Baseball’s Storyteller

Buck O’Neil kept alive the legacy of the Negro Leagues

January 30, 2013
Buck O'Neil (NBHOF Library)

Throughout Black History Month in February, the Hall of Fame celebrates the lives of African Americans who made historic contributions to the National Pastime.

By Max Miller

To know the story - and stories - of John Jordan “Buck” O'Neil is to know the story of African-American baseball itself. O'Neil played and managed for the Kansas City Monarchs, was the first black coach for a major league team, scouted for the Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals, and acted as chairman of the Negro League Baseball Museum in his later life, right up until his death in 2006. Aside from all that, his most important contribution to the sport might be his undying advocacy of the history of Negro League baseball.

Buck O’Neil was a good first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs, the longest-running team in the Negro Leagues, and the one that sent the most ballplayers on to the big leagues. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Buck made three Negro Leagues All-Star teams, played in two Negro Leagues World Series and won one batting title.

In 1962, O’Neil was the first black coach named by an MLB team when he coached the Cubs from 1962-65. However, O’Neil’s coaching gig did not immediately break down all barriers, as he was not allowed to coach on the baselines during games.

O’Neil attained his highest public profile after the airing of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “Baseball” in 1994, in which O’Neil played a large role in helping to tell the story of the Negro Leagues. Such storytelling was a central trait of O'Neil, as he was instrumental in the creation of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and was acting chairman from its founding in 1997 until his death.

Despite being tied so closely to the Negro Leagues and the African-American experience in general, Buck O'Neil's life might be said to transcend these lessons of race. As recorded by sportswriter Joe Posnanski, who wrote The Soul of Baseball, a book about O'Neil: “He had been denied so many things, in and out of baseball, because of what he called 'my beautiful tan.' Yet his optimism never failed him. Hope never left him. He always found good in people.”

In 2008, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum created the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award . The award, not given more than once every three years, is meant to, “honor an individual whose extraordinary efforts enhanced baseball's positive impact on society, broadened the game's appeal, and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the qualities exhibited by O'Neil.”

O’Neil was the first recipient of the award.

Celebrate Black History Month with the Museum’s Pastime’s Pride features. Subjects include Buck O’Neil, Elston Howard, Rachel Robinson, the Evolution of Night Baseball, Welday Walker, Herb Washington, Connie Morgan, Bill White, Sam Lacy, Octavius Catto, Willie Horton, Bob Watson, Pumpsie Green, Charlie Grant, William Matthews, Don Newcombe, Vic Power, Emmett Ashford and Hank Thompson.

Max Miller was the 2012 the Library-Photo Archives intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development. For information on how to apply for the Class of 2014 Steele Internship Program, click here