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John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil (November 13, 1911 – October 6, 2006) was a first baseman and manager in Negro league baseball, most notably in the Negro American League with the Kansas City Monarchs. After his playing days, he became the first African American coach in Major League Baseball, and also worked as a scout. In his later years he became a popular and renowned speaker and interview subject, helping to renew widespread interest in the Negro leagues, and played a major role in establishing the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
Born in rural Carrabelle, Florida, O'Neil was initially denied the opportunity to attend high school due to Racial segregation in the United States|racial segregation; at the time, Florida had only four high schools specifically for African Americans. However, after working a summer in a celery field with his father, O'Neil left home to live with relatives and attend Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, where he completed high school and two years of college courses.
John Jordan O'Neil, Sr. was a laborer in a sawmill and his wife Luella owned a small restaurant. They had three children, "Buck" and his siblings, Fannie was older and Warren younger. Fannie had a child (Sally E.) in the 1930 census, but no husband. Luella's mother was living with them at that time, her last name is Campbell.
"Buck" married Ora Lee Owen in 1946, she died Nov 2, 1997. They had no children.
He left Florida in 1934 for several years of semi-professional "barnstorming" experiences (playing interracial exhibition games), where one of his teammates was the legendary Satchel Paige. The effort paid off, and in 1937, O'Neil signed with the Memphis Red Sox for their first year of play in the newly-formed Negro American League. His contract was sold to the Monarchs the following year.
O'Neil had a career batting average of .288 between 1937 and 1950, including five .300-plus seasons at the plate, as well as five seasons in which he did not top .260. In 1946, the first baseman led the NAL with a .350 batting average and followed that in 1947 with a .305 mark in 16 games. He also posted averages of .344 in 1940 and .330 in 1949. He played in four East-West All-Star Games in three different seasons and two Negro League World Series.
O'Neil was named manager of the Monarchs in 1948 after Frank Duncan's retirement, and continued to play first base as well as a regular through 1951, dropping to part time status afterward. He managed the Monarchs for eight seasons from 1948 through 1955 during the declining years of the Negro Leagues, winning two league titles and a shared title in which no playoff was held during that period. His two undisputed pennants were won in 1953 and 1955, when the league had shrunk to fewer than six teams.
Negro Leagues Career Statistics
O'Neil was known to have played full time in 1951 and as a reserve and pinch-hitter as late as 1955, but Negro Leagues statistics for the period 1951 and after are considered extremely unreliable.
Source: Hall of Fame Committee on African-American Baseball, 2006
Off the field
When Tom Baird sold the Monarchs at the end of the 1955 season, O'Neil resigned as manager and became a scout for the Chicago Cubs. He was named the first black coach in the major leagues by the Cubs in 1962 and is credited for signing Hall of Fame player Lou Brock to his first contract. O'Neil is sometimes incorrectly credited with also having signed Hall of Famer Ernie Banks to his first contract; Banks was originally scouted and signed to the Monarchs by Cool Papa Bell, then manager of the Monarchs' barnstorming B team in 1949. Banks played briefly for the Monarchs in 1950 and 1953, his play interrupted by Army duty. O'Neil was Banks' manager during those stints, and Banks was signed to play for the Cubs more than two years before O'Neil joined them as a scout.
After many years with the Cubs, O'Neil became a Kansas City Royals scout in 1988, and was named "Midwest Scout of the Year" in 1998.
O'Neil gained national prominence with his compelling descriptions of the Negro Leagues as part of Ken Burns' 1994 PBS documentary on baseball. Afterwards, he became the subject of countless national interviews, including appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and the Late, Late Show with Tom Snyder.
A busy final year
O'Neil was a member of the 18-member Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee from 1981 to 2000 and played an important role in the induction of six Negro League players from 1995–2001 during the time the Hall had a policy of inducting one Negro Leaguer per year. O'Neil was nominated to a special Hall ballot for Negro League players, managers, and executives in 2006, but received fewer than the necessary nine votes (out of twelve) to gain admission; however, 17 other Negro League figures were selected.
"God's been good to me. They didn't think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That's the way they thought about it and that's the way it is, so we're going to live with that. Now, if I'm a Hall of Famer for you, that's all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don't weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful".
Still playing after all these years
Just before the Hall of Fame ceremonies, O'Neil signed a contract with the Kansas City T-Bones on July 18 to allow him to play in the Northern League All-Star Game. Before the game, O'Neil was "traded" to the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks and was listed as the starting shortstop, although after drawing an intentional walk, he was replaced before actually playing in the field. At the end of the inning, another "trade" was announced that brought O'Neil back to the Kansas City team, allowing him to lead off the bottom of the inning as well (drawing another intentional walk).
The T-Bones originally claimed that O'Neil, at age 94 years, 8 months, and 5 days, would be by far the oldest person to appear in a professional baseball game (surpassing 83-year-old Jim Eriote who had struck out in another Northern League game just a week earlier). However, that claim was in error, as the Schaumburg Flyers of the Northern League had signed Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe to a one-game contract and allowed him to face one batter on June 19, 1999 when he was 96 years old. While O'Neil was the second-oldest pro player, the claim was amended that he would be the oldest person to make a plate appearance in a professional baseball game.
Death and legacy
On August 5, 2006, O'Neil was admitted to a Kansas City hospital after complaining that he didn't feel well. He was admitted for fatigue and was released three days later only to be re-admitted September 17. On September 28, Kansas City media reported that O'Neil's condition had worsened. On October 6, O'Neil died at the age of 94 of heart failure and bone marrow cancer.
During the ESPN opening day broadcast of the 2007 Kansas City Royals, on April 2, 2007, Joe Morgan announced that the Royals would honor O'Neil by placing a fan in the Buck O'Neil Legacy Seat in Kauffman Stadium each game who best exemplifies O'Neil's spirit. The seat itself has been replaced by a red seat amidst the all-blue seats behind home plate in Section 101, Row C, Seat 1. Due to the renovations and section renumbering in 2009 the seat number is now Section 127, Seat 9, Row C and the seat bottom is now padded. The first person to sit in "Buck's seat" was Buck O'Neil's brother, Warren.
Presidential Medal of Freedom
On December 7, 2006, O'Neil was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush; the award was given to his brother, Warren, on his behalf on December 15. He was chosen due to his "excellence and determination both on and off the baseball field," according to the White House news release. He joins such sports notables as Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, and Jack Nicklaus in receiving the United States' highest civilian honor.
Lifetime Achievement Award
On October 24, 2007, O'Neil was posthumously given a Lifetime Achievement Award named after him. He had fallen short in the Hall of Fame vote in 2006; however, he was honored in 2007 with a new award given by the Hall of Fame, to be named after him. A statue of O'Neil is to be placed inside the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum on 18th and Vine in Kansas City, and the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented no more than every 3 years.
At the Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 27, 2008, Joe Morgan gave a dedication speech for the award and talked about O'Neil's life, repeatedly citing the title of O'Neil's autobiography, I Was Right on Time.
- Address at the National Baseball Hall of Fame
- PBS Interview With O'Neil
- Buck O'Neil Interview July 2006
- ESPN: "O'Neil Was the Real 'Voice' of America"
- SRQ Magazine interview September 2006
- ^ "Barnstorming & the Negro Leagues: 1900s–1930s". Baseball, the Color Line, and Jackie Robinson. American Memory from the Library of Congress. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/robinson/jr1900s.html. Retrieved 2006-10-08.
- ^ ""Cubs to Scout College Campuses"". The Chicago Defender. December 24, 1955.
- ^ "?". The Kansas City Star. February 28, 2006.
- ^ "Ex-Negro Leaguer digs in at All-Star game". Associated Press. July 18, 2006. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13921841/. Retrieved 2006-10-09.
- ^ "Stars of All Ages Shine in N.L. All-Star Game". July 18, 2006. http://www.northernleague.com/news/?id=4950. Retrieved 2006-10-09.
- ^ "Key Dates in Schaumburg Flyers History". Schaumburg Flyers. http://www.flyersbaseball.com/flyers/franchise_history/index.htm. Retrieved 2006-10-09.
- ^ "Buck O'Neil Remains Hospitalized". TheKansasCityChannel.com. September 28, 2006. http://www.thekansascitychannel.com/sports/9959376/detail.html. Retrieved 2006-10-09.
- ^ Mellinger, Sam (September 29, 2006). "O’Neil’s health worries his friends". The Kansas City Star. http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/sports/15634742.htm. Retrieved 2006-10-09.
- ^ "Baseball Legend Buck O'Neil Dies At 94". October 6, 2006. http://www.thekansascitychannel.com/news/10021291/detail.html. Retrieved 2006-10-09.
- ^ "Buck O'Neil awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom". McClatchy Newspapers. December 7, 2006. http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/sports/16189835.htm. Retrieved 2006-12-08.
- ^ Hall of Fame Honors Buck O'Neil with Lifetime Achievement Award
- Baseball Hall of Fame - 2006 Negro League Committee candidate profile at the Internet Archive
- Baseball Hall of Fame: Inaugural O'Neil Award bestowed to its namesake
- Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
- Michael Tillery tribute article
- John "Buck" O'Neil's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
- [ESPN Obit]