O'Neil was the real 'voice' of America

Updated: October 7, 2006, 9:52 PM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

Buck O'Neil lived to see the white high school that wouldn't admit him open its doors to all people. He lived to see the kids he scouted turn into Hall of Famers. He lived, as he liked to say, to meet presidents from Truman to Clinton (and he lived to huuuuug Hillary).

Buck O'neil
Douglas Jones/Icon SMIO'Neil was the first black coach in the majors and also the oldest man ever to play in a pro baseball game.
Now, he's gone. John J. "Buck" O'Neil died Friday night. He was 94.

At the end, he'd lost his voice. That's the unkindest cut of all. For his entire adult life, Buck gave his voice to those who could not speak for themselves. He shouted from the rooftops about a generation of ballplayers and the blighted part of American history they represented. He traveled around the world, telling their story; and, at the end, his voice was gone. Used up. He lay in a hospital bed and could barely speak.

We've all lost that magnificent baritone voice now, and the world is poorer for it. Not in the way we normally are when a famous person dies. No, O'Neil's voice was truly a gift to all of us. It taught us that love is more important than hate. It taught us that forgiveness is more important than bitterness. It taught us to live life now, to eat dessert always, to never let a red dress pass by.

When he didn't get into the Hall of Fame this year, people rightfully howled. As the news reached him, a final denied dream in a life full of dreams denied, he just smiled.

"God's been good to me," he said that day. "If I'm a Hall of Famer for you, that's all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don't weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful."

On a day that should have been the pinnacle of a life dedicated to helping others, he showed up at the podium in Cooperstown anyway to help honor the Negro Leaguers who did make the cut, and he led the crowd in a song that will never be heard again:

"The greatest thrill … in all my life … is loving you."

He sang those words to the folks there and to those at home. Sitting here now, trying to imagine a world without Buck, I can't stop thinking about that song. As a former reporter for The Kansas City Star, I had my share of interaction with Buck. I heard him make cynical school children stand and sing in loud voices. It's clear to me now that knowing and loving Buck has been the greatest thrill in my professional life. It's been a thrill for all of us who knew and loved Buck, either in person or in spirit.

We all marveled at this amazing 94-year-old man, at his incredible strength. He refused to follow life's rules about aging. He traveled like a man half his age. He played golf right up until the end. He refused to stop telling the story of a league that America almost forgot.

"Buck's fought in so many arenas, and we don't see the scratches and bruises," Negro Leagues museum executive Tonya Tota told me just before the infamous Hall of Fame vote earlier this year. "Buck reminds me of a stealth plane. They're sleek and they're beautiful, and you don't know how much power they have inside of them. They just soar and they fly, and that's Buck."

Even though he wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame, his speech served as a reminder to the world about his accomplishments. He led the Negro Leagues in hitting. He won two titles as a Negro Leagues manager. As a scout for the Cubs, he signed Lou Brock to a contract; and in 1962, the Cubs made him the first black coach in the majors. But it was his final role, as ambassador, in Ken Burns' documentary about baseball and in countless rooms and auditoriums across the country, that defined him. He made America face its own painful history.

His speech in Cooperstown was the last time he played that role, and he nailed it. The crowd gave him a long ovation, and then he went back home.

Not long after, the years finally caught up with him. He checked into the hospital for exhaustion. Without the interaction that was his life, he felt like 94 for the first time. His voice began to falter. Kansas City had planned a birthday party for him, in November. All the women were asked to wear a red dress.

That was one of his many credos: Don't ever let a woman in a red dress walk past without talking to her. That's classic Buck. On the surface, it's a funny little adage about talking to women. But, beneath, there's some zen: Take your opportunities. It's Buck-ese for carpe diem.

He didn't make it to that birthday party, and all we can do is remember Buck today. Remember the things he talked about. That's what he would want. For his voice, silenced at the end, to live after him. To teach the things he held dear: friendship, understanding, love.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.