Buck knew how to make your day
In September of 1994, there was a reception on the White House lawn for the premiere of Ken Burns' "Baseball" series on PBS. A hundred or so people milled about, chatting, dining, trying out the speed-pitch booth. But there was a constant knot of folks around one charismatic man -- Buck O'Neil. President Clinton? Eclipsed by Buck, he was off by himself, grazing the buffet table.
Buck O'Neil was a pretty good first baseman in the Negro leagues, a close friend of Satchel Paige, a mentor to Ernie Banks, the first African-American coach in the major leagues and the scout who signed Lou Brock, Lee Smith and Joe Carter. But it wasn't until Burns made him the star of his series that Buck became a legend -- not so much for what he did, but for what he projected. Joy. Wisdom. Faith. Grace. Strength. He loved jazz and golf and Kansas City and people and, most of all, baseball. Just a few minutes in his presence, and you knew why Hal McRae called him "The Guiding Light."
He refused to be bitter. Once, when asked if he regretted coming along before Jackie Robinson, Buck said, "I was right on time." He was a tireless ambassador for the Negro leagues, but last year the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee failed to include him in what was thought to be the last group of Negro leaguers to be inducted. Rather than complain, he gave a speech in Cooperstown, welcoming the last class.
Buck wasn't all sweetness. He hated Charlie Grimm, the Cubs' manager when he was a coach -- thought him a racist. On a trip to the old ballpark in Daytona Beach, he went from gratitude ("Jackie played here") to anger ("That area of the bleachers was the Jim Crow section.")
He lived to be 94, but he was never stuck in the past. He got as much a kick out of watching Bo Jackson as he did out of watching Babe Ruth. He made your day, whether you were a fan who stopped by his seat in Kauffman Stadium, or a player who asked him for tales about Satchel.
He'll be missed, but we'll always have the Ken Burns series, and the plaques in Cooperstown he lobbied for, and the Negro Leagues Museum he helped build in Kansas City, and the notion that he touched somebody every day of his long life.
Back at that White House reception, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around to see Buck standing with his hand on the head of my 8-year-old son, Bo. "This young man is looking for you," he said.
Temporarily lost, my son had instinctively gone to the one person in the crowd who could show him the way.
Steve Wulf is an executive editor with ESPN The Magazine.
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