O'Neil's presence alive in baseball

O'Neil's presence alive in baseball

Buck O'Neil's presence looms over the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum even now, more than a year after his passing.

For O'Neil, regal and proud, was the face of the museum and of one of the few surviving voices of the Negro Leagues. To lose that face and voice still hurts, said Bob Kendrick, marketing director of the museum.

"To put it in a baseball analogy: You can't expect to lose your cleanup hitter and think that you're going be as offensively potent as you had been with him in the lineup," Kendrick said. "That being said, Buck had done a wonderful job of preparing us for this day."

What O'Neil did, Kendrick said, was help the museum define its mission. The mission remains unchanged: to celebrate the history of "black baseball."

That history is wrapped inside the many layers of stories about the men who played the game, the people who profited from it and the legions of fans who worshiped it.

Baseball is the history of a people, of a nation and of a society.

Buck O'Neil wanted to ensure that history outlived him. He succeeded.

For the museum has programs in place this year that will continue O'Neil's legacy, Kendrick said.

In 2008, the museum plans a yearlong salute to the "black press," a tribute that began in January when the museum presented the inaugural Sam Lacy Legacy Award to Larry Whiteside, the late sportswriter for the Boston Globe.

Kendrick said the museum is working on a number of initiatives that will marry baseball and the media.

One idea that he's working on is a program for black youth. He said the weekend-long seminar will bring in veteran journalists who can introduce black teens to the opportunities available to them as sports journalists.

No date has been set for the seminar, but Kendrick said he's been working with the Kansas City Royals, the National Association of Black Journalists and other media organizations to put this program in motion.

Kendrick is excited about this educational initiative. He and others at the museum have tried to keep O'Neil and his concerns about education in mind with whatever they do. They plan to build much of the museum's 2008 programming around O'Neil's historic induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in July.

The induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., where Whiteside will also be inducted into the writers' wing, will place O'Neil alongside Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and other icons of the game.

His lifetime of work on behalf of baseball will now be remembered each year as Hall officials honor other men and women with an award in O'Neil's name. If people can remember Buck O'Neil, they will remember the players whom he championed in his life. They will also remember the Negro Leagues, Kendrick said.

In ensuring the latter, Kendrick said the museum has four traveling exhibitions scheduled this year. While its three-year deal with Roadway for exhibitions at Major League ballparks expired, the museum has gotten a sponsor for its Negro League exhibitions on black college campuses.

The exhibition is now at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Kendrick mentioned two other projects in the works that should keep the theme of baseball and history tied. One of those is "My Greatest Day in Baseball" campaign, where the museum would get celebrities inside and outside of baseball to share their greatest single moment in the sport.

"I think that's going to be the most effective way of telling people how great this game is," he said.

And for black youth who might not appreciate how great baseball is, Kendrick has been working with hip-hop groups on a CD tribute to baseball. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, a high-profile rap group from Cleveland, recorded the first song for the CD, which Kendrick hopes to release at some point this summer.

"It's just another way that the museum is trying to go out and bridge the gap between history and kids who don't understand that history," he said. "That's what we do."

But the museum does that these days without its star player, a man Kendrick said can never be replaced. All the museum can do is continue O'Neil's work, which includes a golf tournament in Kansas City each summer that raises money for the museum.

Museum officials knew they would someday have to host these events absent O'Neil, but life without their spiritual leader hasn't been easy for anybody at the museum.

"Buck had, literally, become the face of the Negro Leagues and certainly the most visible and active presence there at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum," Kendrick said. "His passing left a tremendous void."

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