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BORN RIGHT ON TIME

A Profile on 2003 Ernie Banks Positive Image
Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Buck O’Neil

 

John Jordan O’Neil was born November 13, 1911 in Carrabelle, Florida and introduced to baseball at an early age by his father, who played for local teams. He was nicknamed “Buck” after the co-owner of the Miami Giants, Buck O’Neal. A segregated America denied O’Neil the chance to play Major League baseball so he showcased his skills with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Joining the Monarchs in 1938, he was named player/manager for the club in 1948. From 1948 through 1955, he managed some of the finest Kansas City Monarch clubs, leading them to five pennants and two Black World Series titles.

As a player, O’Neil had a career batting average of .288 including four .300-plus seasons at the plate, leading the league in hitting with a 353 average in 1946 average. In 1947 he hit a career best .358. He played in three Negro American League All-Star games and two Negro American League World Series. He teamed with the legendary Satchel Paige during the height of Negro League barnstorming in the 1930’s and 40’s to play countless exhibition games. 20 future Major Leaguers played under his tutelage including names like Hank Thompson, Elston Howard and Ernie Banks.

Following his Monarch career, O’Neil became a Major League Baseball scout with the Chicago Cubs. He was named the Major’s first black coach by the Cubs in 1962 and is credited with signing Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock to their first pro contracts. Since 1988 he has scouted for the Kansas City Royals and in 1998, at 87 years of age, Buck was named “Midwest Scout of the Year.”

O’Neil rose to national prominence with his compelling narration of the Negro Leagues as part of Ken Burns’ PBS Baseball documentary. Today, O’Neil serves as Board Chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. He was a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee until 2001 and continues to lead the charge for deserving Negro Leaguers to be inducted.

Awards and Honors. He’s had a few…

  • “John ‘Buck’ O’Neil Way” street dedicated in 18th & Vine Historic District in KC
  • Missouri State Historical Society Distinguished Service Medal and Certificate
  • Florida Sports Hall of Fame induction award
  • Trumpet Award and related gifts from Turner Broadcasting
  • “Mr. Baseball” Award from the Kansas City Royals
  • Lifetime Leadership Award from Kansas State University
  • Kansas City Sports “Walk of Stars” induction award
  • International Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame induction award
  • Paul Harris Fellowship Award from Rotary International
  • And keys to the Cities of Dallas, TX; St. Joseph, MO; Starksville, MS; and Baton Rouge, LA

Those are the biographical accomplishments of John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil’s life. But nothing here can truly tell you about the man until you experience him for yourself. To hear him tell a story is a true time travel experience. You are at once a personal witness to American history. You know at once where we came from, you realize how far we’ve come, and what is left to do.

With all Buck has accomplished and conquered in his life, he says perhaps his proudest occurred in 1995. Sixty-nine years after he cried in his mother’s arms because he wasn’t allowed to attend the all-white Sarasota High School, he received his high school diploma at Sarasota High. He said at his graduation, “I guess I picked up some extra credits on my long and twisty road.”

Had Buck O’Neil been born today, he might have gone to the school of his choice he might be putting up lofty numbers in Major League Baseball and he might be signing just as lofty contracts. But after all the years of triumph and tribulation, and over 7 generations of baseball, Buck O’Neil still offers hope and optimism, not regret. To quote Buck himself: “Baseball fulfilled me like music. I played it most of my life and loved it. Waste no tears for me. I wasn’t born too early. I was born right on time.”

Right on time to see Jackie Robinson break the color barrier that separated Major League and Negro League Baseball. Right on time to stand on a street corner with pitching great Satchel Page in a U.S. town where slaves were once auctioned and realize that the two of them would now be playing professional baseball in that town, albeit in a segregated league. Right on time to tell Americans of all color that even in today’s troubled times, we have all achieved so much and there is always hope for tomorrow.

Diploma or no diploma - Buck O’Neil is one of the greatest teachers around.

 
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