Sunday, December 17, 2006

Buck O'Neil: A True Class Act

When I received my Sportsman of the Year edition of Sports Illustrated and saw Dwayne Wade on the cover, I was forlorn. Sure, Wade did have a decent year. But a few weeks prior, one of SI's writers suggested that Buck O'Neil be named SOTY. Seeing that O'Neil wasn't SOTY, months after he wasn't included among the 17 Negro League figures inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this year, I thought to myself, "Gee, this guy can't win anything."

Did Buck, who died on August 5, deserve to be a Baseball Hall of Famer? He won a few Negro League batting championships, but carried just a .288 career average. He won two Negro League championships as a manager. He had a long career as a Major League scout; his most notable signing was Lou Brock. In 1962, the Cubs made him the first African American coach in the majors. After he retired as a player, coach, and scout, he became an ambassador for the Negro Leagues, and for baseball in general. O'Neil helped open the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City in 1990. These accomplishments, though, apparently weren't good enough for the folks in Cooperstown.

Fortunately, in the time between I received my Dwayne Wade SI and the time I sat down to write this, a baseball owner found it proper to honor O'Neil when the baseball writers couldn't. On December 7, President George W. Bush honored Buck O'Neil posthumously with a Presidential Medal of Freedom - one of our country's highest civilian honors.

I could go on, but my words can't come close to the eloquence of Buck's. Imagine in your head the most pleasant 94-year-old man you've ever met addressing the Baseball Hall of Fame crowd and try to keep your eyes dry:

Earlier this year, when Buck found out that he missed the Baseball Hall of Fame by one vote, he had the following to say:

God's been good to me. You can see that, can't you? It didn't happen. 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 shed any tears 'cause I'm not going to the Hall of Fame.

You think about this. Here I am, the grandson of a slave. And here the whole world was excited about whether I was going into the Hall of Fame or not. We've come a long ways. Before, we never even thought about anything like that. America, you've really grown and you're still growing.

I don't know about you, but Buck O'Neil is a Hall of Famer to me.