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Buck O'Neil, 94; Ambassador for Negro League Baseball

October 07, 2006|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

Buck O'Neil, an All-Star first baseman and manager with the Kansas City Monarchs -- one of the storied franchises of black baseball -- who in his later years became a tireless ambassador for the Negro leagues, died Friday at a hospital in Kansas City, Mo. He was 94.

O'Neil had been hospitalized in August and again last month for fatigue. No cause of death was given.

In his 16-year career, he twice led the Negro American League in batting and eventually became the first black coach in major league baseball. But he was best-known for his accomplishments after his career with the Monarchs ended.

For many Americans, the gracious O'Neil became the face of the Negro leagues after the broadcast of Ken Burns' PBS documentary "Baseball" in 1994. And O'Neil, who had tirelessly promoted the sport he loved, used the increased exposure to continue that effort until his death.

O'Neil helped create the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. -- he considered it the crowning achievement of his life -- and always made time to talk about his life in baseball and the legacy of many of those who played in an era when baseball was racially segregated.

"I think we are the cause of the changes. Some of the changes that have been made were because of us," O'Neil said in Burns' documentary. "We did our duty. We did the groundwork for the Jackie Robinsons, the Willie Mayses, and the guys that are playing now. So why feel sorry for me? We did our part in our generation, and we turned it over to another generation, and it's still changing -- which is the way it should be."

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., this summer inducted 17 individuals involved with the Negro leagues era, but O'Neil, despite his high profile, was not among those selected by the special committee. He had failed to get enough votes in several previous elections.

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig told The Times in July that O'Neil belonged in the Hall. "I'm a big fan of Buck O'Neil," he said. "He is a charismatic figure who, throughout his life, has been a wonderful promoter of our great game. He is a true baseball legend.

"He should be in the Hall of Fame. As far as I'm concerned, he is a Hall of Famer."

As was his nature, O'Neil took the disappointment in stride. "I was hoping that I got there, but the fact that I didn't means that I shouldn't be there," O'Neil told The Times this summer.

John Jordan O'Neil, the grandson of a slave, was born Nov. 13, 1911, in Carrabelle, Fla. His father played baseball for a local team, and O'Neil was the batboy when he wasn't working in the celery fields. That's when his love affair with the sport began.

"I saw baseball was a good way to make a living," he said. "So I decided that's what I wanted to do. It was better than working in the celery fields."

O'Neil began playing semiprofessional baseball in 1934 when he joined the Miami Giants. He went on to play with several other barnstorming teams, including the New York Tigers, Shreveport Acme Giants and Zulu Cannibal Giants, before he started his Negro leagues career with the Memphis Red Sox in 1937.

After one season playing for the Red Sox, O'Neil was traded to Kansas City to play first base and spent the rest of his Negro leagues career with the Monarchs.

O'Neil, who won batting titles in 1940 and 1946 around a two-year stint in the Navy during World War II, led the Monarchs to a Negro World Series championship and hit .353 when the Monarchs swept the Homestead Grays. He was named player-manager in 1948 and remained with the team until 1955. During that time, he managed Kansas City to four league titles and coached legendary players Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Ernie Banks before they eventually got the opportunity to do something he never did: Play in the major leagues. Robinson broke the color barrier when he joined the Dodgers in 1947.

O'Neil also played for the 1946 Satchel Paige All-Stars, who toured the nation against Bob Feller's All-Stars in a 14-game series.

"We were just that good," O'Neil said. "What we had with us was a Satchel Paige on the ballclub. That made us a great attraction."

He was a regular participant in the Negro leagues' East-West All-Star Classic -- which showcased black baseball's best players every year in Chicago. He was a player in 1942, 1943 and 1949, and manager for the West team in 1950, 1953, 1954 and 1955.

After his playing career, O'Neil was hired by the Chicago Cubs as a scout in 1956. Six years later, the Cubs made him the first black coach in major league baseball. In 1988, O'Neil left after 33 years working with the Cubs to scout for the Kansas City Royals.

O'Neil played an important role in obtaining pensions for former Negro leagues players and was a primary reason the Negro leagues museum has been such a success. He had proposed its creation for years before its founding in 1990 and collected merchandise, drew attention to the cause and raised funds.

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