a very "special group."

"He said, 'The only reason we wanted to play in the [Major Leagues] was to prove to them that we were as good or better than they were,'" Morgan said. "'Other than that, don't feel sorry for us.'"

Morgan said the message eased his mind. The message made Morgan feel good about his own career in baseball; it reminded him how fortunate his life was.

O'Neil, who was buried in a private ceremony earlier in the day, made people seem fortunate no matter what their station in life was.

"I've always likened him to being one of the great teachers in this country, even though that was not his trade," said Bob Kendrick, marketing director of the museum. "He taught us so much."

The lessons continue even in his death.

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

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