O'Neil awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

Updated: December 15, 2006, 5:04 PM ET
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Buck O'Neil was posthumously awarded the nation's highest civilian honor Friday, cited for a life in baseball after being barred from the national pastime in his prime.

The Negro Leagues player, historian and advocate was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony, less than three months after he died at age 94.

O'Neil missed election to the Hall of Fame by one vote in February, yet he never lost his enthusiasm for the sport. In July, he appeared in the Northern League all-star game, making him the oldest man to play professional baseball.

"They wisely pitched around him and he drew a walk," President Bush joked.

In a 40-minute ceremony under the glittering chandeliers of the East Room, Bush lauded O'Neil for helping break down the barriers of racial prejudice.

Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier in 1947, but by then it was too late for O'Neil.

"Buck O'Neil lived long enough to see baseball and America change for the better," Bush said. "He's one of the people we can thank for that. Buck O'Neil was a legend and a beautiful human being and we honor the memory of Buck O'Neil."

Warren O'Neil accepted the medal on his brother's behalf. The 91-year-old O'Neil nodded his head and smiled slightly as the audience applauded, then raised his hand to briefly wave at blues great B.B. King, one of the other award recipients.

Bush presented Buck O'Neil's medal to Warren O'Neil in a wooden case.

Sitting in the audience, Bob Kendrick, director of marketing for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., said he felt "a little melancholy" wishing Buck was there.

"He would have lit that room up," Kendrick said. "He had this amazing charisma unlike anybody I've ever encountered. We know that his spirit was there and Warren represented his brother very well."

Also watching the ceremony was Warren O'Neil's son, Frank, along with Frank's wife and daughter. Buck O'Neil's niece and a contingent of officials from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum also attended.

Kendrick said the honor "would have represented the pinnacle for him. He prided himself on being more than just a baseball player."

Bush spoke of O'Neil's storied career, which included joining the Negro Leagues in 1938 as a first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs.

O'Neil won two batting titles and played on nine championship teams. As a manager, he guided the Monarchs to four league titles.

After his Negro Leagues career, O'Neil joined the Chicago Cubs as a scout and later became the first black coach of a major league team.

The driving force behind creation of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, O'Neil earned worldwide fame in 1994 after historian Ken Burns featured him in the documentary "Baseball."

In the final years of his life, Bush said, O'Neil was considered "one of the game's best historians and ambassadors."

Bush did not mention the ill-fated vote in February, when O'Neil was expected to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame along with other Negro Leagues and pre-Negro League figures. O'Neil was not among the 16 men and one woman selected.

The Medal of Freedom was established by President Truman in 1945 to honor civilians for their efforts during World War II. The award was reinstated by President Kennedy in 1963 to honor high achievement in public service, science, the arts, education, athletics and other fields.

Other medal recipients Friday were: literacy advocate Ruth Johnson Colvin; Norman C. Francis, president of Xavier University of Louisiana; historian and author Paul Johnson; singer and guitarist B.B. King; Nobel Prize-winning scientist Joshua Lederberg; historian and author David McCullough; former transportation secretary Norman Y. Mineta; writer and commentator William Safire; and human rights activist Natan Sharansky.


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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