A Beautiful Tribute To One of My Heroes
Imagine with me for a little while.
Imagine that you’re a pretty darn good baseball player on the best team around – the Kansas City Monarchs. Not the greatest player, by far. But pretty darn good. You play first base, and your defense there is regularly spoken of as sterling. Stellar. Beautiful. One year, you even win the Negro League batting crown — the best hitter in the league.
When you stop playing, you manage the team for 8 years.
Then you become a major-league scout and discover such players as “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks (the Chicago Cubs’ first Negro player, a Hall-of-Fame shortshop), Lou Brock (National League stolen base king), and Joe Carter (immortalized by winning the 1993 World Series with a walk-off home run). In 1962, you become MLB’s first black coach.
From then, you have several quiet years spent developing and promoting the Negro League Hall of Fame in Kansas City, until the early 1990s when a director named Ken Burns tracks you down in Kansas City and convinces you to tell the story of the Negro Leagues for his documentary.
You always dreamt of getting inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and your sparkling opportunity came in 2006. You see, because of your tireless and joyful labor reminding everyone of how great your old friends like Josh Gibson and “Double-Duty” Radcliffe had been, the Hall of Fame’s Veterans’ Committee had a special ballot for the express purpose of undoing these snubs in the baseball world. It was widely expected that the main snub to be undone was your own absence from the hallowed Hall.
17 of your old colleagues in the Negro Leagues were elected to the Hall of Fame.
You came up one vote short.
Now THINK! IMAGINE and BE HONEST!
The Hall of Fame is in a pickle, because most (if not all) of these inducted players have long since passed away, and you are the only person who knows their stories. The very people who have slapped you in the face, kicked you in the gut, torn out your dream and stomped on it, now come to you, hats in hand, and ask you to give the induction speech for your old friends.
WHAT DO YOU DO? HOW DO YOU FEEL?
Let me quote one of my favorite young sportswriters as he describes the scene:
“Outrage leeched from his friends, admirers, people all around the game [I was sick with fury myself]. How? Why? He had fallen one vote short. The voters declined to reveal their votes and still haven’t to this day. Buck, crestfallen though he was, soldiered on to speak with his friends and supporters who had gathered expecting a celebration.
‘If I’m a Hall of Famer for you, that’s all right with me,’ he said. ‘Just keep loving old Buck. Don’t weep for Buck.’
The Hall invited Buck to speak on behalf of the inductees, and he accepted. He encouraged the crowd to sing along with him. People laughed. They cried. Buck knew how to inspire in people the gamut of emotions, and even though he wasn’t a Hall of Famer yet, he gave a worthy Hall of Fame speech.
‘His star rose probably even more than it already had,’ said Bob Kendrick, the museum’s marketing director and O’Neil’s travel companion. “Folks became even more greatly endeared to him by the way he handled the disappointment of not getting in. It was perhaps the most selfless act in sports history: Put yourself past your disappointment and give those folks their proper tribute.'” – from Buck O’Neil Becomes An Immortal, by Jeff Passan
Buck O’Neil is one of my heroes. On Friday, July 25, at noon, Cooperstown will unveil a statue of Mr. O’Neil in one of the most high-traffic areas of the Hall, and award to him the first-ever Buck O’Neil Lifetime Acheivement Award (an award that will only be given at most once every three years).
It’s about time. What an example of Christlikeness he is for me. Thank you, Mr. O’Neil. We won’t forget.
in HIS love,