The deeper meaning of Buck O’Neil’s Hall of Fame plaque being brought to Kansas City

National Baseball Hall of Fame photo
·9 min read

At the National Baseball Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown last month, the journeys of each of the seven honorees reverberated in their own unique ways.

Subtly and organically enough, though, through the afternoon a compelling broader dynamic and narrative emerged that will forever bind together the Class of ‘22.

And that through line is embodied and animated by one in particular. The “linchpin,” Hall of Fame executive Jon Shestakofsky said, was Buck O’Neil, whose Hall of Fame plaque he was preparing on Wednesday to handle with care en route to Kansas City for public display on Friday at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

The plaque, and the treasured essence for which it stands, also can be seen Saturday at Kauffman Stadium before the Royals play the Los Angeles Dodgers in their annual Salute to the Negro Leagues game. After being highlighted in a pre-game ceremony, it will be moved to the Royals Hall of Fame so fans can see it up close during the game.

(Also Saturday, in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” color barrier with the then-Brooklyn Dodgers, the Dodgers will wear uniforms from the Robinson era; the Royals will be clad in 1945 Kansas City Monarchs jerseys to celebrate the crucial year Robinson played for them on the way to making history.)

If it seems like quite a gesture so soon after Buck was inducted at last and that maybe we could get used to this, it also could be that it’s now or never to see the plaque outside of Cooperstown.

“In the life of a plaque, you probably only take it off the wall once, if ever,” said Shestakofsky, the HOF’s vice president of communications and education. “So this may end up being the only time that the Buck O’Neil plaque ever comes off the wall here in Cooperstown.”

As he considered what makes any HOF plaque such an appealing symbol, Shestakofsky thought about how they punctuate careers while also tending to move us to reflect on our own relationships with the game and the players.

“Any time that you have a chance to revisit your own history and history of the game that relates to you as a fan,” he said, “it brings back incredible memories and it kind of opens people up.”

In this case, there’s more to it than even the deep emotions Buck evokes in so many.

His plaque will speak to his radiant persona and his life’s work, to be sure. But it also will stand for something more: as a focal point in a class that encapsulates the racial evolution of the game over more than 150 years … and shines a light on the way that tracks with our culture.

That’s what has been resounding with Shestakofsky and what struck Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick deeply during the July 24 ceremony: the way this class converges to illustrate the tale of baseball and race in America and thus in itself orbits the NLBM.

Kendrick had been cognizant enough of it, of course, through three members of the class: Buck, the poet laureate of the Negro Leagues, if not baseball itself, among his other distinctions; Minnie Minoso, the Cuban-born former Negro Leagues player who in 1949 with Cleveland became widely known as the “Latino Jackie Robinson;” and Bud Fowler, a pre-Negro Leagues (born in 1858) pioneer of Black baseball.

But the depth and breadth of the entwinement didn’t all really hit Kendrick until Dave Winfield was presenting Fowler, a Cooperstown native who also fleetingly played on some integrated teams in the last 19th Century.

Fowler’s endless barnstorming and roving of the country to play baseball included, via Royals Hall of Fame director Curt Nelson per the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), managing a Black team called … the Kansas City Stars (!).

While on that job, Fowler told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1905, according to Hall of Fame research, “Some of these days, a few people with nerve enough to take the chance will form a colored league of about eight cities and pull off a barrel of money.”So, as Winfield put it, there is an “unmistakable line that you can follow from Bud Fowler to Andrew ‘Rube’ Foster, who created the Negro Leagues in 1920, to Jackie Robinson in 1947 and through other inductees we celebrate here today.”

A line that even includes Buck being among those who spoke at the site of Fowler’s previously unmarked grave in 1987 (74 years after his death at 54) at a SABR-driven service to install a headstone memorializing Fowler at Oak View Cemetery in Frankfort, New York.

A line that entwined Robinson with 2022 inductee Gil Hodges, whose relationship with Robinson was so tenderly presented by Hodges’ daughter Irene.

Citing Robinson’s well-known credo that “a life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” she spoke of how her father lived that … and of how he welcomed and championed Robinson when he joined the Dodgers in 1947.

“Nothing was more important to my dad than giving Jackie all of his support,” she said, noting how the families bonded and adding, “My dad made everyone feel comfortable and accepting of Jackie when he came to the big leagues.”

One way or another: She shared a story she’d recently been told about her father taking on those heckling Robinson, no doubt with racist language, from an opposing dugout.

“He went to the top step of the dugout and said, ‘If anyone else has anything to say, let them come out here right now,’ ” she said. “Needless to say, no one came out and no one said another word.”

On the day of her father’s funeral in 1972, she said, Robinson “cried uncontrollably” and told the Hodges family that next to his son’s death (in a car accident the year before) Gil Hodges’ death was the worst day of his life.

The lines extend internationally, too.

Start with the underappreciated influence of Minoso, who spent three seasons with the New York Cubans of the Negro Leagues before being signed by Cleveland in 1948 and becoming a nine-time All-Star.

His success, Shestakofsky said, “broke down barriers for dark-skinned Latinos … and opened the door for so many more.”

Or as Kendrick put it: His role was “equally profound for what he gave to the game and as a symbol of hope for so many Afro-Latino players in particular.”

Even within this very group.

You can see the thread from Minoso to Tony Oliva, who grew up in Cuba idolizing Minoso like so many others whose imaginations he captured. And from there on to Dominican-born David Ortiz — who had a strong relationship with Oliva in the Twins organization before finding his way to stardom in Boston from 2003-16.

Thousands of Dominicans were in the crowd that day in Cooperstown, reflecting the long-term sway of not only Minoso but at least on some level the influence of Negro Leagues players on the growth of the game in Latin America.

Finding it easier to be accepted and more lucrative to play in foreign countries than here, after all, many of the Negro Leagues stars barnstormed or played winter league baseball in Cuba, the Dominican, Mexico, Venezuela and elsewhere.

“The Dominican Republic is a place that the Negro Leagues called home for so many years,” Kendrick said, “and in many ways taught (Ortiz’s) ancestors that brand of baseball that became so prevalent.”

Serendipitously enough, this class and the delivery of the plaque all comes as the NLBM is launching its “Thanks A Million, Buck” fundraising campaign.

But while having the plaque here is foremost another celebration of Buck, it’s also testament to the way he towers in the center of so much and is entwined with so many — including in this distinct way with most of his classmates in a group that also included Jim Kaat, Oliva’s teammate with the Twins.

Pretty fitting for a man who used to like to say this about his adopted hometown:

“I knew I was coming to the Heart of America; I didn’t know I was coming to the center of the universe.”

Just like the NLBM, aka “the House that Buck built.”

“This place,” Kendrick said, “it connects so many dots in so many different ways.”

Meanwhile, the soul of this class also dovetails nicely with the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s ongoing Black Baseball Initiative, which includes revamping its main related exhibit developed in 1997.

The game has made ample strides in the context of race since then, including MLB’s recognition in late 2020 of the Negro Leagues as major leagues and MLB moving the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta to Colorado after Georgia authorized a restrictive new voting law.

At that All-Star Game, noted Richard Lapchick, president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, “MLB announced a 10-year partnership with a historic financial commitment of up to $150 million to The Players Alliance, beginning in 2023. This pledge represents the largest financial commitment in MLB history toward the specific goal of improving Black diversity on the field, in managerial and coaching positions, and in front office leadership.”

The very fact that’s necessary, of course, is a reminder of hiring and promotion issues that remain in place.

To say nothing of challenges that have surfaced over the last few decades: 2022 Opening Day rosters and inactive lists featured 275 players from 21 different countries and territories outside of the United States, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports directed by Lapchick at the University of Central Florida.

Players of color accounted for 38 % of active rosters, most of whom were among the 28.5% of Latino players in the game.

So 75 years after Robinson integrated baseball and helped change America, Black players represented only 7.2 % of roster spots. That’s the lowest percentage since the tracking of that data began in 1991 when 18 % were Black, and it’s a story in itself to continue studying.

But it’s also another element of the important story we know is being told at the NLBM and that we are freshly reminded is reiterated in Cooperstown — both through the Class of ‘22 and the hall’s work to open a deeper and modernized exhibit on the topic in 2024.

Particularly when it comes to race, Shestakofsky said, “Baseball has in some senses mirrored what’s happened in America, what American society has gone through. In some ways it’s led the way.

“But there are always parallels between what’s happening in baseball and what’s happening in America. This sport and this country have grown up side by side … And these individuals that we celebrate in 2022, each of them can help us better understand this country’s own history and who we are as a society.”

With Buck, as he put it, “kind of in the middle of it all.” At the heart of it, you might even say.