Buck O’Neil’s legacy lives inside museum he helped build

Justice B. Hill

Buck O’Neil turned 105 on Sunday, which made me realize it’s been a decade since Buck’s death.

In the afterglow of the World Series, during a time when football has grabbed the attention of sports fans, people might wonder aloud why talk about Buck? Why bother with a man whom most millennials wouldn’t know from Buck Showalter, Buck Martinez or Uncle Buck.

But they should know Buck O’Neil; everybody should know him.

For not a man who ever lived put as much of himself behind two institutions – Major League Baseball and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum – as Buck O’Neil did.

The first of those institutions, of course, can take care of itself, but the museum needs the kind of nurturing and promotion that Buck gave it when he was the face and voice of the place, a brick-and-mortar shrine on land that stands in the shadows of where Rube Foster gave birth to the Negro Leagues in 1920.

How do we thank Buck for the latter?

Ask Bob Kendrick, the museum’s president and one of Buck’s best friends.

“All Buck ever wanted was for people to visit and support the museum that he helped create,” Kendrick said. “For 16 years, Buck gave his all to build an institution that would pay rightful tribute to America’s unsung baseball heroes.”

Unsung heroes?

No one who studies the history of the Negro Leagues can forget those black men. They played baseball everywhere, and they left their brand of the game etched in tales. The league had its megastars — ballplayers like Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige who rivaled Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson.

Their shadow league was as much a part of black life in big cities as the bigotry those ballplayers faced in bus stops across the East Coast, the Midwest and the Deep South. Their stories were the stories of black people – the doctors, the lawyers and the educators whose ceilings weren’t glass; they were concrete.

Inside those social and cultural limits were careers that thrived. The athletes didn’t need white folks to anoint them; they would – and did — build a life that stood tall on its own. They left a history.

Buck O’Neil, himself a Negro Leaguer of some import, took over the role as their historian, the keeper of these men’s legacies. He stood in front of the world and recounted what it was like to play a sport you loved without getting the universal recognition your talents deserved.

His mission became to cement that recognition. He talked endlessly about “black baseball,” but what Buck did best of all was put his face on and reputation behind the museum.

People who don’t understand the history of “black baseball” will forget what that history meant. They will cheapen the accomplishments of Willie Wells and Smokey Joe Williams and Leon Day, absent somewhere the accomplishments can be celebrated.

Buck O’Neil understood that fact better than other men. So does Kendrick.

Yet he knows Buck, the star of Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary “Baseball,” will be the name who gives credence to what the Negro Leagues stood for. He left behind an oral history that spotlights a league in which only the ball was white.

His oral history lives inside the museum, a must-see institution in Kansas City that most people have chosen to miss. That fact speaks more about how cavalier we are about black history than it does about what Buck and the museum have achieved, which is plenty.

Baseball isn’t as important to the black community now as it was when Buck and his Negro Leagues peers played the game. Yet whatever baseball is today, whatever society is today, is a result of Jackie Robinson and baseball’s past as much as anything else.

We dare not forget Robinson and that past, which means we dare not forget Buck O’Neil, the colorful tales and the wonderful museum he left for historians and sports fans everywhere to enjoy.

Justice B. Hill, an Ohio State University alum, is a long-time sportswriter/sports editor who now teaches journalism in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. Hill’s freelance work has appeared in SBNation, Ebony.com, MLB.com, TheUndefeated.com and BET.com.


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