Originally created 09/15/03

O'Neil tells tales of life, baseball



It's hot inside the Augusta Museum of History, but Buck O'Neil is looking mighty cool in his jazzy purple suit, and the handsome, white-haired old dude knows it.

The ladies love Buck, and Buck loves the ladies. And as he stood proudly at the podium Sunday afternoon, answering silly questions from some inquisitive female strangers in that dark auditorium, Buck addressed them as "pretty" and "honey," and a few other expressions the modern man isn't supposed to use in this age of political correctness.

But no one seemed to mind.

You see, good ole' Buck has carte blanche. Rightfully so.

Buck is 92 and defines old school. He speaks his mind. He tells the truth as he sees it.

When he opines on the topics most important to him, such as baseball and education and kids and pretty women, he speaks without hesitation, without reservation.

And the slick old guy spun some pretty amazing tales Sunday, stories straight from the archives of his remarkable life.

His appearance kicked off the opening of the Negro Baseball Leagues exhibit at the Augusta Museum on display through Oct. 19. The touring exhibit comes straight from the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Mo., which O'Neil helped create 12 years ago.

To the living baseball legend, people are black and white, not African-American and Caucasian.

Women are dolls and girls and honeys, not ladies and missus and ma'ams.

No one is offended.

Buck O'Neil can say what he wants. He's earned that right.

Back in the day, he couldn't. He had few rights as a young black man in Sarasota, Fla., trying to make it in the segregated South.

"I wonder what might have been if I were able to attend Sarasota High School and to matriculate at the University of Florida," said O'Neil, who was not able to attend the all-white high school in his hometown. "I was a great baseball player, but maybe I could have done something even greater if I was allowed to attend school. But I don't blame anybody for that. That's just the way it was."

So isn't it fitting, how he now has the freedom to be himself: a wise old black gentleman with a lifetime of endearing stories, a worldly man who loves to charm the folks with heart-warming, poignant tales of baseball and life?

Tales like the one he told about Augusta's own Ty Cobb, one of the game's greatest players who also happened to be a big-time racist.

One woman asked O'Neil to share his thoughts on the legendary Georgia Peach, but he showed no disdain. Instead, in his usual matter-of-fact manner, he pointed out that Cobb hated not just blacks, but everyone.

"I'll bet you didn't know that Cobb's mother killed his father," O'Neil told the audience. "That's why he was the way he was."

Later, when asked about his days as a scout with the Chicago Cubs in the 1960s, after a legendary career as a Negro League player and manager with the Kansas City Monarchs, O'Neil shared the story of his candidacy for the team's general manager post.

"At first, I was one of five candidates for the job, then it was down to two, me and one other man," said O'Neil, who became the first black coach in the major leagues with the Cubs in 1962. "The other man got the job. But not because he was white and I was black. He had a B.S. from the University of Chicago. He had an M.S. from the University of Pittsburgh. And he was working on his doctorate.

"The general manager of the Cubs might have breakfast with the mayor," O'Neil continued. "He might have lunch with the Governor of Illinois. He might have dinner with the President of the United States. That man needs to be smart, well-spoken, educated. I didn't have the education. I had the baseball knowledge. But not the education. The reason I didn't become the first black GM in baseball history wasn't because I was black. It was because I didn't have that education."

Go to school, get that college degree, O'Neil said, as he spoke to some of the young African-American boys and girls in the auditorium Sunday.

"Get that education at Morehouse. Go to Morris Brown. Go to Yale or Harvard. The opportunity is there for you. Don't miss that opportunity," he said.

Buck O'Neil holds no college degrees, but he does have his doctorate in the School of Life and Hard Knocks.

His lack of formal education prevented him from becoming a major-league manager or general manager.

But there are no educational requirements for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

After more than 70 years in baseball and 92 years on earth, enshrinement in Cooperstown is all Buck O'Neil has left to accomplish.

He certainly would have been one of the first inductees into the Negro League Hall of Fame, along with Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, if there were such a shrine.

In his infinite wisdom, O'Neil shot that idea down years ago.

As he put it, baseball already has its Hall of Fame.

He doesn't see the point of force-feeding a Negro League shrine on the baseball world.

At 92, O'Neil is unlike most his age who are crippled by time, age and the trials of life. Inside, he's still that 28-year-old star, the one who used to run like the wind and drive 95 mph fastballs to the outfield wall at Kansas City Municipal Stadium.

"I don't need to be recognized as one of the greatest black ballplayers of all time," he said. "Even if the Negro Leagues was the best baseball in the world at that time, not going to the Hall of Fame hasn't crippled me. Not being able to attend Sarasota High School or not being able to matriculate at the University of Florida, now those are the only things that have crippled me."