Whether you enjoy the documentaries of Ken Burns or not is a matter of taste. Only a raving madman, however, can deny that his greatest contribution to humanity was bringing Buck O’Neil to the attention of the broader culture.
I just saw on CNN that Buck O’Neil has died.
Buck was perhaps the last living great of baseball’s Negro Leagues, an unfortunate product of a less enlightened time when blacks were not allowed to play in the Major Leagues. Because they were the domain of blacks, mainstream (white) media of the time did not pay the Negro Leagues much heed, and the (white) public did not pay them much mind. Their exploits are poorly documented, and as much legend as fact. Nevertheless, they proved on the field many times that they were the equals of, if not superior to, their Major League peers.
Buck was there, was one of those Jazz Age Paul Bunyans. He was also their James MacGillivray. He kept the tales of the Negro Leagues, an he told the interested of those heroes who lived as second class citizens. Buck knew Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige, among many others, and he did his best to let us know them, too, in all of their larger-than-life glory. He even gave the induction speech for some of them (with the blessing of their surviving families) when they were belatedly and posthumously admitted to the Hall of Fame. Sadly, so far, Buck himself has not been so honoured.
[EDIT: there is more to this aspect of Buck’s life. During the ’90s, Buck was a member of the Hall of Fame veterans’ committee, and was responsible for several Negro League players being elected to the Hall. Earlier this year a special committee was convened by the Hall to supposedly give final consideration to Negro League players cases for admission. Neither Buck, nor Minnie Minoso,the only living candidates for admission, were selected. Buck then gave a collective induction speech for the 19 players that were chosen.
Later in life, Buck was also the first black man to be officially hired as a coach by a Major league ball team, which speaks to his love for, and knowledge of, the game. This was one of the things that made him uniquely qualified to be the oral historian and bard of the Negro Leagues. Buck was also a natural storyteller, with a transparent love for his subject. He found joy in telling his tales. He was a man able to tell others about his wonderful life by telling them about the wonderful people he had the pleasure and privilege to work with and to play with. He also had an incandescent warmth that managed to glow out even through the distance of a television signal. That’s why I feel comfortable calling him Buck.
Until today, the last I had heard of Buck was when he took one official at bat in a minor league baseball game, thereby becoming the oldest man ever to do so in a professional baseball game. Similar things have been done before, most memorably by the (I believe) previous record holder, Minnie Minoso, and, before my time, by a midget hired by former Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck. Those were transparent gimmicks, circus sideshows, intended to provide one-time bumps to the attendance of the team hosting them. I’m sure Buck’ appearance was planed in that same gimmicky spirit. Buck’s dignity, grace, and presence subverted that intent, however, and turned it into a genuine, albeit unintentional, tribute to Buck and all of his former colleagues.
He outshone such attempts at tawdry manipulation.
Sadly, that shine is no more.
Rest in Peace, Buck