Fans pay tribute to O'Neil's life and legacy

10/7/2006 - MLB

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Baseballs left on a table, signed by dozens of his fans, told stories of how he touched their lives. Flowers piled up on another table near a portrait of the dapper, gregarious man who came to embody the story of the Negro Leagues.

Friends and strangers alike gathered Saturday at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to mourn the loss and celebrate the life of John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil.

O'Neil died Friday night from complications of congestive heart failure and recently diagnosed bone marrow cancer at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, said Bob Kendrick, marketing director for the museum. He was 94.

Some of the tributes talked of how O'Neil played catch with children, or never turned down an autograph request. One had a bible verse, Matthew 25:21, that read in part, "Well done, good and faithful servant!"

Children and adults wandered through the museum, many dressed in the red and white Kansas City Monarchs jerseys and caps that O'Neil made famous. More than usual paused in front of a glass case that held O'Neil's first baseman's glove, a trophy inducting him into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, and other trinkets.

"I'm going to miss him, because he was always very positive with me and was always rooting for me," Mets manager Willie Randolph said before Game 3 of New York's NL playoff series against Los Angeles.

"As a matter of fact, when I got the job, he left a voice mail congratulating me. It goes, 'Hi, Skippah. Nice goin'.' I still have that on my phone, and once in a while, I just play it back with the other messages I get. It means a lot to me," he said. "He's someone I'll always remember."

O'Neil will lie in state Friday at the museum's Field of Legends gallery, where well-wishers can pay their respects. A private funeral and burial service are scheduled for next Saturday at a place and time to be determined, and a separate memorial service open to the public will follow.

"We lost, obviously, a great piece of not only sports history, but American history with the death of Buck O'Neil," said Kendrick, who smiled when he said O'Neil had rested comfortably during his last few hours.

"Buck was 94 years old. Buck lived a wonderful life," Kendrick said. "But Buck knew, as well as we all knew, none of us are born to live forever. The great man that he was, the great mind that he was, the great visionary that he was, he prepared us for this day."

Kendrick said he hopes the John "Buck" O'Neil Education and Research Center, to be located in a YMCA around the corner from the museum, will serve as a tribute to O'Neil. It was in that building decades ago that the Negro Leagues were formed.

A celebration of O'Neil's 95th birthday will go on as scheduled Nov. 11 at Kansas City's Starlight Theatre. The guest list of about 750 includes many baseball greats as well as other celebrities and political leaders.

And because O'Neil "never missed an opportunity to talk to a woman in a red dress," Kendrick said all women are asked to wear that color.

His legacy is virtually unmatched, becoming "an overnight sensation at 82," as O'Neil liked to say, when Ken Burns featured him in his epic documentary, "Baseball."

He was a two-time Negro Leagues batting champion, war veteran, and manager of the Kansas City Monarchs. When that club was sold, he caught on with the Chicago Cubs, becoming the first black coach in the major leagues.

O'Neil returned to scouting a few years later, and continued with the Cubs until 1988, when his hometown Royals gave him a job as a scout at home games. He attended nearly every game at Kauffman Stadium for years, while dedicating himself to building the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig asked for a moment of silence to be observed before Saturday's playoff games, giving O'Neil a moment in the spotlight on the fields and in the stadiums where we was so often denied as a player.

"He always had a kind word to say about the game of baseball, regardless of what was going on," said St. Louis hitting coach Hal McRae, a longtime Royals player who also managed the team. "It was fun to talk to him about the old Negro League, what was going on in the game. He was great for the game."

Fans at Comerica Park in Detroit observed a moment of silence honoring O'Neil before Game 4 between the Tigers and New York Yankees. The giant scoreboard in left field read: Buck O'Neil 1911-2006, and a few fans applauded as a way of paying respects.

"I will always cherish the opportunities I had to visit with Buck O'Neil," said Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo. "He was a loving man with a heart as big as Kansas City. He belongs in America's Hall of Fame for his contributions on and off the field."

In February 2006, it was widely believed O'Neil was headed for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

But for the grandson of a man brought to this continent a slave, who moved to Kansas City to avoid racial persecution in the Deep South and was barred from the major leagues by the color of his skin, there was one more disappointment.

For reasons never fully explained, a special 12-person committee commissioned to render final judgments on Negro Leagues and pre-Negro league figures did not vote him in.

"Shed no tears for Buck," he told friends who had gathered that day. "I couldn't attend Sarasota High School. That hurt. I couldn't attend the University of Florida. That hurt.

"But not going into the Hall of Fame, that ain't going to hurt me that much, no. Before, I wouldn't even have a chance. But this time I had that chance."

And then a man who, for decades warmed every cold shoulder leveled his way, did so again.

When it came time to induct the others into the Hall of Fame in late July, it was O'Neil who stood proudly to deliver the day's first address.

"Buck O'Neil was one of the greatest ambassadors baseball has ever known," said Jane Forbes Clark, chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. "He was a giant of a man whose wisdom, kindness and generosity of spirit will live on forever in all those whom he touched and who touched him."