But Buck O'Neil will soon get his due.
On Saturday, Major League Baseball will pay homage to O'Neil for his contributions to America's national pastime. He will be one of three recipients of its inaugural Beacon Award in Memphis, Tenn.
Commissioner Bud Selig, NAACP chairman Julian Bond and a star-studded lineup of baseball and political dignitaries will present Beacons to Buck, filmmaker Spike Lee and Vera Clemente, the widow of Hall of Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente.
The three will be honored before the inaugural Civil Rights Game, presented by AutoZone, between the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Cardinals. The game, to be played at Memphis' AutoZone Park, home of the Cards' Triple-A Redbirds affiliate, will be broadcast live by ESPN and MLB.TV beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET. MLB.TV will also feature a two-hour pregame show beginning at 3:30 p.m.
The award honors people's contributions to civil rights and reflects their historical ties to baseball. People who knew Buck said he contributed as much as anybody else in history to both.
"It's very hard for anyone to forget how much he fought for all those players in the Negro Leagues to get into the Hall of Fame," said Sylvia Lind, senior manager of Minor League operations and one of the coordinators of the award program. "He just so selflessly promoted all those other people and said, 'It's not about me.'"
Buck's selflessness reflected his others-first approach to life. He treated friends, fans and well-wishers with dignity. He saw their lives as more important than his, particularly when they also shared his undying love for baseball.
For most of his 93 years, O'Neil immersed himself in the game. He was a darn good player, a first-rate scout -- he signed Ernie Banks to a Major League contract -- and was the first black coach in the Majors. Through its good and its bad, O'Neil never lost his passion for the game or for the people who played and watched it.
Did any man ever give more of himself to baseball than Buck did?
It does no good to debate the matter, Lind said. Leave it at this: O'Neil never wavered in his effort to spread the gospel of baseball, and until his death last October, he personified all that was good about the sport.
His contribution to the game never outpaced his love of it. A product of "black baseball," Buck wore the unofficial title of baseball's "ambassador" like a red badge of pride. Few people can argue that he didn't wrap that noble title around him like a tailored suit.
For that fact alone, baseball offers its Beacon as a bit of repayment, even though it comes posthumously.
Better now than never, said Bob Kendrick, marketing director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
"I hope Buck winning the award elevates the game in the minds of those who know little about black baseball," said Kendrick, who will accept the award for Buck. "Anytime you can make that historical connection to our role in the game of baseball, in terms of some things that have happened in our country, it has to be good for black baseball."
For the last 25 years of the 1900s and the first six years of this century, Buck stood as the most recognizable standard-bearer of black baseball. He became the voice of the Negro Leagues, its predecessors and the 17 figures from those leagues who earned induction last summer into Cooperstown.
In some people's mind, the regret was that the affable Buck wasn't among them.
Yet he never focused on the oversight. He shrugged it off as he did any negatives that people attached to life, Kendrick and Lind said. Call Buck an optimist, because that would be about as good a description of the man as anybody could come up with.
During his life, he trumpeted the talents and the successes of the men he played with and against in black baseball. Nobody else kept alive their stories with the vivid and colorful tales that Buck, the honorary chairman of the museum, spun for black and white audiences everywhere.
He enjoyed telling those folksy baseball tales; audiences enjoyed hearing them.
"For many people, Buck was the connection. He put a face on the history," said Phil Dixon, an author, researcher and respected authority on black baseball. "That was real important, because anyone can talk about it. But he was like a living part of that history, and you can see the difference.
"He made a difference."
For making a difference, baseball hopes Buck O'Neil winning a Beacon Award will keep his memory and the stories he told about black baseball alive for generations to come.
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less