By the time Buck O’Neil’s playing career was through, Major League Baseball had only been integrated for two seasons. O’Neil played in parts of 11 seasons from 1937 to 1949 broken up by military service in the Pacific theater of World War II. Like many Negro Leagues players, O’Neil had the talent to play in the whites-only major leagues, but he was never given an opportunity to do so. When asked if had any regrets about his apparent misfortune, O’Neil’s response was: “Waste no tears for me. I didn’t come along too early—I was always right on time.”
O’Neil’s famous words have always been prescient. The trajectory of his career on-and-off the field, in the dugout as a coach or chasing down a high school shortstop as a scout, altered the course of baseball history unequivocally for the better. Now that MLB has finally recognized the Negro Leagues for what they always were, major leagues, O’Neil was proven right once again. O’Neil didn’t miss a chance at being a major leaguer, he always was one.
If O’Neil’s playing career were his only accolades, that would be remarkable enough. Few people can go from working in celery fields as teen, knowing the local high school would never accept him because of the color of his skin, to cracking a big league roster. Even fewer can stay in the game for more than a decade or be trusted to manage the team. Despite the rejections from racist schools and baseball leagues, O’Neil did it all with aplomb. He won the Negro American League batting title in 1946, and as the manager of Kansas City Monarchs, O’Neil won the league title in 1953 and 1955.
Playing ball and managing well weren’t the only things that O’Neil did. O’Neil spent his entire life creating opportunities for great Black ballplayers like himself. Not only that, he kept the accomplishments of his peers alive with his help in founding the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
As the manager for the Monarchs, and at the suggestion of Cool Papa Bell, O’Neil signed a 17-year-old shortstop from San Antonio, Texas without seeing him play. That 17-year-old was Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub and future Hall of Famer. Banks, of course, eventually went to the Cubs and O’Neil wasn’t far behind him.
O’Neil’s tenure with the Monarchs came to an end after the 1955 season when the team was bought and turned into a barnstorming team based out of Michigan. Almost immediately, the Cubs hired O’Neil on as a scout.
Soon, O’Neil brought a freshman from Southern University in Baton Rouge to the attention of the Cubs. The young man struggled at the plate, but he possessed speed that would play anywhere. It turned out that it would play all the way into Cooperstown. Lou Brock’s bat came around, but not fast enough for Cubs general manager John Holland who traded Brock to the Cardinals for Eddie Broglio in 1964.
In 1968, O’Neil gambled on another teenager of whom he saw just one at-bat. One at-bat was all O’Neil needed to see the kid’s bat speed and power potential lurking within a slight frame. 18-year-old Oscar Gamble made it to the bigs the very next year, and though his Cubs tenure wasn’t anything special, Gamble stuck around for 17 seasons while maintaining a 127 OPS+.
That Brock and Gamble had short Cubs careers was part of a pattern. Black players spent only a couple years with the team before they were traded. In a 2002 essay, O’Neil wrote, “There was an unwritten quota system... They didn’t want but so many black kids on a major league ballclub.” O’Neil advised Holland not to trade Brock, but Holland’s response was this:
“[He] started pulling out letters and notes from people, season ticket holders, saying that their grandfather had season tickets here at Wrigley Field, or their grandmother . . . and their families had come here for years. And do you know what these letters went on to say? ‘What are you trying to make the Chicago Cubs into? The Kansas City Monarchs?” -Buck O’Neil, Baseball as America
Of course, if Holland had listened to his coach instead of racist season ticket holders, he could have avoided one of the worst trades of all-time. It wasn’t until much later that the Cubs would hold onto another of the future Hall of Famers that O’Neil discovered. Lee Smith was another find of O’Neil’s, and the closer would go on to have an 18-year career with seven All-Star appearances before earning induction by the Veterans Committee in 2019.
In 1990, O’Neil began work on building the Negro Leagues Baseball museum. Its first iteration was in a one-room office for which O’Neil and Frank White took turns paying the rent. An expanded museum eventually opened in 1994, and it expanded again in 1997. This time, the museum opened at 18th and Vine in Kansas City, where the Monarchs used to stay and rub shoulders with jazz musicians. It’s also just two blocks from the YMCA where Rube Foster and seven other owners founded the Negro National League.
O’Neil also served on the Veterans Committee from 1981-2000. During that time, he helped six Negro Leagues players receive the induction they deserved. O’Neil himself fell one vote shy of induction when his time finally came, but he never showed any bitterness. He was grateful for the life he had because what a life it was.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.