‘Fixing history,’ not to mention Baseball Hall of Fame, Buck O’Neil is finally voted in

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Since 2008, a life-sized bronze statue of a smiling, dapper Buck O’Neil holding a KC Monarchs hat has greeted visitors to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. And the Hall of Fame also honors O’Neil by attaching his name to Major League Baseball’s lifetime achievement award.

Those were substantial tributes, to be sure, and then-Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson wasn’t wrong when he told The Star in 2016 that the statue “shines in many ways a more unique and larger spotlight (on O’Neil) than there maybe would have been if he had been elected (to the Hall in 2006) with 16 others.”

Over the years, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick tried to embrace that thinking and found some measure of consolation in it.

In part that was also because he’d given up hope that O’Neil, the poet laureate of the Negro Leagues who gave his life to the game for more than 70 years, ever would be inducted and was seeking to find what solace he could after the agonizing snub of his dear friend in 2006. Kendrick also tried to salve the wound by constantly reminding himself that O’Neil’s amazing grace in the wake of the heartache was endlessly inspiring, and a lesson to us all about how and why to be more “Buck-like.”

Still, there remained something gnawing and hollow about the exclusion within the hall itself of the ultimate embodiment of the Negro Leagues — a man celebrated from coast-to-coast after his marquee role in Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary but whose warmth and joy radiated all the more here in his adopted hometown.

There remained something deeply unsavory, even piercing, about the idea that the most vivid and visible modern champion of the Negro Leagues, a man whose vision fueled the vibrant Kansas City landmark that is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, remained fundamentally on the outside looking in, even when situated at the Hall of Fame.

Until Sunday, that is, when the Hall of Fame’s 16-member Early Baseball Era (pre-1950) Committee, at long last gave O’Neil his due by certifying him for a place inside the Hall of Fame … and entrenching him among those indispensable to the story of baseball.

Along with only Bud Fowler, widely recognized as the first Black professional baseball player, O’Neil was selected from among a 10-man group that included seven Negro Leagues players.

Thirteen of the 16 included O’Neil on their ballot; he needed 12.

Another former Negro Leagues player, Minnie Minoso, whom Kendrick likes to call the Latino Jackie Robinson, was among four players elected on a separate 10-player ballot considered by the 16-member Golden Days Era (1950-1969) Committee.

There is a bittersweet element to this, of course.

Without Buck here in human form to revel in it, the appointment doesn’t come with the same pure ecstasy that it would have in 2006.

“Buck deserved to see this happen during his lifetime,” Bob Costas said after the selection was announced on the MLB Network.

Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum reacted when it was announced that Buck O’Neil was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021 at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum reacted when it was announced that Buck O’Neil was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021 at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

He died soon after perhaps his crowning feat in 2006, when he movingly spoke life back into the 17 affiliated with the Negro Leagues who were being inducted posthumously in Cooperstown.

He finished that day by asking everyone in the crowd to hold hands and sing along with him. “The greatest thing … come on, everybody! … The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you,” he sang, repeating the chorus several times.

Still, those closest to him understood he was shattered despite his remarkable ability to deflect it.

His death officially was because of complications of congestive heart failure and bone marrow cancer. But friends such as Kendrick and Ollie Gates would later say a broken heart contributed, too.

Even so, Kendrick has felt Buck’s buoyant influence and aura around him all through the years. And he’s certain his spirit is basking in this now.

Particularly since it surely will be another landmark boost for the museum entering an already exciting 2022 that will feature programs related to the 75th anniversary of Robinson integrating baseball and the release of U.S. Mint commemorative coins that could ultimately generate up to $6 million for the museum.

Meanwhile, if you were perchance at the museum on Sunday, or watching on video from Arrowhead Stadium, as some of us were, the surge of emotion was still enough to give you chills.

Before the announcement was made, MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds suggested events of the day could perhaps be seen as “fixing history.”

You could also say it was fixing the Hall of Fame, which now has O’Neil in the place where he belongs. It will be better off for his new context there when he is inducted next summer in what will be the first enshrinee of such intense local interest since George Brett in 1999.

(An aside: How lucky we will all be to hear Kendrick speak on his behalf next summer.)

Yes, better late than never isn’t always the most satisfying feeling.

Then again, Buck’s autobiography was called, “I Was Right On Time,” a reference to the fact he never got to play in the majors.

Maybe he’d say it that way about this delayed honor, too.

“Waste no tears for me,” he said in the book. “You see, I don’t have a bitter story. I truly believe I have been blessed.”

Yet another way we can still see and hear him now even if he’s not right in front of us.

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