In his own words: A Conversation with Negro League legend Buck O’Neil

Buck_O'NeilBy Chris Murray

Editor-in-Chief of  the Chris Murray Report

When I was a sportswriter/columnist with the Philadelphia Tribune back in 2005, I wrote a series of articles on the plight of African-Americans in baseball. One of the stories that I wrote focused on the impact that former Negro League players had on Major League Baseball once the game was integrated. One of the people that I interviewed for this series for this series was legendary Negro League manager the late John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil (born:November 13 1911-died: October 6, 2006).

O’Neil was Satchel Paige’s roommate on the road during the course of their barnstorming throughout the country. He shared the stories of Paige’s exploits in a number of documentaries including Ken Burns acclaimed PBS series, “Baseball.”

Among baseball historians and well-wishers, he was the unofficial ambassador of the Negro Leagues. O’Neil was the griot of the Negro Leagues who regaled Americans, regardless of races, with the tales of Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, and “Cool Papa Bell. Even beyond Negro League Baseball, O’Neil was a student, if not a professor, of baseball history in general.

And by the way, O’Neil wasn’t bad as a player either. In the 1942 Negro League World Series against the Homestead Grays, he batted .353 as the Monarchs came away with a four-game sweep. He played in three East-West All-Star Classics. He also won the All-Star game four times as a manager. O’Neil also won four league titles as a manager of the Monarchs.

In 1956, O’Neil was hired by the Chicago Cubs as a scout. Two of the three his prized pupils—Ernie Banks and Lou Brock became legends and Hall of Famers. Joe Carter, another O’Neil recruit, hit the decisive home run to help the Toronto Blue Jays win the 1993 World Series. O’Neil was also the first African-American coach in the major leagues.

I had the pleasure of meeting O’Neil back in 2004 at a Black Tie dinner to raise money for a Negro League monument in West Philadelphia. During that dinner, O’Neil showed the people gathered at that event his ability to bridge the gap between by having them hold hands while he led everyone in song. During the course of that discussion, he had nothing but good things to say about his experiences in the old Negro Leagues.

My interview with O’Neil took place on August 15, 2005 for the Tribune’s Blacks in Baseball supplement. We talked about the impact Negro League players had on baseball once the game was integrated, but we talked about other subjects as well.

In the craft of journalism, we like to write glowing prose about interesting people we interview. But there are also times when it is necessary for us to get out of the way and allow our sources to have the floor. And so to quote the Staple Singers, let us get out the way and let the gentleman do his thing. Buck O’Neil in his own words:

What Jackie Robinson and other Negro League players brought to Major League Baseball:

“Actually, Jackie Robinson took Negro League baseball to the Major Leagues. It was a different brand of baseball. Babe Ruth came, Babe Ruth hit the homerun. That changed baseball altogether, everybody was waiting for somebody to hit the ball out of the ball park. But in the Negro Leagues, you hit and run. You bunt and run. You stole the bases. You did these things and so this is what Jackie took the major leagues. Yeah, see they hadn’t seen anything like Jackie Robinson. Uh-huh. Jackie changed the way they played baseball. I remember the time before Jackie Robinson, a guy was on third base, the pitcher was going to wind up and pitch. But after Jackie, they had to come to the set (stretch) position because Jackie would steal home and would catch them winding up there. That changed baseball.”

On the intensity that Negro League ball players brought to the game

“They sure did. Didn’t nobody want Jackie to beat them and so they had to change the way they had been doing things. They used stand back, way back in deep shortstop. Uh huh…deep second base, third base, first place. Jackie came and the Negro League ball players came and you had to take a couple steps in because we brought quickness to baseball, that we brought to basketball, we brought to football ….uh huh. We brought a quickness that hadn’t been known in baseball.

“Negro League ball players going into the major leagues, he had to be better. If he wasn’t better, there ain’t no way for him to take a white boy’s job. You (MLB) were taking the cream of crop. You’re going to take the cream and that’s just what was happening. You were picking the best athletes in the world.”

“The Black ball player was accustomed to hustle. They wanted to be and they had to be the best that they could be to compete at this level because the whole country put their arm around say a Lou Gehrig. But that wasn’t the same thing with a Jackie Robinson, or a Frank Robinson and a Larry Doby.”

African-American ball players and the importance of education and historically Black colleges:

“The Negro League Ball Player…this was an intelligent man. In the major leagues, during my tenure, one percent of major league baseball players were college men. The major leagues wanted them right out of high school. Soon as the they got of high school, they put them in the minor leagues. In the Negro Leagues, 40 percent of Negro Leaguers were college men, man. We always spring trained in Black college towns. That’s who we played in spring training. We played the college ball club. When the college season was over, they would come and play baseball in the Negro Leagues. When the season was over, they’d go back to school, go back to teaching. Oh man, that was the Negro League Ball player.”

Why the American League was slow at bringing in Black baseball players:

“The Yankees didn’t need no Black ball players, Boston didn’t need no Black ball players, they were filling up the ball parks. They filling up the ball parks. … They were slow in doing it, the American League was drawing the people. If you think about it now, before integration the American League was winning the majority of the All-Star games, but when they come and put that Black power in there in the National League, (American League) couldn’t beat them.”

Jackie Robinson, Philadelphia and Southern players: “Of course, you had a lot of Southern players on that Philadelphia ball club. When you think about it, the majority of the baseball players at that time were from the South. These are white guys and they were strictly segregationists. …

We’re (Kansas City Monarchs) playing in Yankee Stadium and Branch Rickey called me and said ‘Buck come out—[this is Jackie’s first year]– and bring the team to see Jackie.’ During batting practice, I went down on the field. I’m talking to Pee Wee Reese and the second baseman and I said, ‘is Jackie going to make it? And they said, ‘we’re going to see that he makes it.’And these are Southern boys. You know down there in Cincinnati they’re booing Jackie and that’s when Pee Wee came and put his arm around Jackie’s shoulder. That stopped the booing and he’s a Southern boy.”

On Robinson congratulating the 1950 Phillies for winning the National League Pennant after their harsh treatment of him:

“Jackie was so much bigger than many of those people. Another thing, too. What you got to realize and a lot of people don’t realize…the people that was booing Jackie wasn’t baseball fans. This was the Klan. This was the haters who might not have gone to a ball games in their life. That’s what they came to do—Hate. But the real baseball fans, can you play?”

His concern about the lack of Africans-Americans in baseball and his view of how it happened:

“Of course, but we’re changing that now because of the RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner City) program and they’re bringing baseball back in the inner city. They moved baseball out of the inner city to the suburbs. When I came along, all of the churches had baseball teams and baseball leagues. In the inner city, all the kids played baseball. They played baseball and baseball was actually a way out for the Black kids. What happened was the Black kid started taking over basketball, taking over football, so they wanted a spot for the white kid, so they moved baseball out of the inner city and they put up basketball courts in the inner city so kids can shoot the baskets and they can shoot baskets all night long if they wanted to. It kind of backfired on them because now the Latin kids are taking over baseball and the kids from foreign countries are taking over baseball. I remember the times when the middle infielders were white kids—5-foot-10, 170 pounds. The middle infielder, the centerfielder—that’s the Latin kid now because he brings that quickness and that strong arm to baseball. That little white boy was good, but what he’s doing now he’s going to soccer and things like that. When you look at ball clubs now, the winning ball clubs, you see these Latin players on the team.

“Right here in Kansas City, we’ve got 400 kids playing baseball and softball in the inner city. They got 1,000 kids in New York City doing that, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, St. Louis. Wait until about 10 years from now, you’re going to see a lot of Black kids back into Major League baseball.”

The hostility that young Black players faced in the minors in the South during the early years of integration:

“It was terrible, it was terrible. Jackie played in Montreal. That was a different story than playing in Savannah, Georgia. What these guys had to put up with was tough. But we had the same spirit that our forefathers had when they got out of slavery. You know what I mean. This was baseball. We are the greatest survivors that ever lived. They learned to survive even before they integrated baseball.”

3 thoughts on “In his own words: A Conversation with Negro League legend Buck O’Neil

  1. Put this man in the hall. I know he could have been voted in a couple of years ago and wasn’t, based on pure baseball achievement, but its like the intangibles that are talked about so often in the game. He had them all and in abundance. A finer ambassador does not exist, and is never likely to. Right the wrong. He should have been allowed to receive this honour in his lifetime.

    Also, read his book. One of the best baseball books you’ll ever read.

  2. Pingback: The Negro Leagues, Spring Training, and Education « The Baseball Sociologist

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