O'Neil teaching others about patience

Updated: August 1, 2006, 1:24 AM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

The Negro League Museum's traveling tour bus hit America's roads these past five months, rolling through Anaheim and San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Minneapolis and Cleveland. Wherever the exhibition stopped, the story never changed. They wanted to talk about Buck O'Neil. They wanted to know happened when the history lesson on wheels pulled into town: People were ticked off.

Buck O'Neil
Douglas Jones, Icon SMI Buck O'Neil, 94, will be in Cooperstown on Sunday, sharing stories about the 17 Negro League inductees.
"It's all anybody wanted to talk about," said Bob Kendrick, the marketing director for the museum in Kansas City. "It was not just disappointment, but anger --- the kind that you don't see except in times of tragedy."

This had had been a fury raging since February, when Kendrick had to take the call from Cooperstown, telling him that a committee commissioned to make a five-year study of the old Negro Leagues and determine a final list of inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame had made 17 selections.

Only, there was no Buck O'Neil.

Kendrick had to tell him. And with everyone else breaking down, with a baseball nation soon to rage, good old Buck O'Neil told Kendrick, told everyone, "It's OK." Ever since his inexplicable omission off Sunday's roll call in Cooperstown, America has gotten to see the best of this American life.

"He's consoled us," Kendrick said. "He's taught us how to handle disappointment."

So, 17 inductees go into Cooperstown on Sunday, but baseball forgot Buck O'Neil. At 94 years old, the lasting voice of a time and place in America, anyone with a heart and mind aches for him. He has been one of the great sporting teachers of our time, bringing us back with stories of Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson, an ambassador whose stories were like a long sip of cool lemonade on a hot summer's day.

He had a Hall of Fame career as a player, manager and ultimately a barrier-breaking major-league coach, but he's been an ambassador of grace and goodness every day, the way that Pete Rose never thought of being. So Sunday, O'Neil will be in Cooperstown, telling us the stories of the Negro League inductees on enshrinement day. He has been talking about them relentlessly for months, refusing to let his disappointment dim the celebration of those lives.

"We should all aspire to be like Buck. The man's never met a stranger in his life. I have no idea what it is, but Buck has it. ... He's the face of the Negro League."
-- Bob Kendrick, marketing director, Negro League Baseball museum

He has been denied so much in his life, but he's never let it eat away his soul. He always believed the measure of a man would come when things didn't go right, when it wasn't easy to smile and keep going. This had been the story of his life, the story of his generation of brothers. He couldn't go to his instate University of Florida to get a college education and couldn't play major-league ball. And he couldn't drink in those fountains and sleep in those hotels and couldn't have a cup of coffee at those countertops.

"We should all aspire to be like Buck," Kendrick said. "The man's never met a stranger in his life. I have no idea what it is, but Buck has it. He has the ability to bridge black and white, young and old, men and women. People respond to him. He's the face of the Negro League. He's the reason people cared about the league. All those others, they were very deserving. They wonderful baseball careers. But nobody knew them.

"Everybody knows Buck."

And when they get done with writer Joe Posnanski's book about a summer with him, "The Soul of Baseball," out in April of 2007, everyone will know O'Neil even more intimately. For now, though, there's a class of Seattle high school kids pedaling bikes 3,100 miles to the Negro League museum in Kansas City, gathering signatures on petitions along the way to try and get Buck on the Cooperstown ballot again for next year.

He's going to get into the Hall someday, but as Kendrick says, "We want him to be there to see it." He's 94 years old, and Buck O'Neil promises to be patient when he should be running out.

Anyway, he'll get up on Sunday in Cooperstown, start to tell his stories and everyone will close their eyes for a moment, listen and know that they're hearing the sound of baseball. Buck O'Neil always brings out the best in a summer day, the best of us.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His national best-seller, "The Miracle of St. Anthony : A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty," is available in paperback.