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Via award, O'Neil forever part of Hall

Via award, O'Neil forever part of Hall

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- These words of John J. "Buck" O'Neil are engraved on a sheet of glass behind the statue of his likeness that was unveiled on Friday just beyond the entrance to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum:

"Waste no tears for me. I didn't come along too early. I was right on time."

On Sunday, O'Neil was the first recipient of the lifetime achievement award embossed with his own name. Joe Morgan, the Hall of Fame second baseman and ESPN analyst, accepted the award on behalf of the late O'Neil.

"Some might say this lifetime achievement award is a bit overdue," Morgan said. "However, for the award's first recipient and namesake, Buck O'Neil, the honor should be considered right on time. Being right on time has been both an irony and hallmark of Buck O'Neil's life."

O'Neil was a great Negro Leaguer who came along too early to salvage a playing career in the Major Leagues and never complained about it. But his dignity and integrity as one of baseball's leading ambassadors until he died on Oct. 6, 2006 -- just weeks shy of his 95th birthday -- meant it could never be too late for his visage to forever grace baseball's most hallowed Hall.

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O'Neil was honored just prior to the inductions of Rich "Goose" Gossage, Dick Williams, Billy Southworth, Bowie Kuhn, Walter O'Malley and Barney Dreyfuss.

The O'Neil award "honors an individual whose extraordinary efforts to enhance baseball's positive impact on society has broadened the game's appeal, and whose character, integrity and dignity reflect the qualities embodied by Buck O'Neil throughout his life and career."

It can be bestowed again by the Hall's board of directors no sooner than 2011, although it doesn't have to be if there's no deserving recipient.

"Make no mistake about it, we're going to have trouble finding someone who matches up to Buck O'Neil's standards in order to give that award," Morgan said. "But that's the way we wanted it. It's a special award. He was a very special person."

O'Neil passed away only months after he missed election to the Hall by a single vote, as 17 of his Negro Leagues brethren were selected by a special committee. They were all inducted two years ago when Bruce Sutter was the only player voted in by eligible baseball writers.

O'Neil, once also a coach with the Chicago Cubs, never complained about that either, although many others were upset that he was left out of the group, supposedly the last Negro Leaguers to have their plaques hung in the Hall.

O'Neil was more than gracious about attending that year's induction. Opening the festivities, he said three words while looking out on a sea of fans sitting under a blue sky: "This is outstanding."

Morgan added on Sunday: "The tells you all you need to know about Buck O'Neil -- that he came here after he was disappointed not to be elected into the Hall of Fame. Yet he was here to honor all those guys who were being inducted."

In the wake of those events, the Hall's board devised the trophy and the award.

"We all would have loved him to be in the Hall of Fame," said Morgan, who's also a member of the board. "Other than the fact that he's not, this is better. You never think of Joe Morgan when you go into the Hall of Fame unless you look at my plaque. You'll always think of Buck O'Neil when you go into the Hall of Fame because we have the statue there and we'll give the award later on.

"In my mind, this is a bigger honor than the Hall of Fame itself."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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